When I lived in the UK, the large supermarket chain, Tesco, was using the catch phrase "Every little helps" to promote its slightly more competitive prices. Somehow, as sometimes happens with a novel word or saying, this stuck in my brain and became not just a piece of jetsam in my memory, but a way of approaching life. There is so much in human existence that is overwhelming, large, incomprehensible, and likely to leave us feeling helpless and disconnected. As individuals we often can't control or solve major problems that impact our world, but we can find small ways to make change. Some people choose a direct path, like doing activist work or going into a helping profession. For those of us who are otherwise employed, how do we help make the world a little better within our professions?
When I decided to start this store, I knew that I wanted to sell only certain products, and that many of them would be unfamiliar to customers. They would be what we call "hand sells." I wanted to focus on organic, sustainable, local, and craft wines and spirits, and almost every person in the industry told me that would be impossible. They said I would have to sell Barefoot and Jack Daniels because that's what would keep me in business. That reaction was both predictable and disappointing, but it was also a challenge; no one else in this area has a store quite like this one, and I am determined to make it work. That's a point of pride, but it's also a point of anxiety, because it is true that people are very brand loyal, and that potential customers often assume that boutique stores only carry high-priced items. In order to navigate those realities and stay true to my plan, I have to do a lot of educating, both of myself and of my customers. I've had to closely examine the production of the wines and spirits that I sell, so that I know whether I can stand behind them or not. I don't claim that every bottle in the store falls into those categories, but most do, and the ones that don't are made with a high level of quality control and attention to detail. I do try to stock many affordable products, but where I am charging a pretty penny, it needs to be worth it. Value for money is another phrase I heard a lot in the UK.
I'm compelled to write about this because lately I've gotten questions about what it means to be organic, sustainable, or craft. I love that people are asking, because that means you are thinking critically about what labels (and salespeople) claim. Organic products are sometimes certified as such by the USDA or analogous bodies in various countries, but they aren't always. If they are, it means that they have been subject to certain regulations and restrictions about what kinds of fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides farmers can use. Having worked on several organic farms, I can say that the rules are strict and that practices are checked regularly. I can also say that in the U.S. it costs a lot of money to get certification, which is why many farmers practice organic standards, but are not able to put that on the label. You often find that Old World wine producers (France, Italy, Spain, etc.) use organic methods as a matter of tradition in their family's or their region's farming practices.
"Sustainable" has a more nebulous definition, or rather it is not defined by any one kind of practice. Some farmers use integrated pest management, in which the use of synthetic chemicals is minimized, while others choose to only use sprays when there is a problem, rather than as a preventative measure. Recapturing irrigation run-off, using solar energy, composting byproducts, and using local ingredients are all ways of operating in a sustainable way. Reyka Vodka is notable for filtering their spirit through the lava rocks that are plentiful in Iceland, and powering their distillery with geo-thermal energy from the local hot springs.
"Craft" is perhaps the most contentious label because it means different things to different people. In general when we talk about a craft product, it's juxtaposed with a mass-produced one (think microbrewed beer versus Budweiser or Coors). In terms of craft distilling (for my purposes I use craft to refer to spirits, rather than wine), we are talking about small-scale production, but then the definition gets dicey. Some distillers use neutral grain spirits (NGS) as a base for their product. The NGS is commercially produced at a large distillery and then shipped in, blended and bottled at the craft distillery. Other distillers make their product from scratch, in a way I like to call "grain-to-glass." That is, they make the mash themselves, distill the spirit, bottle, and age it on-site. While both methods can produce very good results, and I sell both kinds of products, I've tried to focus my New York State selection on the grain-to-glass distillers. Many of them also buy their grain from NY, thus cutting down even more on their carbon footprint. These products are often more expensive, but I believe that it's important to support small-scale production and those who have taken the time to completely craft their spirits.
My hope is that knowing what these terms mean helps you have a more informed shopping experience, and a higher quality drinking experience; in my opinion, smaller production and fewer chemicals create a better quaff. While selling wine and spirits is never going to change the world, this is where the idea that "every little helps" comes into play. When consumers start buying more products that are produced carefully and with thought for the land, water, and air, winemakers, farmers, and distillers will feel more confident about bringing more of those products to the market. It happened with organic food, and every step we can take toward eliminating contamination, waste, and pollution is another step toward a healthier world. If I can help customers find great alcohol that is produced in Earth-friendly ways, it's my small contribution to that journey. My life has brought me to this shop, rather than say, the Peace Corps, but I want to do what I can to make a difference in this industry. I am running a business, but to do that proudly, I have to feel that I'm not just in it for the money: my bottom line is that the booze I sling has to be good, and it has to do good.