Tasting notes: How to select the best green wine


See that green line on the map? Study it closely, boozehounds. Those of you to the right of it can enjoy a nice Bordeaux. Those to the left should be getting your grapes from California.

So concludes Dr. Vino in his excellent — and topical! — study, “Red, White and ‘Green': The Cost of Carbon in the Global Wine Trade.”

The paper is nicely readable in addition to being thorough. Few details go unconsidered. Dr. Vino cares about the CO2 produced from the breakdown of sugar during the fermentation process. He mulls the land use implications of grape production. He knows his screw caps from his corks.

All of these factors (well, not the corks) feed into a model that allows the paper’s authors to compute the carbon content of different bottles of wine drunk in various points in the U.S. Some conclusions:

  • Transportation mode is the most important consideration. Distance matters, but not as much as how the wine is shipped. Container ships are more fuel efficient than ground shipping, which in turn is more efficient than air freight. So express shipping your bottles from boutique wineries is about the worst thing you can do.
  • The shipping factor results in a “green line” running roughly from Ohio to Texas. East of this line, you’re better off getting your wine from Europe via container ship. West of this line, you’re better off getting your wine trucked from California. You may want to consider relocating to a city on the green line to preserve your options.
  • As though you needed any further encouragement over the holidays, bigger bottles are more carbon friendly than smaller bottles. Much of the ship weight of wine is the glass packaging. Bigger bottles yield a more efficient wine-to-bottle ratio. Boxed wines and Tetra-Paks are even better, at least from a carbon standpoint. Another good practice is shipping wine in bulk containers and bottling it close to the point of sale.
  • Climate change is a serious issue for the wine industry. This should come as no surprise. Wine is an agricultural product whose quality is exquisitely sensitive to local growing conditions. Some researchers have predicted an 80% decline in U.S. premium winegrape production in this century due to climate change. Drought-prone Australia, one of the largest wine exporters in the world, should also be nervous.
  • Organic farming isn’t much help. The authors are surprised by this, but they shouldn’t be. Despite its other environmental benefits, organic farming doesn’t help a lot on the climate change front. Transportation is still the overriding issue.

Ever the oenophile, Dr. Vino has some advice for those who don’t want to give up their New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. His main recommendation is to “offset” your wine drinking by giving up other carbon-heavy vices such as bottled water or Big Macs. Works for me.

Related topic: the joys of low-carbon beer.

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  1. smarsman - December 5, 2007

    While I understand the point of the article, the first line belies the myopic bias of the ignorant. The best Pinot Noirs are coming from the Willamette Valley with a tip of the hat to some of the areas north of Santa Barbara. Napa comes in third.

    This is especially true since the environment in the Willamette Valley is such that many of the wine growers don’t use pesticides and even the wine growers who do, use far less than in Napa and Sonoma.

    This is the same sort of close-minded bias that keeps San Franciscans thinking they are superior to Los Angeles residents, or New Yorkers superior to any West Coasters. And a person writing for TerraPass should be aware it is a disservice to people who would be directed to both a better selection of wines and that have a lower carbon footprint. After all, it takes diesel to transport those chemicals.

  2. Adam Stein - December 5, 2007

    Guilty as charged on the ignorance. I don’t know much about wine, other than what tastes good to me.
    The bias stuff is silliness. I’ve lived in a lot of different places, and couldn’t care less about SF vs. LA vs. NY.
    But thanks for the interesting info. Good luck with the chip.

  3. Tony Welsh - December 5, 2007

    A modicum of research might have covered the author’s apparent total ignorance about wine. First of all “French Bordeaux” is redundant. Secondly, a consumer wanting “Pinot” (I assume Pinot Noir) would need to buy Burgundy rather than Bordeaux. I stopped reading at that point, though I was glad to see from the map that in Houston I was allowed to continue to drink French wine which is imho far better and better value than Californian. (Otherwise I might have had to move rather than suffer the alternative.) I did however feel vindicated in not having bought any airfreighted Beaujolais Nouveau.

  4. Adam Stein - December 5, 2007

    Thanks for pointing out my ignorance again. I’ve amended the post.

  5. Anon - December 5, 2007

    This is very helpful. I am hosting a large holiday party and wanted to do a greenish wine. I was looking at organic, but figured transportation more important.

  6. Adam Stein - December 5, 2007

    Glad you found it useful. You might also be interested in this recent Salon piece on organic wines. The contention of the piece, basically, is that organic wines are no good, and there are better ways of finding environmentally friendly wines.
    I asked Dr. Vino for his impression of the Salon article, and he seemed to think it was overstated — there are plenty of good organic wines out there, although you should store them in a cool spot to avoid spoilage. Nevertheless, I thought the stuff in the Salon article on things to look for in a wine label was pretty interesting.

  7. Tony Welsh - December 5, 2007

    OK, in spite of your new intro I have now read the article and would suggest that those to the east of the green line should try a Sancerre or Pouilly Fume as an alternative to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Those to the west of the line should just move.

  8. Adam Stein - December 5, 2007

    Thanks! That’s actually quite helpful. My girlfriend — who know much more about wine than me, but still not a ton — is a fan of the NZ SBs. She’s also likes Sancerre, so perhaps I can goad her into switching her allegiances.

  9. Jordan - December 5, 2007

    Wine Spectator has a great article on green wines from (I think) the June 07 issue. They speak of a movement amongst many wineries in California to bring back traditional, pre-chemical methods of winemaking. Now, WS is not the expert on being green, but if you are looking for great wines, they are pretty knowlegdable and I bet the article could help lead you in the right direction if you are interested.
    Happy holidays.

  10. Monty - December 5, 2007

    Not that I am an expert, but can’t you get local wines in just about every region of the country? Maybe the point is that if you need to get wines from outside your area that these are the general rules, but if you are already shopping outside your local market then this is hardly ‘green’ wine, right?

  11. e - December 5, 2007

    I’m no wine expert but I live on Long Island and we have some pretty good wine here, i’ll stick with that! it was shipped by car though, my car from the vinyard

  12. Elke - December 5, 2007

    A hatred of southern California? Sigh. How boring. I’ve lived in L.A. all my life, and I’m just sick of this petty, holier-than-thou attitude taken by people north. Los Angeles — with its huge population, its immense popularity as a destination for people from all over the world and its global economic impact — is the place where real gains can be made on climate-change issues in California. Look at it as a Petrie dish if you like, but wasting your breath maligning it just makes me think your gaze is too myopic for the creative thinking necessary to effect real change. I’m easily amused, but not even I’m laughing.

    [Ed. — Seriously? You read the stuff above, including the bits in the comment thread, and what you took away is that I hate Southern California? You may want to re-read…]

  13. Tim - December 5, 2007

    Thank you for the useful post even though a few folks found it necessary to emphasize how superior their knowledge of viticulture was to yours. Why, you’re just a ‘blogger’ what could you possibly know about wine? (or maybe they meant ‘whine’).

  14. Peter - December 5, 2007

    Take a look at True to Our Roots by Paul Dolan (2003, Bloomberg Press). It’s chronicles the attempts made by Fetzer Vineyards to operate in a more sustainable fashion. Like most businesses that make the leap, they fall short in many places but do make significant strides in other areas. As a whole, the wine industry needs to do a better job of marketing its green initiatives so that concerned drinkers can feel better about the options available.

  15. MikeekiM - December 5, 2007

    Organic wines, for me, are the only option. Has it been just the last few years that the industry seems to have tripled the sulfate levels in the wine?

  16. Adam Stein - December 5, 2007

    Apparently this has been a problem with a lot of wines lately, particularly with screw cap.

  17. michael - December 6, 2007

    Well thankfully I have enough wine in my cellar to last me till I die…and hopefully the last bottle will be in my hand as my last rights are read.
    Water, wine, friut, vegies, pasta, beef…we consume so much from so far way. I have different idea, lets pick on corn sourced fuels…

  18. HooHah - December 10, 2007

    Yes, Oregon has fine Pinot Noirs, and Washington state also has a major wine industry with some fine wines. Possibly some other western states also do as well.

    Your statement that “those to the left [of the green line] should be getting your grapes from California” is disappointing in its inaccuracy. Why have you not corrected it?

  19. Aaron A. - December 10, 2007

    HooHah (#18) says:
    Your statement that