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Wine goes green

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Green is everywhere. Green tints my magazines, permeates my podcasts and infiltrates my inbox. Green can exhilarate ("one more bottle recycled!") or render guilt ("Damn, I forgot my reusable grocery bags ... again"). I pepper conversations with "carbon footprint," "eco-friendly" and "sustainable," and am grossly offended when a houseguest casually throws glass into my trimmed down trash can. But even though dinner party debates drone on about global warming's cause and man versus nature, I feel the bandwagon still rates the rocky ride. This Earth Day, April 22, perhaps more so than ever since its establishment in 1970, has urgency behind it, pressing the public and companies to listen. The wine industry, after years of doggedly clutching to tradition, slowly came around in the early 1990s but within the last few years has multiplied its efforts. Although a relatively small-scale polluter compared with agri-business, its changes – from power to packaging to pesticides – are helping to make my purchases guilt-free.

The greening of wine starts in the vineyards. On the scale of eco-friendliness, grapes come in light (sustainable), medium (organic) and heavy (biodynamic). It's expensive to endure the lengthy inspection and bureaucratic maze to become certified organic or biodynamic, so many wineries opt for eco-light. Sustainable, a self-imposed and easier system to responsibly foster land health, largely means the vineyard manager is sensitive to the environment, limits pesticides and conserves water. More than 1,165 California wineries and vineyards participate in sustainability self-assessments and more tools are being introduced, such as the International Wine Industry Greenhouse Gas Accounting Protocol (painful, isn't it?). Several organizations spanning the globe partnered to invent this free, wine-industry-specific calculator that measures the carbon emissions of winery and vineyard operations of all sizes. Oddly absent from this international partnership are the Old World Europeans. Many French wineries have quietly farmed "bio" (short for "agriculture biologique" and pronounced "bee-o") for years, but their green activities haven't yet reached the publicity fervor of New World wine regions.

From the vineyard, green moves into the building. Well-known California wineries Far Niente, Frog's Leap, Ridge, Shafer, Fetzer, St. Francis and Flora Springs have taken steps in the cleaner direction by harnessing a plentiful resource in wine country: sun. Incorporated into their sprawling vineyards, numerous solar panels power part to all of their fermentation tanks, lighting and pumping facilities.

And, finally, green arrives in the bottling room – or not. A winery's stinky, size-15 footprint isn't found caked in soil or powering electricity – it's transporting glass bottles. One study last year found that it's greener for New Yorkers to drink wine from Bordeaux, transported more fuel-efficiently by boat, than wine from California sent by truck or plane. Wine casks, aka wine in a box, reportedly result in a 55 percent smaller carbon footprint due to their lighter weight and engender 85 percent less landfill waste. Another report states that if every winery converted to wine casks or even the smaller Tetra Pak (similar to juice boxes), it would equal removing 250,000 cars off the road per year. In response to the glass bashing, some wineries went old school. This past February, in a deliciously ironic publicity stunt, green wineries in the French Languedoc wine region shipped 60,000 bottles in a pre-1900 cargo sailboat from Southern France to Ireland. Due to popular demand, they announced more trips to come.

From vine to cork (and sometimes box), the wine industry is quickly learning green, whether they need to or not. Will you do the same this year? See how at www.earthday.net.

Recommended Wine

Bonterra 2006 Chardonnay Mendocino (California) Utterly rich, soft buttery cream followed by ripe apricots, peaches, and a tart, lemony finish. Mellow acids and just-right sweetness bring it home. An organic and biodynamically farmed wine widely available at most upscale grocery stores. Sw = 3. $12. 3.5 stars.

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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