Saturday, September 19, 2009

the ethics of drinking

As someone who tries, often unsuccessfully, to be mindful of my impact on the Earth and as someone who enjoys a glass of wine or two in the evening, I have debated the merits of various types of wines.

There are a few issues to wine, namely the grapes, how it is stored and how it is shipped. Here are my opinions on those issues. Like most things in our society, it's a balance that we all have to make for ourselves. In college, these choices were easy. I love white wine and was living in the Fingerlakes area of New York, an area with great white wine. I would buy wine for $9 at the farmers market and could feel great that my wine was grown and produced locally and I was buying directly from the family producer. Now in DC, Virginia wine country isn't so far but Virginia wines aren't really stocked in the wine stores and are much more expensive than the NY wines I loved.

Grapes (organic vs. non-organic):
The obvious choice is organic is better. However, organic wines are rare and picking only organic wines when at a random shop is probably a risky choice. Sample them and find some favorites but many small local wineries- like small farms- may not have bothered being certified. Two cases where organic makes a bigger difference- with imported wines and with large wineries. Organic vs. not is most important for chemical residue and less so for the carbon footprint.

Re-Nest wrote recently about the "Dirty Dozen," the fruits and vegetables you absolutely should buy organic and imported grapes were on the list. For this, I'd worry more about wines from South America than European (or even US) wines. The EU has very strict standards for pesticide use, and the US has lower but still fairly tight standards. In addition, if you are buying domestically from a small winery, they may have lower pesticide use, but this is not always true.

Container (bottle vs. box):
Wine in a bottle has two basic part- the bottle and the cork or metal top. Glass is a very heavy material and that increases the amount of energy used to transport the wine. According to the New York Times, the weight of wine bottles has actually been increasing. The article didn't go into specifics but it claims the increase is due to trying to increase the impressiveness of the bottle, so perhaps this is more true for expensive bottles (note: not the bottles I buy.) One good thing is that much of the glass* that goes into the bottles is recycled and is recyclable. Glass is domestically recycled so the energy into transporting it to the recycling center is manageable and unlike many products is not downcycled. Many glass bottles are melted down and reformed into new bottles or are upcycled into jewelry or furnishings.

*One note on recycling wine bottles- blue bottles are often not accepted at local recycling center. Buy blue glass sparingly and save those to be pretty vases. In some communities, this is true of all colors of wine bottles, so if recycling is important to you, find out what your regulations are and buy accordingly.

In case you need a reason to biggie-size your bottle, "Shipping premium wine, bottled at the winery, around the world mostly involves shipping glass with some wine in it. In this regard, drinking wine from a magnum is the more carbon-friendly choice since the glass-to-wine ratio is less. Half-bottles, by contrast, worsen the ratio."

The cork can be either real cork or that fake plastic stuff. My pocketbook limits my wine to $12 a bottle unless I'm out for a special meal, but I've found that inexpensive wines are often have real cork. (Though sometimes, cough-Jazz-in-the-Sculpture-Garden, I purposefully choose the metal twists off tops.) Wine corks are recyclable through Recork America.

In contrast, you can buy your wine in a box. This seriously cuts down on the weight of the packaging, thus shipping is much more efficient. Boxes are often larger servings and they stay fresh longer, so you are less likely to have to toss your wine before you finish it. (If your wine does start to turn, think about using it in some cooking- maybe risotto for white wine or a beef stew for red wine?) Many boxes are composites though, so may not be recyclable, a serious downside.

Travel (local vs. truck vs. boat):
Local wine has the smallest carbon footprint (duh) plus you are keeping your spending dollars in the community.

Many people think being California wines is better than buying European wines, but that depends on where in the US you are and how the wine is transported. Trucking is very energy intensive and, with the weight of bottles, is a poor way to transport wine. So if you are on the West Coast, West Coast wines are a great choice. On the East Coast, European wines have been shipped by container ships and then trucked only a short distance. According to Dr. Vino, there is a split is the US around Ohio where east of the line "it’s more efficient to consume the same sized bottle of wine from Bordeaux, which has had benefited from the efficiencies of container shipping, followed by a shorter truck trip" and those west of the line should buy Californian. Of course, east of the line there are several smaller wine producing areas to taste as well.

Taste Test
So, having all these thoughts in my head, I stumbled across Yellow + Blue (um, cause it equals Green, duh.) Yellow + Blue is an Argentinian wine that claims to have a carbon footprint 54% smaller than the traditional process. They buy the wine before it is bottles and "ship it in bulk via insulated steel tanks to North America, where the cartons are filled and then distributed." On their website they don't specify if 'ship' means on a ship or by plane, or how distributed the filling centers are in the US. Still, bulk transport and lighter packaging substantially cut down the carbon emissions of transporting the wine.

Yellow + Blue is very proud of their Tetra Pak, which allows the wine to last longer (and gives you a slightly larger bottle of wine!) but one major question I have is- is the packaging recyclable? I would think that for a company that sells itself on sustainability, it would be but I didn't see anything on the package or their website, so I had to chuck my empty in the trash.

But, what really matters is, how is the wine? I sampled their white wine, a 2008 Torrontes, I found the wine pleasant but rather bland. My roommate agreed and while we enjoyed sitting and drinking the wine, neither of us was hoping to crack into a second bottle. Y+B suggests pairing it with smoked meat, mild-medium cheese and spicy food. I am doubtful that this wine would really stand up to spicy food but it went well with the warm potato salad I had for dinner that night.

While this foray into boxed wine was lackluster, I hope to find boxed wine (maybe domestic boxed? East Coast?) that has the spicy, mineral, crisp tastes I love but stays light on its feet.

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