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The Dream of Low Emission Wine

You can't turn your head these days without catching sight of some new effort to build sustainability, greenness, and environmental consciousness into just about everything. As a Northern California hippie child and card carrying Sierra Club, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Federation, and Natural Resources Defense Council member, I couldn't be happier about it. I have to chuckle though at the speed with which business has seen the opportunity to turn green practices into PR and profit (once they finally realized it was good for both).

The wine industry is on the same bandwagon, of course, with some wineries making the leap to solar power, and many striving to reduce their "carbon footprint," or the amount of carbon they put into the environment. The latter, of course, being particularly relevant to the pressing issue of global warming.

While wineries and other businesses are working hard to figure out how to operate sustainably, consumers are being faced with choices about how they live, and perhaps more importantly, how they buy, with an eye towards reducing their impact on the environment.

This is not as easy as it sounds. For any simple product that we purchase there is a huge, complex chain of resources, actions, processes, and relationships that have brought that product to the shelf in front of us. Trying to calculate the carbon footprint of a particular bottle of wine, for instance, is a nearly impossible task.

But that didn't stop Tyler Colman, who runs the blog Dr. Vino. Colman, a writer and professor spent some time trying to figure it out, and wrote a very interesting post about it a couple of weeks ago. Among his findings are that, depending on where you live, buying New York wine may be better for the environment than buying California wine.

I'm not sure Colman and his collaborators have taken into account ALL the complexities of what goes into wine (as some commenters on the post have noted, the impacts of whether the wine is shipped in Styrofoam or in refrigerated trucks or ships can have a huge impact on the carbon footprint) but it's an interesting exercise nonetheless.

In the following days, Colman even offered to try to calculate the footprint of a particular bottle of French wine purchased in Berkeley, California.

If you're at all interested in the environmental impact of your wine habit, the posts are worth checking out, if only as food for thought. The problem with all these calculations are, of course, that if we really wanted to save the environment, we'd all just grow our own grapes, make our own wine, not bottle it at all, and simply pour some out of the cask into our homemade earthenware mugs every time we wanted a drink. Sigh.

Comments (10)

Arthur wrote:
11.15.07 at 8:34 AM

I haven't checked that post by Tyler recently, so I might be redundant in saying that wine production itself (no matter how else you conserve energy) involves the release of CO2 (as a by-product in the conversion of sugars to alcohol) - a greenhouse gas. I don’t know if Tyler did an analysis to see what portion of the total greenhouse gas production comes from the production of wine during fermentation, but if you think about how much wine is being produced, the number might be staggering.

Perhaps we ought to look at the style of wine being produced as well and opt for wines which are picked at lower sugar levels. That, in turn, would lead to lowering carbon emissions as well.

The question is: are those consumers who are so keen on being green (and have been raised on the riper, bigger wines) willing to make that choice?

Geoff Smith wrote:
11.15.07 at 10:08 AM

I've been wondering recently about the heavy glass bottle phenomenon.

I mean, don't these massive bottles require more fuel to create, and more fuel to transport?

Traditionally in the wine industry, a case of 12 bottles (750ml) would weight 38 lbs. Can you believe that some of these heavy bottles create cases weighing 54 lbs?!


Wilf K. wrote:
11.15.07 at 1:19 PM

Good one, Alder. Especially about the PR and profit motives.Tyler's paper is well researched but wine's o.o8% of total global GHG emissions (equal to emissions from 1 million passenger vehicles) is minuscule when you consider there are close to 250 million vehicles on US roads. Should we draw a line whereby people living near an oil refinery would be allowed to drive 9 miles/per gallon Hummers and if you live more than a thousand miles from the nearest refinery, thereby increasing the footprints it takes to deliver your gas, you should drive a Toyota Prius? Hey, I am all for reducing footprints but suggesting what I should drink according to where I live is a bit much.

Dan wrote:
11.16.07 at 4:02 AM

Of course, more than that, if we want to really have an impact, how about we all just shut down our computers and turn off the internet... nah.

11.16.07 at 10:21 PM

Hi Alder,
Well the shipping is an aspect of energy consumption snd obviously it would make enviormental sense to drink wine that is produced close to where you live. In Italy folks bring their own container to save the bottle.
I just wrote several articles on sustainable farming and have many wine maker friends that are into the bio-dynanamic vicicultural practices.
The biggest Carbon impact is the fertilizer which is completely carbon based. We are talking acres of grapes. The bad thing that makes this worst is the land suffers by fertilizers that are chemical. They have no micro nutrients to sustain the soil. It is important to feed the soil for it is what feeds us. Organic matter in the form of compost, manure that is well aged, green matter, finally wine makers are making a move to improve their soils which will eventually give us better fruit and wine made from that fruit.

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
11.17.07 at 6:28 PM


I have previously given thought to your concerns regarding CO2 and fermentation. My conclusion is that sugar is synthesized by grapevines from, you guessed it, CO2. Most of that sugar is used by the vine to fuel itself and produce it's physical structure. Though fermentation produces large amounts of CO2, the net carbon use is actually negative; until you factor in tractor work, cooling, heating, electricity to power the tools of the trade etc. I also like that you are looking for yet another angle to encourage earlier picking. However, I doubt picking at 23.5 vs 27 will have much of an effect on C02 production.
In terms of agriculture I would say that the use of fertilizer in grape growing is fairly small compared to that of other crops. You seem to be advocating bringing organic material into the vineyard from outside of the vineyard ( farming system ), is this sustainable? I would also go so far as to say that Biodynamic farming, per se, is not a model for sustainability. Each of those potions need to be sprayed, requiring more tractor time and thus more fuel usage. I do like biodynamic's attempt to make the farm a self sustaining unit ( via biodiveristy ) but most vineyards practicing biodynamics do not have thier own cows ( for manure ) so again I have to seriously question how sustainable BD really is.

The rest of you,
Does it matter if a winery goes carbon neutral for PR purposes or for a genuine interest in sustainability? Some research conducted on behalf of the Oregon Wine Board suggests that 'sustainability' does not drive purchasing descions ( by the way the number one driver was... the label ) so there are serious questions as to how effective that PR will actually be. Of course it may be that wineries are gearing up for a cultural change where 'sustainability' does drive purchasing descions and they are wanting to already be on that wagon. Is that a bad thing?

Arthur wrote:
11.19.07 at 1:59 PM


I did not have a chance to do the stoichiometry, when I originally posted, but you make a valid point regarding the recycling of the CO2.

The success of any venture lies in large part in publicizing it!

I really enjoyed your recent post "Credit where credit is due" on your blog.

bill wrote:
03.31.09 at 5:52 PM

Just for the record, Tyler's study is flawed due to his lack of understanding in horticulture and and enology. Approximately 15% of the CO2 captured by grape vines (1/3 of the sugar becomes CO2 if completely fermented, and only 40% of the CO2 collected by the vine goes into sugar) is released as CO2 in the wine making process.

New Zealand did a study in 1997 that calculated that grape and wine production prior to bottling and shipping (not all wineries bottle their wine before it is sold) removed 7.8 tonnes of CO2 for every 2.1 tonnes emitted.

The real culprit is what most people already know: transportation costs.

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