Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Tracking the Carbon Footprint of Wine

While I think organic production is generally a good idea, I encourage people to examine the facts instead of blindly buying anything that says it promotes sustainability. I lived in northern California long enough to see a lot of people running around Whole Foods screaming for organic turkey when they had no idea what it really was -- where it came from, what it ate, and frankly, if it came from an organic production facility three states away instead of a local producer providing a better product. Don't get me wrong, I believe in buying local and that most locally produced products -- meat, vegetables, fruit -- are often vastly superior to mass-produced products that travel. But, I also believe that consumers need to educate themselves and know the smart questions to ask instead of just blindly reading "organic" or "all natural" labels. And, while local is generally, better, some parts of the world just produce and grow certain foodstuffs more cheaply and efficiently. Food miles can't only be measured in distance. Ultimately, the question becomes "what impact does this product have on the world around us?" and "is it worth it?" The answer will be different for each of us.

Enter Dr. Vino and his recent paper published for the American Association of Wine Economists. In it, he studied the carbon footprint of US and international wines -- from growing and production to bottling and transport -- looking for the most significant impact on the environment. What he found was intriguing. Growing and production techniques make a very small difference (including organic growth). The impact on the environment is almost all related to packaging and transportation. Considering that most of us drink wines from France, California, Australia, and S. America on a pretty regular basis, Dr. Vino's paper give us a solid idea of what makes a wine "green."

*Organic wines don't necessarily have a lower carbon footprint. They're just organic. They don't significantly reduce green house gas emissions. So, going organic across the wine industry isn't the answer to climate change. Purchasing only organic wines is fine, if that's your cup of tea. However, if you're doing it solely for the environmental impact, it's not ultimately the biggest factor.

*Transportation makes up the majority of a wine's carbon footprint: As he notes in his report, shipping by container is better than truck. By truck is better than airplane. So, that import you like from Italy? Depending on what port it arrived in, it may have a lower carbon footprint than a boutique wine from that small house in California.

*Packaging matters: Of course, it does. Glass is heavy. Boxes and new packaging (like bags) are less so. (And my favorite point, it's more efficient to drink a magnum. Well, sure. If you have 20 friends over!)

*East coast, France. West Coast, Cali. The United States is a big place. It's probably no surprise that it's incredibly expensive to truck wines to the East coast from California. However, it might be a surprise that it's more expensive than drinking wines that arrived from France via ship. Check out the map for the line of optimization for California versus France. (Hint: It's just east of Indiana.)

Ultimately, much of the study confirms what we already suspected. Transportation is the most inefficient -- and carbon heavy -- part of the process when you're shipping food from one place to another. While the wine industry is lagging behind in technology like new packaging (driven greatly by a consumer reluctance and lack of education), what we didn't see in this study were mentions of many things that we thought were the issue. Cork, for example, appears to be a relatively small part of a wine's carbon footprint.

What's the answer? Well, the good news is that it's not just "drink local wines." Indiana wine quality aside, the real issue is that while vina vinifera grapes will grow just about everywhere, not every region of the country has the best climate and environ for making terrific wines from their juice. Additionally, if you check, many local wines are made from juice that arrives from California or the Pacific northwest, you guessed it, in a truck, effectively negating your good intentions and providing you with a sub-par product as well. Luckily -- especially if you look at the map in Dr. Vino's paper, the answer also isn't "buy only US wines". Depending on the number of cases produced, the bottles, and how it's traveling, that's not always a low-carbon-footprint answer either.

The real answer is consumer education. Just as many consumers now understand how to better buy meat and assess whether it's hormone and antibiotic free regardless of how it's labeled, savvy wine consumers should understand what goes into to making a wine bad for the environment. And if the industry really cares, they'll work to help wine makers with the educational process. They'll work to help consumers understand that new packages like wine pouches are better for the wine, cheaper to produce, and much more efficient to ship. They'll help consumers understand that heavy glass bottles are not a mark of quality -- regardless of country. And they'll educate them on the process such as sourcing and on new techniques (such as oak chips versus barrels). With a better understanding, consumers can make their own decisions instead of a knee-jerk reaction. (Many consumers are no longer disturbed when a bottle of high-end Napa Cabernet arrives with a screw top. And lower end consumers are already used to seeing screw tops in many of the sub $10 Australian and NZ wines.

Working together, with a little effort, we can all learn together about what's really sustainable and best for the environment while still getting to drink high quality wines from around the world.


Matthew said...

There's a really interesting article on this topic:

braingirl said...

The link isn't working for me. So, I can't comment on the content. Ultimately (and I'm so glad), reducing carbon footprints when it comes to wine is *not* about organic wines. Organic growth certainly matters to some people and if so, they have a wider range of wines every year to choose from. But for those who want to continue to enjoy quality traditional wines, there are a number of other, bigger factors they can examine in order to make responsible purchasing decisions.