.Craft Questions: The Meaning Behind the Marketing

The term “craft” has become so ubiquitous in the beverage industry, it’s hard to know when it means something and when it’s just a marketing term.

As it applies to alcoholic beverages, “craft” made its official entry into the American drinks lexicon with the craft microbrewery movement of the early 2000s (started by independent craft brewers in the ’70s). The Brewers Association first created a definition for the term craft brewers in 2006, describing them as “small, independent brewers,” with the definition of “small” changing over the years. Today the maximum production for craft breweries is six million barrels.

“Craft” made the jump easily over to the craft spirits movement, and has since also become popular in the wine industry. It has remained more of a marketing term than an official category due to the current lack of a widely recognized and approved craft winery designation that provides the opportunity for wineries of different sizes to obtain certification.

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For spirits, The American Craft Spirits Association defines a craft distillery as “a distillery who values the importance of transparency in distilling, and remains forthcoming regarding their use of ingredients, their distilling location and process, bottling location and process, and aging process.”

Further tying craft spirit status to the size and production level of the distillery, the American Distilling Institute defines craft spirits as “the products of an independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases where the product is physically distilled and bottled on-site.”

For wine, the existing definition has been curated by the Craft Wine Association, an independently run nonprofit organization (designated a nonprofit in 2022) that offers a Certified Craft Wine designation to qualifying wineries.

CWA defines craft wine as “commercially available, limited-production wine most commonly in production runs of 5,000 cases or fewer. Wines must [also] be authentic and traceable to their roots: producers that buy grapes need to know the source of their fruit to qualify for this designation.”

This craft wine designation may be the one that best attempts to limit the use of “craft” to truly authentic products made with traceable ingredients rather than tying the meaning only to production methods and levels. Under these defined terms, a brand that buys bulk juice and has their wine made by a custom crush facility (not by their own winemaker) wouldn’t qualify. Which is a good thing. It does, however, leave wineries that make more than 5,000 cases of wine, using artisanal or craft methods, out in the cold.

The CWA has been under new management since 2022, when they obtained nonprofit status and launched an advocacy group. The organization is currently looking at how to better promote the opportunity for certification, provide more benefits for certified member wineries, and potentially revise the current prerequisites.

The Future Includes More Craft Products

Whatever way one looks at it, the term “craft” doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon—and this is because consumers connect with the concept of artisan or craft concepts, as well as the terms used to describe them.

International craft food manufacturing company FONA International collected consumer data from millions of their customers, showing that “more than 50% of Millennials associate the term ‘craft’ with high-quality, along with 45% of Gen-Xers and 40% of Baby Boomers.”

In the beverage world, the numbers prove the popularity of craft products. With craft spirits, the number of craft distilleries increased 17.3% between 2021 and 2022, while export sales jumped 58% in 2021, and domestic sales continue to see more than 10% growth each year. For craft beer, sales (in dollars) increased 21% in 2021 over previous years, while craft beer volume sales increased 8% in 2021 (compared to just 1% growth in overall beer volume sales).

The numbers aren’t clear when it comes to wine, since the craft wine category isn’t currently measured like it is in beer and spirits.

However one slices it, it’s clear that consumers are buying into the craft alcohol movement in a big way. Yet, the number of businesses claiming to make “craft” products or to be “craft” producers is greater than the number of businesses that have actually applied for and earned a certification or designation, especially within the wine industry.

The Numbers

There are over 9,000 certified craft breweries and over 2,000 certified craft distilleries in the U.S., while there are currently only between 60-70 certified craft wine producers.

The much smaller number of certified craft wineries is completely understandable, as the option to become a certified craft winery is relatively recent, and the organization that awards this designation hasn’t had the same recognition, power, size or scope as the associations that award certifications in the spirits and beer industries.

It’s also become so important in the wine industry to show certifications related to organic farming or organic winemaking that proving a winery’s artisanal production methods, authenticity, ingredient sources and production size hasn’t been as much of a focus. Despite the fact, these are all things that are now agreed to be very important to consumers.

Certification Needs

The ability for a small business to differentiate themselves by the quality of ingredients, the production methods they use, their size and the fact that their products are made by a person who can be identified as the maker could give many small artisan producers a leg up over faceless brands, which are created by huge companies to appear like real wineries with real people behind them.

I’d personally love to see a craft winery certification that considers the quality of the ingredients, the production methods and how much the business deals directly with consumers (i.e., what percent they sell wholesale and what percent they sell directly to their customers) above the number of cases they produce. I also agree with setting a reasonable cap on allowed annual production levels, but do not feel that 5,000 cases is an appropriate number.

Firstly, this is because it’s extremely difficult for a winery to make a living in California if they are making only 5,000 cases (unless they are charging an obscene amount per bottle). Secondly, because making more than 5,000 cases does not correlate to making lower quality wines. After all, the objective of any business is to grow and become more profitable over time. There are plenty of independently owned craft wineries in Sonoma County that make anywhere between 3,000 and 15,000 cases of wine, using natural and traditional methods and locally sourced, traceable ingredients that prove this.

What do you think?

Do you perceive a food or beverage product to be higher quality when the term ‘craft’ is used?

What do you want to know about the wine businesses that you support, and be sure is 100% true?

Would a certification proving that a third-party association verified a business’ production methods, quality of ingredients, ingredient sources and traceability, and production size make you feel even better about purchasing from that business?

Would you actively seek out businesses with this kind of certification?

Let us know in the comments online or write [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.


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