Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

But... is it organic?

One of the things that I see a great deal at work is people worrying about whether or not a certain wine is organic.

Odd -- it's a term that's pretty over-used in the wine world (go visit a vineyard.  They'll tout that their wine has an organic connection, I'll wager -- either it's "organic grapes," or "no harsh chemical pesticides," or "we farm sustainably.").  Really, it's all about the marketing -- which is what's really important, right?  Heck, it's almost impossible to define "organic wine," as there's a myriad of certifications (off the top of my head, there's California Certified Organic Farmer, USDA Organic, Demeter, Salmon-Safe, Oregon Tilth, and Low Impact Viticulture and Enology).  Not to mention that in other countries, the certification processes are different (as one vintner from Australia once told me -- "we don't bother getting certification, as we'd have to do Australia's, the UK's, the US's, and Japan's.  I'd rather make wine than fill out paperwork."), so there's plenty of uncertified organic wines!

I know the basic arguments for organic wine -- it's a lower-impact method of farming (although, that's debatable -- there are organic pesticides and fertilizers that don't break down any better than the non-organic alternatives), there's the possibility of trace pesticides/fungicides "contaminating" the wine.  Ultimately, though, I wonder...  When you're drinking wine -- which, by definition has ethanol in it, a poison -- why worry about what kind of fertilizer was used in producing the grapes?  I'd worry more about the carbon footprint of the wine (see Dr. Tyler Coleman's work on the subject). 

See, much of the impact of a wine on the environment comes not in producing it...  but in transporting it.  Transporting a wine from Napa to, say, Tampa burns an awful lot of gasoline if you're moving it by truck (which most wine is -- there's a move towards shipping wine by rail, which is much more efficient, but in my experience most wine arrives on a truck).  So let's do some math:

A refer truck gets about 6.5 MPG.  It's 2923 miles from Napa to Tampa, which means about 450 gallons of gas to move the wine -- or 8,730 pounds of CO2 emitted (roughly -- a gallon of unleaded yields about 19.3 pounds of CO2 when completely combusted).  The average tractor-trailer carries about 25,000 bottles of wine -- so your bottle of wine from Napa equals just over 1/3 of a pound of CO-- and that's just the cost of moving the wine from producer to consumer, not the cost of getting the bottles, corks, labels, fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and cases to the producer!

Now, if the wine were transported by train, you can cut the fuel cost in a third -- at least, that's what Union Pacific claims (in the bottom section).  And, according to Dr. Coleman, wine moved by ship is more efficient than truck as well -- to the point that, east of the Mississippi, it's more efficient to drink from Bordeaux than Napa.

And I'd say that cutting the CO2 emissions used in moving the wine is about as important as anything else you can do in the process.

So why do most people worry about wine being organic? The cynic in me says, it's because appearing to do something to save the environment is easier than actually doing something about it.  It's easier to self-righteously spout to your friends "oh, I'm drinking organic," than it is to explain "my wine has a low carbon footprint."

That being said, it's not that organic wine is bad -- much of it is quite good, in fact, although there's some duds in the organic wines -- but that people's motivations for looking for organic wines are often screwed-up.

1 comment:

  1. I like your viewpoint on this topic. I think I would also agree that most people get so wrapped up in the marketing component or organic wine, they forget about what's really important: less environmental waste.