Acquiring a Taste for Green Wines: Nitty-gritty
By Jess McNally
Q: I like wine, red wine. I am trying to define the greenest wines. I have thought about harvest practices and shipping methods and their impact on the environment. It would be great to get help defining which wines are greener.
Asked by Jorge Tabares, MS ’01, Cypress, Texas
It wouldn’t be wine if it weren’t varied, complex and personal. Here is some more information to guide your own green wine selections.
Navigating the buzz words
“Organically grown,” “United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic” and “biodynamic” wines can be thought of as an organic continuum, with each wine-growing practice taking the previous one to the next level. Some brief definitions:
Organically grown: As with organically grown food, this means that no chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used in growing the wine grapes.
USDA certified organic: Not only are the grapes grown without chemicals, producers must go a step further by not adding sulfite preservatives to the wine during the bottling process. Sulfites are usually added in small quantities to kill off unwanted bacteria and help preserve the wine. Attaining USDA certification is an expensive process, and requires at least seven years of organic practice before the label can be applied. For many wineries, the expense- and time-delayed payback makes seeking certification an unattractive option.
Biodynamic: This “beyond organic” practice was first developed in the 1920s by Dr. Rudolph Steiner. According to Demeter USA’s website—the certification body for biodynamic farms—Steiner proposed “the farm as a living organism: self-contained and self-sustaining, entirely responsible for creating and maintaining its individual health and vitality, free of any external and unnatural additions.” In practice, biodynamic wineries treat the whole vineyard as a unified ecological system: Not only do they avoid all chemical inputs, but they promote diverse pollinator populations by planting companion crops, for example. This practice makes quite a bit of sense for both the quality of the wine and the health of the earth.
Fork & Bottle has a comprehensive list of certified biodynamic producers and those working toward certification.
The labeling dilemma
Many wineries are reluctant to put any version of “organic” on their labels. There are several reasons for this. One is marketing. According to AJ Ferrari, a wine expert in San Francisco who teaches the viticulture class at Stanford, “a lot of wineries are afraid to say anything because they don’t want to be lumped with other organic wines.” Especially when organic wines first appeared on store shelves, there was a perception that organic wines couldn’t compete in taste. This stigma is now diminishing as organic wineries are producing some top-notch wines. Still, changing marketing strategies is inherently risky, and some wine producers aren’t willing to chance a reduction in sales by labeling themselves “organic.”
Other wineries avoid the “organic” label in order to keep their options open. They may follow organic practices in most years, but want to be able to break out the chemical sprays if a potentially devastating mold or disease sweeps through their vineyards.
Finally, labeling overall is an expensive and confusing process; that fact alone may keep many wineries from boasting about their growing practices on their labels.
Why does size matter?
As you scale a winery up in size, staying green becomes more difficult. In general, organic wine growing requires greater attention to be paid to the grapes and more hours of labor on the vineyard. Controlling weeds, checking for molds and diseases, and maintaining healthy soil with compost and organic fertilizer all require skilled human hands. Smaller wineries have fewer growing sites, allowing them to more easily keep track of what is going on in different parts of the vineyard.
More information on organic and biodynamic wines
- “When the Wine Is Green,” the New York Times
- “A primer on organic wines, and a sweet way to bring them
to the table,” Grist
- “The dirt on biodynamic and ‘authentic’ wines,” Grist
The dirt on wine’s carbon footprint
For Tyler Colman—known to many as “Dr. Vino” after his popular blog of that name—the greatest surprise of his comprehensive study of the carbon footprint of wine was the relatively small carbon difference between organic and conventionally grown grapes. Instead, he found that how wine is transported from the winery to your home is generally much more important than how the grapes are grown.
There’s no reducing the weight of the wine itself—frozen concentrated chardonnay, anyone? But reducing the amount of heavy glass required to carry your wine around the world is one way of lightening its carbon footprint. In general, this means either embracing plastic or cardboard containers, or learning to “go big,” with plus-size bottles. This may be easier to do with red wine, which keeps well (and can even get better) if you don’t want to finish the bottle the same night you open it.
Minimizing the miles traveled, especially in trucks or airplanes, is another way of significantly reducing the carbon footprint of your wine. For those of us who live near wine-growing regions the solution is simple—go local.But for those living far from the vineyards, reducing the fuel required to cover the miles between the winery and your table can be less intuitive. Colman has calculated a line of demarcation to help U.S. wine consumers figure out whether France or California is your most fuel-efficient choice (see below). West of the line, go for Californian wine; east of the line, go for French.
Figure 1 - The 'Mason-Dixon line' for selecting the most carbon-savvy wine. On the left, buy Californian; on the right, go for French. From Colman and Paster 2007.
- “Calculating the carbon footprint of wine: my research findings,” Dr. Vino’s wine blog
- “Maker of red wine goes green with plastic bottles,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A final word
Wine holds a special place in our culture, and on our tables. But we should be asking the questions “how was it grown?” and “how did it get to me?” of all our food and beverage options. We make decisions to choose organic or conventional, local or imported foods all the time, even if we don’t always think about it in those terms.
Kim Cahill, ’99, PhD ’08, a wine expert at UC-Davis, says she does take the carbon footprint of her wine choices into account, in part because “it is quantifiable, and allows me to compare drinking wine with the relative impact of driving my car, or turning on my lights.” And then again, perhaps we should also keep things in perspective. Most of us will find that drinking wine accounts for just a small part of our overall carbon footprint—and of course part the appeal of wine comes from tasting the different flavors from around the world. Perhaps a little imported wine is an understandable indulgence from time to time—especially if you offset the impacts by drinking tap water instead of bottled, or biking to work, for example.
More general information on environmentally friendly wine
- “How to Go Green: Wine” from Planet Green
- “Wine’s Environmental Impact” from Suite101
- “Wine and water—scary stuff” from JancisRobinson.com
JESS McNALLY plans to receive her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in earth systems in 2010.
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