A Toast To Simple Ways To Be Sustainable With Obvious Wines’ Brice Baillie

Businesses often grapple with approaches to sustainability. Does making the investment in being a more sustainable company require heavy investment, comprehensive planning, and in-depth strategies to achieve basic metrics? The short answer is no.

Brice Baillie is the CEO & Founder of Obvious Wines, a collection of family estate wines crafted through sustainably farmed practices across vineyards in California, Chile, and France. The company was founded on a mission of simplicity — making wine appreciation and consumption easy for the average consumer while enabling sustainably farmed wines straightforward to achieve by growers.

Brice explained what it looks like to farm wines sustainably, the impact it has on the lives of farmers and the consumer who drinks it, how to incorporate fair trade practices into wine making, and why sharing information with other farmers pays off for all.

  • A Simple Approach To Starting A Sustainable Wine Business: I had a hard time becoming familiar with American wines when I moved to the US because I was born and raised in Champagné. I was really confused by the diversity there is in the US, and I realized a lot of people were really lost who had much less background about wine than I did. This started the idea of how we can help consumers and people to learn more about wine while drinking it? And that’s how I came up with the idea of Obvious Wines. It is simplifying and trying to be more transparent by educating with simple words while only working with boutique wineries which have a lot of criteria such as sustainability, but also vegan practices and transparency. It’s really about simplifying and educating while keeping good wine in the bottle. (1:23)
  • What Sustainable Farmed Wines Looks Like: The sustainability in the farming means the vineyard has to respect the ecosystem but also be responsible for the social aspects. Every country has different regulations. We work with wineries in California, France, and Chile, so they have different types of regulations and different types of practices. Our sustainable practices include the following: 1) Soil: protect the soil. They don’t use any herbicide; 2) Wildlife: protect the local wildlife. We need to preserve the ecosystem around the vineyard; 3) Water: some regions are not allowed to water during summer; and 4) Fertilizer: don’t use any fertilizer. These are all simple examples that reflect what sustainability is — using historical or very modern practices to have the same results without using chemicals. (2:47) 
  • Why It Is Important To Think About Sustainability In The Way The Wines Are Produced: I’m trying to build up a virtual circle. I care about it. I think consumers care about it and want it. And I think now, more and more, entrepreneurs are trying to create products which are very eco-conscious or eco-friendly. More and more people expect it and when small companies start, then they manage to grow things for those people. It is just a very positive ecosystem which forces the big wineries who know they will have to do it. In 10 or 20 years from now, everyone will expect wines to be made like that without any chemicals. (6:10) 
  • Incorporating Fair Trade Into Wine Making: Our partner, Traciago in Chile, is certified fair trade. This is very important, especially in Chile where they historically have a lot of macro growers who are selling just the grapes to big corporations. Their commitment and our commitment is to pay fair wages to those micro growers and therefore, to the employees. It is having decent pay. We buy the grapes for much more money than what the big guys would pay, but in exchange, they also have to pay the employees in a very fair manner and also have to comply with organic farming practices. (7:05) 
  • Recognizing These Practices Will Have Both Short And Long-Term Payoffs: By doing things like paying a fair wage, we speak to consumers who really expect it. We’re still too small a business to really see the impact of it. But because of it, we already have access to some stores and restaurants who have this kind of requirement, so it is a good differentiator in that way. It also gives us more credibility because we are able to talk about transparency, so it makes us different from the bigger corporations because the wine market in the US is dominated by a few very, very large corporations. It allows us to get into some channels, so that’s the impact. But I think we’re still too small. It’s more of a long-term bet.  (8:20) 
  • How Other Wineries Can Become More Sustainable: All the tools to do it are out there. Online, you have a lot of agencies which offer certification, so it’s very easy to know how to do it. For instance, some of the wineries I work with in France have a group of wineries to share a compost to nourish the soil. They also exchange information with each other, “Oh, I tried this method, it doesn’t work,” or, “This way does work.” The other thing I think which prevents some wineries from doing it are the yields. The production per acre is way lower when you have those practices because you are more vulnerable to disease, to frost, and the weather. Wine is just a grape that grows. It’s very natural, so it’s also very fragile and sensitive. It is something they are often concerned about, “Okay, I’m going to produce this, but I might lose some grapes out of it.” But I think if they turn that around and communicate about the practices and are very transparent about what they do, it gives more value to the product. In the long term, they will be winning. They just have to be okay to lose a little bit in productivity at the beginning but communicate about it to try to offset that down the line. (9:31) 
  • The Sustainability Trend He Is Most Excited About For This Next Year: Although I think there is a larger consciousness about all of that, I think it’s exciting about how everyone is very careful about what they do. There are some trends around plastics which I think are really crawling in Europe. More and more countries have a plan to ban plastic bags for instance in supermarkets. I know in the US, we still have some work to do there. And I see some companies that have limestone or seaweed plastic bags that dissolve in water or are very easy to recycle. To me, that’s something which is very exciting. If you need a plastic bag, fine. But maybe you can get a bag with a certain type of material that doesn’t pollute and is just carbon free. If it exists, I think that’s super exciting. It’s a good moment because we need it. People want it. (11:43) 
  • What Everyone Should Know About Obvious Wines: Something poetic. Something like thinking that it was rain, rain fell into the soil, the soil grew into grapes, and they fermented and became wine. So, essentially it’s water. They’re drinking water, that became a grape, that became wine. And, I think that’s why the less entrants, the less chemicals we put in, the better it is. And wine has always been a healthy product for centuries — if you don’t abuse it, of course. The oldest people in Europe, those who live the longest, always have a glass of wine every day. (13:29)

TRANSCRIPTION

Jennifer: Tell me more about your story starting Obvious Wines.

Brice: As you can hear, I’m French. But I moved to the US about 10 years ago. I was working in consulting and then in finance, but I’ve always wanted to do something closer to, you know, to wine and food. And when I moved to Los Angeles, I had a hard time getting familiar with American wines because I was born and raised in Champagné. So, I was really confused by the diversity that there is in the US, and I realized as well that a lot of people were really lost, and they had much less background around wine. So then started the idea of, okay, how can we help consumers and people to learn more about wine while drinking it. And that’s kind of how I came up with the idea of Obvious Wines, which is really, you know, simplifying and trying to be more [2:00] transparent by educating with simple words and simple indications while only working with boutique wineries that have a lot of criteria such as sustainability, but also vegan practices and transparency. So, it’s really about simplifying, educating while keeping, you know, good wine in the bottle. 

Jennifer: Obvious Wines are sustainably farmed. Tell me more about what that means.

Brice: Yeah, no. I mean, like the sustainability in the farming, it really means that the vineyard has to respect the ecosystem but also be responsible on the social aspects. And every country has different regulations. We work with wineries in California, France, and Chile, so they have different types of regulations, different types of practices. So, I like to give concrete examples, and, you know, we hear the word sustainable, and we don’t always know what it means. So, I have a few examples if you want. 

So one is for instance, the soil, the protect the soil. You know, they don’t use any herbicide, because usually, you know, in a vineyard you try to avoid having too much grass because of, you know, the affect it can have on the vines. So instead of using herbicide, you know, they are simply just going to till the soil. And they also sometimes have goats in the vineyard in winter, before there are the grapes, they have goats in the vineyard. It’s a very simple and cheap way to get someone to remove your grass. So, that’s for the soil. [4:00] And they have to protect the local wildlife. That’s very important is we need to preserve the ecosystem around the vineyard. So, they don’t use any pesticides but again, to sometimes fight against insects, instead of using pesticide, they are going to have bats. Like, Batman, like the bats. They’re going to install bat boxes in trees around the vineyard and those bats are going to go and eat all the insects. And that prevents all the insects who come and attack the vine. The other problem would be for water. Some regions, in France especially, they are not allowed to water during summer. Some regions in California, they are going to have capitals that know exactly what area needs to be irrigated so instead of just spreading the water everywhere, they only target certain zones. And the last example I would use is, again, really to do the soil or the whole ecosystem is they don’t use any fertilizer to strengthen and nourish the soil and the vine. They are going to plant all the types of herbs that are very rich in oxygen and other others that are really going to nourish the vine and the soil. So, they are like very, you know, simply examples, I think that reflect what sustainability is, just using historical or very modern practices to have the same results as chemicals without using chemicals. 

Jennifer: Why was it important for you to really think about sustainability in the way that your wines were produced? When it [6:00] sometimes sounds like it is an even higher barrier, especially when you’re just getting started. 

Brice: To me it’s like virtual circle I’m trying to build up. I care about it. I think consumers care about it. Consumers, they want it. And I think now, more and more, entrepreneurs are trying to create products that are very eco-conscious or eco-friendly. So, I see that as a virtual circle. You know, more and more people consume that and expect that and that when small companies start, then they manage to grow things to those people. And I think its just a very positive ecosystem and that forces the big actors, big wineries for instance, know they have to do it because in ten, twenty years from now, I think anyone would expect the wines to be made like that, made without any chemicals. 

Jennifer: Right. And another thing that you also achieved too was being fair trade certified. Can you tell me more about that process? 

Brice: Especially in Chile. Our partner, Traciago, that makes the wine in Chile, they are certified fair trade and that’s very important, especially in Chile where they historically have a lot of macro growers who are selling to big corporations, just the grapes. So, the commitment and our commitment is to pay fair wages to those micro growers and therefore, to the employees. So, it’s really, you know, having really decent pay. So, we buy the grapes for much more money than what the big guys would pay but in exchange, they also have to pay the employees in a very fairly manner and also have to comply to the organic farming practices. 

Jennifer: I see. And a couple things that you mentioned, you gave some examples of why it was important to [8:00] incorporate sustainability into your farming practices for the wine. Could you share a couple of examples of the impact or results sustainability actually drives for your business? If you’re investing for sustainability today, are you getting business impact from it? 

Brice: Just by doing that, we speak multiples to consumers that really expect that. I think we’re still too small of a business to really see the impact of it. I think we have access to some stores and restaurants that for which it is kind of a requirement, so that’s good in that way. And also, it gives us more credibility because we are able to talk about the transparency, so it makes us different from the bigger, you know, corporation because the wine market in the US is dominated by a few very, very large corporations. So, it allows us to get into some channels, so that’s the impact. But I think we’re still too small. Its more like a long-term bet. 

Jennifer: You’ve already started making a lot of progress with the examples that you’ve shared. What advice would you give to other wine makers if they’re maybe just now starting to incorporate more sustainable practices into their business? 

Brice: All the tools to do it are out there. Online, you have a lot of agencies like certification, so that’s very easy to know how to do it. Like, I know, for instance, some of the wineries I work with in France, they have a group of other wineries, and they share a compost, you know, to nourish the soil as well. So, and then they exchange with each other, “Oh, I tried this method, it doesn’t work,” or, “This way does work.” [10:00] So, the first thing, information is there. If they want to, its very easy to find it. They could just ask any other winery. And then the other thing that I think prevents some wineries to do it is the yields, or the production of per acre is way lower when you have those practices because you are more vulnerable to disease, to frost, and you know, the weather. Its, you know, wine is just a grape that grows. Its very natural, so its also very fragile and sensitive. So, they are often concerned about, “Okay, I’m going to produce this, but I might lose some grapes out of it.” But I think that if they turn that around and communicate about the practices and communicate and are very transparent about what they do, I think it gives more value to the product. So, I think long term, they will be winning. So, they just have to be okay to lose a little bit in productivity at the beginning but communicate about it to try to offset that down the line. 

Jennifer: Now that you’ve gone through this process of really incorporating sustainability, what sustainability trend would you say you’re most excited for this next year? 

Brice: Although I think there is a larger conscious about all of that, I think that’s exciting about how everyone is very careful about what they do. I think there is some trends around plastics that I think are really crawling in Europe. More and more countries have a plan to ban plastic bags for instance [12:00] in supermarkets. I know in the US we still have some work to do there. And I see, you know, some companies that have, you know, like limestone or seaweed plastic bags that dissolve in water or are very easy to recycle. And I think to me that’s something that is very exciting. If, you know, 50 years from now, there is barely any plastic or its only like…and again, its getting the same result with a different product. 

Brice: Its, you know, okay, you need a plastic bag, fine. But maybe you can get a bag with a certain type of material that doesn’t pollute and is just, you know, carbon free and it exists, and I think that’s super exciting. It’s a good moment because we need it. People want it. 

Jennifer: As someone is uncorking their next bottle of Obvious Wines, what is something that you’d want them to know about in terms of sustainability and your company?

Brice: It’s a good question. I think something maybe poetic, you know. Something like thinking that it was rain, rain fell into the soil, the soil grew into grapes, and then, you know, then fermented and became wine. So, its water. They’re drinking water, that became a grape, that became wine. And, I think that’s why, the less entrants, the less chemicals we put the better it is. And wine has always been a healthy product [14:00] for centuries and…if you don’t abuse of course. And yeah, I mean, you know, the oldest people in Europe, those who live the oldest, they always have a glass of wine every day.

Jennifer Wong
Jennifer is the Head of Sustainability at Convoy, helping transportation leaders make progress against their environmental and social impact goals.