December 16th, 2008

Think Globally, Drink Locally and Stop being such a Snob!

A little over a year ago a couple of really smart guys did a study about what goes into a bottle of wine’s carbon footprint. Turns out that the vineyard itself is actually carbon neutral and depending upon fertilizer choice and harvesting techniques can actually go negative (if you believed Ronald Reagan in the 80’s you aren’t going to get that point). The biggest contributors to the production of CO2 in the manufacture of a bottle of wine are the packaging and the shipping. So what have wineries and wine regions been doing to either a) minimize the CO2 being created or b) exploit this fact to ensure that their wines are seen as the “greener” choice by consumers? More important, what can we, as consumers, do to encourage green behavior and make greener choices?

Let’s start with what wineries have been doing to minimize their impact. It turns out quite a lot. The great thing about being green as a winery is the efficiency you introduce into your process and the money it saves you. For example, Pepper Bridge in Walla Walla went to great expense to build a gravity-fed production facility that saves energy and fuel during crush and fermentation. A number of winegrowers and wineries across the Walla Walla Valley have come together to support sustainable farming practices in the Vinea Winegrowers Sustainable Trust. Wineries on the “wet side” of Washington state truck grapes in over the Cascades and do their production and packaging close to their primary target market, minimizing the transportation contribution to their footprint.

I don’t really see anyone actively pursuing “green” as a strategy for selling wine in the state of Washington. In the November 2008 issue of Wine Business Monthly the “Direct to Consumer” offering is about teaching tasting room staff how to speak on issues of sustainability to enhance the visitor’s experience and make them feel even better about buying the wine. Whether it is pesticides, water conservation, migrant labor or fuel efficiency, the article argues that the staff interfacing with customers should be able to speak intelligently on the topic. I would argue that a winery’s PR and marketing should speak intelligently on the topic as well. If you can make your customer not only like your product but feel good about themselves for buying it, you have a customer for life. California wineries are taking this issue on and even have a conference. At which a California winery was awarded the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award. C’mon Gregoire, you’re not going to let the opportunity to promote a $3 billion state industry pass you by, right?

So, now we get to where the rubber hits the road – you and me aka – the consumer. What are we going to do to promote greener purchases beyond taking our shopping home in cloth bags? If you live in the state of Washington and drink wine from any further away than Oregon or the Okananagan Valley, you are not drinking green. If you are drinking from Europe or South Africa you need to rethink your priorities. Hey, I get it. I love a great Bordeaux, Nebbiolo, Rioja and even a Stellenbosch Pinotage but I would rather spend my carbon going to those places and drinking locally while I am there. Being on the left coast makes wines from Chile, Australia and New Zealand not exactly green, but greener than European wines; the opposite is true for our friends and family on the East coast. It is actually greener for them to drink the wines of Europe than California or Washington. A greater reliance on rail transportation over trucking and air might help balance that out but I am no transport specialist.

Oh, and if you live in a state that has a wine region, support it. Visit wineries, buy the wine in your local store, sign up for the club if you like their product. Buying direct ensures more profit for the winery and helps them to thrive so you can keep buying local and being green.

Now is where I tell you to get your nose out of the air and seriously consider alternative packaging. Twist top and artificial “cork” wines have less spoilage than traditional cork wines. The condition of the cork tells you the wine has survived its shipment and storage – that’s it. You still have to taste the wine in order to truly determine that it is in the condition the winemaker wanted it to be when it is served. So can all the silly cork rituals and taste the damn wine already. The fact that a cork can be a major failure point in packaging should be enough to move people away from its use. Unfortunately, the wine snobs of the world continue to vocally prefer cork thus promoting the continuing depletion of cork trees and the reluctance of wineries to move away from its use.

Another thing that needs to be seriously evaluated is the glass bottle. It’s heavy and cheaper to make from new material than from recycled. Not all wine regions have a good source for recycled material bottles (and by good I mean one that is local, competitively priced and with consistently high quality) so it undermines the purpose of paying more for recycled material and then burning a lot of fossil fuel to put it in the winery.

I think consumers need to seriously consider “the box.” After all when wine was first produced they put it into clay jars that were sealed with less appealing things than a cork. A 3 liter box of wine weighs the same as a 750 ml glass bottle of wine and all of its materials are recyclable. “Box” and TetraPak containers are completely capable of protecting wine without imparting any foreign taste to the wine. There are many quality producers of recycled material box components and shipping the packaging is significantly cheaper than shipping empty glass bottles. Yes, losing the bottle means losing the ritual and romance of opening a bottle of wine. Decant it, light some candles and get over yourself.

I doubt that we will see any winery anywhere in the next year announce that they are switching to all box or TetraPak containers. But if a winery was to announce to its club members that they will be doing exclusive alternative packaging vintages I would be interested to see the reaction. If you love wine and you love the planet, perhaps you can give up the bottle.

So go drink some local wine (if you are in a western state without a resident wine industry Washington wine counts as local) and make your voice heard on issues of sustainability in the wine industry. Here are a few of my local favorites:

Sleight of Hand Cellars – Spellbinder is a great red blend for $18
DaMa Wines – Their Riesling is a lovely little prize at $16
Ash Hollow – The Somana is a great white blend at $20
Spring Valley Vineyards – Their Nina Lee (100% Syrah) is one of my favorites and my go to gift wine – $50
Cullin Hills Winery – Thanks to Nabil at Seattle Wine Co for turning me on to their Viognier (sold out)

Cheers!

3 Responses to “Think Globally, Drink Locally and Stop being such a Snob!”

  1. Trey Busch says:

    Terry,

    Thanks for the great article, and thanks for adding our wine as one of your favs….to make you feel better, we are on the path of sustainability in our winery, just like we are with our vineyards. We buy grapes from vineyards farmed sustainable, and our Walla Walla Vineyards are all part of Vinea, the valleys resource for sustainable farming. We are also trying to reduce our footprint by using lighter glass. We just switched our shipping supplies to all recycled materials from plastic. We are always looking at ways to make things better for our enviroment. I have 2 kids and want them to grow up in a safe and healthy place!

    Trey

  2. terry says:

    Trey,

    Thanks for weighing in on this issue. I know for you and many other WW winemakers this is more than just an economic issue it is a moral one. It would be impossible for me to have a list of favorites without you on it. Bob and I had a bottle of your Archimage last night and it was, as always, superb.

    I plan to keep writing on wine on a regular basis and hope that you will always feel free to chime in whenever you like.

    Terry

  3. Iddy Biddy Blog » Bottoms up! says:

    [...] never thought about it before. Until recently, that is—when I ran across this piece titled Think Globally, Drink Locally and Stop being such a Snob! A little over a year ago a couple of really smart guys did a study about what goes into a bottle of [...]