On Palate Press: Sustainability, in New Zealand and elsewhere

My September piece for Palate Press asks, “Is New Zealand the world’s most sustainable wine producing country?” to which the answer is: quite possibly, but the metrics we have don’t exactly say. The more important point is that sustainability is an excellent tool for industry self-improvement and a pretty terrible tool for comparisons between countries. It’s also not good at guaranteeing consumers of any particular pro-environmental or pro-community practices, though it still has a place in consumer communication: IF consumers understand that “sustainable” means “we’re thinking about what we’re doing (and usually trying to make it better)” OR if we let the marketing folk equate “sustainable” with “good!” and leave the right to use that word as an incentive to participate in sustainability programs. Which, even if they don’t guarantee vineyards full of happy children and chickens frolicking under thoroughly non-toxic vines, still do a great deal of good.

Find the full article on Palate Press.

Sustainability at New Zealand’s Bragato conference: what’s next?

The Romeo Bragato conference is New Zealand’s national wine industry conference for producers, policy makers, vendors, researchers, and such (and today, “such” even included New Zealand’s prime minister). With that audience, the topics discussed are broad, which makes it particularly interesting that the word “sustainability” seemed to crop up more often than any other today.

The main message from many today — growers and winemakers and administrators — is that New Zealand is awesome and needs to shout about it a bit more loudly. It’s hard to disagree. 94% of the country’s wineries are certified through the Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand program (“swins”). 94%! And yet, to me, that’s actually a lot less significant on a story level than the individual, often very thoughtful initiatives wineries and vineyards are taking beyond that certification. From a consumer perspective, it’s near-impossible to translate the soft language on nzwine.com/sustainability into something meaningful and tangible; “foster biodiversity” and “monitor and manage erosion risk” and “engage in clean production practices,” as the sustainability standards say, is all pretty soft soap. But when I hear that Yealands Estate in the Awatere Valley is baling their vine prunings (yes, like hay) and burning them to fuel boilers that supply most of their hot water needs and eliminate the need for about $100,000-worth of LPG per year, that’s meaningful. That’s tangible. So are things that don’t involve metrics at all, like sniffing fine-aged manure with Rudi Bauer on his biodynamic estate in Central Otago; whatever you think of biodynamics, his extraordinary care for his land and vines and people is, well, something you can practically taste. Nevertheless, while I think folks abroad tend to think of New Zealand as a near-untouched refuge of pristine greenness (not entirely true, regrettably), the fullness of what Kiwi winemakers have achieved together on the sustainability front doesn’t come across as it should. Kiwis tend to be a pretty understated bunch, and it came up several times today that they may not realize how extraordinary, and how absolutely worth talking up, “just the thing we do here” really is.

But a second message — the step most speakers take after patting their collective backs — is the what’s next question. We’re great, but we can do better. And not just we can do better, but we must do better, and fast, not so much to protect our land as to protect our edge over those wilily Chileans who could rapidly and easily overtake us if they can market their wines as being more sustainable than New Zealand’s.

So what’s next? The industry has just updated and stepped up their sustainability reporting tool, WiSE (part of the Sustainability Dashboard project through which part of my PhD research is being funded), which is intended to be not just a reporting but a benchmarking and self-improvement tool. But that doesn’t really answer the question. The New Zealand wine industry has been remarkable in collaborating to create a unified international image. Seriously: where else can you find 94% certification in any non-mandatory administrative scheme? What’s the next direction in which the industry, collectively, will choose to travel?

Gwyn Williams, the chair of the New Zealand Winegrowers Sustainability Committee and a man with 31 years of Kiwi vineyard-managing experience, thinks that the national wine sustainability movement has stalled. I wonder if that stall is because there isn’t clear consensus on what’s next. Organic Winegrowers New Zealand is aiming for 20% certified organic vineyards by 2020. The president of that organization, James Milton (also the winemaker at the Demeter-certified biodynamic Milton Estate in Gisborne), said today that the organic and biodynamic folk need to work harder at speaking the languages of sustainability and science instead of isolating themselves in their own strange little corner as they’ve traditionally been wont to do. But, in a later session also on sustainability, Chris Howell of Prospect Vineyard in Hawke’s Bay mentioned being unconvinced about the totality of organic practices from a science perspective. A walk through the vendor’s area made it obvious that he’s not alone.

Is organic the next step beyond “sustainable?” Or biodynamic the next step beyond organic? Or organic-with-caveats — organic, but we’re not certified because we do X when we really have to, as I hear many vineyard managers say? Or just raising the bar on those key performance indicators about which the sustainability folk are always talking? More and better of the same, or something new?

If the New Zealand wine industry can decide, together, what better-than-sustainable looks like, they’ll achieve it. They don’t talk very loud, and they’re the most collectively laid-back people I’ve met, but I’ve learned in the past nine months not to underestimate the extraordinary Kiwi capacity for getting the job done.

Hooray for Oregon: two counties vote for no GMOs

Oregon’s Josephine and Jackson counties have both, at least per the preliminary counts (official ones will take weeks), voted in favor of banning the planting of GMO crops inside their borders. Find accounts of the highly contested ballot measures at Oregon Live and The NationCommercial GMO wine grapes aren’t yet available, but it’s likely they will be soon with research in that direction underway in Florida and France. GMO wine yeast are already for sale — ML01, which has the bacterial genes for malolactic fermentation — though whether the ban applies to its use, since the yeast aren’t a crop per se, is a question.

Plenty of pro-GMO publicity relies on the lack of scientific proof that GMO foods are in any way harmful to eat or nutritionally inferior. That’s true, but it’s also not the point. In my opinion, the strongest reasons to oppose GMOs are:

Biodiversity – GMOs are usually designed to be more disease-resistant, more vigorous, and/or higher-yielding than non-engineered varieties, which means that they have a competitive advantage in the wild. With yeast and bacteria, or if GMO plants make it out into the wild, that means that they’ll out-compete native varieties, which means that we lose biodiversity. Biodiversity is good. Natives and rare variants among natives may harbor as yet-undiscovered genetic and biochemical solutions to diseases or bioengineering problems. Diversity makes systems more resilient to disease and changing environments. And there’s the aesthetic argument: life is beautiful in its many shapes and colors.

Food security and sustainability (the biology side) – At least 70% of the US corn crop is Monsanto “Roundup Ready,” and something like 90% of the soybean crop. What if a disease struck to which Roundup Ready X was specially susceptible? Bacteria and viruses mutate to adapt to their hosts; this isn’t that unlikely. Not only do we need farmers growing a diversity of varieties, but we need to ensure that in the case of wind-pollinated crops (like corn) hypercompetitive genes don’t spread to infiltrate even non-engineered crops.

Food security and sustainability (the economic side) – GMO crops are patented. Growers can’t legally save their seed from one year to replant the next; they’re obligated to pay the giant corporation to provide their next crop and set of paychecks. Monsanto has aggressively defended this “right.”  I understand that the economics here are complex, but I can’t see a way to slice this argument that doesn’t come down to feeding mega-business, collecting power and money in the hands of the few who are already powerful and wealthy, protecting and encouraging increased commodification and commercialization and engineering of our food supply, and hurting everyone who A) isn’t a corporate billionaire and B) eats. And if all of that is a bit much, just imagine being the family farmer who gets sued by Monsanto. The layers of anti-sustainability, anti-farmer, pro-big business unprintable evil this represents are too many to explore in full here, particularly because I may need to go out and chop some wood now just to burn off the anger I feel thinking about this nonsense.

All of that is in addition to the possibility that GMO crops may pose some danger to human or animal health, both of which are still untested possibilities insofar as we haven’t been studying them long enough for a full assessment.

The Josephine and Jackson measures still need to be put into effect and enforced, neither of which are yet certain bets. But the vote is a definite step in the right direction and, more importantly, sets a precedent for other counties in other states. More reasons why, along with some very fine pinot noir, I’m proud to be an Oregonian.

Wine’s environmental impact: the bottle hits hard (but so does the fertilizer)

The book The 100-Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon opens with a glorious British Columbia meal made entirely from ingredients grown outside the door of an isolated cabin in the woods. Except the wine. The wine is from Australia.

Locavorism and the sustainable food culture has long since turned its gaze — and its mouth — to drinkables, with the Drink Local movement and a plethora of sustainable wine associations and alliances and the wine selection at Whole Foods attesting to its success. If you don’t care about the earth-friendliness of your wine, you at least know that there are people who do care.

A lot of environmentalist action seems intuitive. It took more energy to convey a Sangiovese from Umbria to my table than this bottle of Washington Carménère that I picked up from the winery on my way home from grocery shopping last Saturday. And I’m better off buying this bunch of organic radishes from the lady who grew them at the community farmers’ market than industrial radishes from a massive farm in Mexico. Duh. But decisions about wine are rarely so obvious, mostly because the vast majority of wine lovers are unsatisfied with the prospect of only drinking local wines. Like the 100- or 50- or 10- mile diet — a regimen of eating only foods produced within a limited radius of their kitchens — it can be done, but not without missing things like coffee and chocolate and pepper and olive oil and rice…and Australian Shiraz, evidently. It’s telling that so many farm-to-table restaurants still serve primarily non-local wines.

What’s a savvy, environmentally-conscious oenophile to do? Data to the rescue.

A number of studies — more than a number, really — have examined the environmental impact of pieces of the winemaking process or elements that contribute to shipping a final bottle, mostly in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. A few have looked at the entire winemaking process, but generalized for an imaginary average wine from a particular region. Fusi, Guidetti, and Benedetto aimed for a more specific and precise picture by performing a complete life cycle analysis — from “cradle” with planting the winery to “grave” with bottle disposal — of a single wine: a Sardinian Vermentino made by Sella and Mosca, the area’s largest producer. A life cycle analysis (LCA), considered the gold standard for evaluating a product’s impact, tracks a product from creation through to distribution (cradle to gate, a partial LCA) or disposal (cradle to grave, a complete LCA) and sums the impact of everything that goes into making that product. It also considers multiple forms of environmental impact beyond just CO2 emissions to potential acid rain production, eutrophication (dumping nutrients into water, causing algae blooms and disrupting the ecosystem), ozone depletion, water use, and so forth.

Smith and MacKinnon found that their simple-seeming 100-mile diet became a lot more complicated when they considered everything that went into food production. If the cow down the street in Illinois is being raised on grain grown in Washington, is the cow’s milk still part of a 100-mile diet on the street in Illinois? The number of fiddly little inputs — the lubricating oil used on the tractor used to help plant the vines, for example — that contribute to Fusi and company’s analysis is impressive. The list of different types of emissions they considered, to soil, to water, and to air, at every stage of vine planting and growing and winemaking, is impressive and moderately unpronouncable. The authors had to make some assumptions when precise data just wasn’t available — how much of the electricity used by the entire winery could be attributed specifically to the production of the Vermentino, for example — but they do seem to have been thorough.

Results confirmed what we already know from other studies, but they serve as both a good confirmation and a good reminder.

First: glass bottles are the most significant source of a wine’s environmental impact in every regard save ozone depletion. Machinery that goes into maintaining the vineyard wins in causing ozone depletion.

Second: What the authors call “the agricultural phase” — the work of planting and maintaining the vineyard before grapes are harvested and winemaking begins — is a major contributor to use of fossil fuels, water pollution, global warming potential, and ozone depletion. Maintaining the vines caused more harm in most categories than planting them, but vine planting still accounted for a third or more of the overall impact of the agricultural phase almost entirely because of diesel fuel used to prepare the land and lay down trellises. More ozone depletion was caused by the production of fertilizers used in the vineyard than by any other component of the winemaking process.

And this is at a winery that has won awards for its environmentally friendly practices. A similar LCA of a Portuguese vinho verde (made at a winery with presumably less scrupulous vineyard practices) and an imaginary average white from Ribeiro showed that agricultural inputs — essentially fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery — were the number one cause of environmental impact in every category.

Third: What about distribution? Shipping the wine from Sardinia to the US was a major source of potential acid rain production, and a smaller but still significant source of other types of pollution. Shipping the wine from Sardinia to anywhere else in Italy never accounted for more than 5% of any impact measure. Shipping to the rest of Europe landed somewhere in the middle.

The most important ways in which the average wine is hurting the environment? Making the glass bottle, diesel used to prep and maintain the vineyard, fertilizer production, and shipping the bottle overseas if it needs to go that far to get to you.

The ramifications in practical terms for that savvy, environmentally-conscious oenophile: favor wineries practicing low-input viticulture, especially those eschewing synthetic fertilizers and using horses instead of diesel. Take advantage of wine on tap when it’s available. And yes, drink local.

In real terms, I can’t imagine that oenophile — let’s say she’s living in San Francisco — not drinking the occasional Sardinian Vermentino, or any other interesting wine from Europe or South Africa or New Zealand. But maybe her standbys, if she has them, can come from closer to home. We have good data to say that Drink Local and low-input viticulture are more than just marketing schemes.

**For the record, in light of articles I’ve written on the environmental impact of wine closures (here and here), the wine in this study was closed with a cork  which, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t important enough to warrant discussion.

On Palate Press: A New Entry in the “Which Closure is Greener” Debate

My December column at Palate Press, the online wine magazine, is now up. I revisit an issue I covered in late 2011 — the relative environmental impact of natural corks versus screw caps — with new data from Nomacorc, the leading manufacturer of synthetic (plastic) cork-like closures.

Closure for closure (that is, if we ignore the question of waste as a result of wines made undrinkable by the failure of their closures), natural cork still comes out as the most environmentally friendly choice in nearly every respect. A bigger point is that closures are a very small part of the total environmental impact of a wine. (How small? Probably an unanswerable question, unless we’re calculating numbers for a specific wine.) That said, if you’re the kind of person who reuses her plastic wrap, it might be worth remembering that the neck of your wine bottle can contain something made from metal, something made from plastic, or something made from a tree that’s still standing and respiring in a Mediterranean cork forest.

Read the full article here.