How to make wine industry more sustainable – the bloggers’-eye view

That glass of wine consumers kick back with at the end of the day may feel like magic, but it doesn’t arrive by magic. Wine making (and packaging, and shipping) requires resources, energy and chemicals, and the wine industry’s health depends on these being managed wisely. Sustainability is without a doubt the most important conversation in the wine industry right now, so we asked three leading wine bloggers – Meg Maker, Giles Cadman and Toby Webb – to get one started here. Each offers three strategies the wine industry can put in to practice to ensure a long, healthy, planet-friendly future.

Meg Maker

1. Encourage organic viticulture

I’m not an organic viticulturist and I’m no sustainability expert, but I am an organic gardener of long standing. The winegrowers I value most work organically.

Wine is an agricultural product, and agriculture starts with soil. Simply put: organic agriculture builds soil, chemical agriculture destroys it. Organic practices safeguard watersheds, foster biodiversity, keep heavy metals out of the field, and protect the biome surrounding the vineyard. It’s about the long view. 

When I visit family growers in Europe and America, especially those who live near their vineyards, their goal is healthy vitality for their land, their kids, and their employees. Organics isn’t just good for soil, it’s good for everyone.

2. Focus on water

When we harvest grapes, we’re removing water from the landscape. Water access (from aquifers, groundwater, rivers) is a significant limiting variable to wine production. In eastern Washington, winegrowers often cite water rights as their number-one challenge.

As with other viticultural practices, the focus turns to the watershed and the ecology it supports. The Salmon Safe program in the Pacific Northwest is a good example of a program that helps wineries care for their watersheds. Limiting irrigation, practicing dry farming when possible, and managing surface runoff are also crucial.

Within the production facility, grey water recovery systems, including ponds like Living Machines, can help to process waste water, turning it back into clean water than can be reused for irrigation, closing the loop.

3. Less wine, but better wine

This one won’t make me popular.

There are a lot of wines on US shelves that don’t deserve the name. I’m talking about beverage products that are to wine what cheese food is to cheese. They get their start using highly limited agricultural resources—grapes and water (see above)—but these get muddled with so many additives that any natural qualities are erased. They’re made in great quantity, trucked and stored and refrigerated with all of the implications for carbon emissions.

Let’s put fewer, more authentic, more agriculturally-driven wines onto shelves, wines that are about their place—ideally their local place. Then let’s savour them slowly.

Giles Cadman

1. Wine packaging

Wine packaging is a source of grievance for me. Does a sub-$10-dollar bottle of wine really need to be packaged in a beautiful glass bottle with a cork?

Yes, for a wine that was created with the need to be laid down over a period of years or even decades to mature, improve and evolve, a glass bottle sealed tight with a cork makes sense.

However, a wine headed straight for the supermarket shelf does not need to be in a bottle. Wine that is produced to be consumed right away can be packaged in other packages. Be mindful of the price point of your wine, and buy it in a carton package if you’re planning on enjoying it soon.

2. Wine transportation 

Globalization has changed the industry and has made it possible to try the finest wines from any continent. However, the way wines are shipped is not efficient. Wine bottles are heavy. There is excess space in each case (to be sure the glass doesn’t break) so you’re shipping air, space, cardboard and packaging, which translates to a loss of fuel and opportunity – not to mention the inefficiencies of part-filled containers. If we can change the way wine is packaged, we can change the way it’s transported and make the industry more sustainable.

3. Offsetting the issue

The wine industry, in its current state, isn’t doing the environment any favours. Is it even possible to change the attitude surrounding wine? Maybe, but it might not change fast enough.

We must do something now to offset the environmental impacts of wine packaging and transportation. I don’t want to see a carbon tax placed on winemakers. But I do think producers should take it upon themselves to find ways to offset some of the negative impacts. They can find out what they can plant in their own vineyard, how they can support their local regions, and other alternative ways to support the environment. It would be nice to pick up a bottle (or indeed box) of wine and be able to read on the label their philosophy on the environment and the positive ways they are helping to offset their environmental impact.

Toby Webb

1. Reduce pesticide/fertilizer use, consider organic/biodynamic approaches

Increasingly there are studies (and yes, I know there are plenty that say it’s all fine) that show negative links between chemical inputs in the vineyard and human health. If Champagne producers like Fleury can go biodynamic, or if Palmer and Pontet-Canet can do it, most others can too.

At the very least, all winemakers should consider organic approaches. It’s just how all wine was made pre-WWII, and with modern technology there’s increasingly not much excuse for NOT doing it. Why put chemicals in something you drink when you don’t have to? 

2. Consider bottle weight and carbon emissions post-winery 

Do Malbec and CNP/Some Syrah bottles HAVE to be that heavy? No, it’s a false conception of marketing/value/quality and tradition that drives that.

Bottle weight is something wine producers can change easily, and the results for the environment in reduced carbon emissions can be huge. Let’s say you cut bottle weight by 30%. That’s a huge carbon emissions and transportation pollution saving. Climate change is important, but so are localized NOx, carbon monoxide and PM 2.5 particulate emissions from trucks.

Can a company in the wine sector convince us that we don’t always need bottles? Maybe. Someone needs to try to make and market wine that’s seen as desirable, and is in alternative packaging, like recyclable paper/packaging. It can be done; we just need an innovative company to take it on.

3. Embrace radical transparency on inputs, but be careful of endless certificates 

Across agriculture and fast-moving consumer goods, and the food industry in general, the notion of radical transparency is taking hold. It’s about telling your customers what’s in the wine, how it was made, who made it, and under what conditions. If very cheap wine can have up to 60-odd additives, perhaps the approach by others to transparency might make consumers ask questions about what really NEEDS to be in their wine, versus what is.

I understand there’s limited space on labels, but there are ways to engage your drinkers by using QR codes, or working with apps like Vivino. It doesn’t have to be complex, but real transparency is much more effective than buying yet another ‘certification’ that people don’t understand. Live your values and talk about them. Winemakers should tell us their stories, which also helps drive loyalty to a wine brand or label/producer.