When most of us pop the cork on a bold bottle of red, we think about taking in those first whiffs of fruit and earth, letting it breathe and finding the right glasses in the cabinet to swirl it around in. We rarely think about whether the grapes were sustainably grown or how much recycled glass was used to manufacture the bottle. But maybe we should. Today, more and more wineries are taking a closer look at how these aspects of their industry impact the environment.
Turning grapes into wine takes a lot of time, energy and resources. A study in 2004 found that making a single bottle of wine created more than a pound of waste. Another study in 2011 found that 46 percent of the carbon footprint from a bottle of wine is in its packaging; only 32 percent is from the growing of the grapes. This means there is plenty of room for winemakers to adjust their methods to create a more eco-friendly product.
It all begins with the land
Many vineyards have turned to natural methods for growing grapes and taking care of the land the fruit is grown on. These methods are often reflected on their wine labels, though each term means something a little different.
- Organic: This means that no manmade fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides were used on the grapes and no sulfites were added to the wine. Grapes contain some sulfites naturally, however.
- Organically grown grapes: This also means that no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides were used to grow the grapes, but it means that sulfites may have been added to kill unwanted bacteria and yeast.
- Biodynamic: This is a certification earned from the not-for-profit group Demeter. It not only means that the grapes are organic, but that the vineyard used natural pest control and fertilizer obtained from its own land. The latter is important because grapes need a lot of fertilizer to grow that would otherwise have to be transported in from another farm.
Other ways vineyards can take better care of their land include allowing animals do what they do best. Navarro Vineyards in Philo, Calif., uses a flock of sheep as natural lawnmowers to eat weeds and other plants between the rows of grapes. The sheep don't compact the ground and their waste provides nutrients for the soil.
Honig Vineyard and Winery in Rutherford, Calif., uses trained golden retrievers to sniff out vine mealybugs, a hard-to-detect invasive species that feeds on the vines. The dogs sniff out the females' pheromones so individual plants can be targeted instead of a whole crop. Honig also sets out perches and boxes for hawks, owls, bluebirds and bats so the creatures can nest in the vineyards. Owls and hawks keep the rodent population in check, while the bats and bluebirds take care of ridding the vines of insects.
Better buildings make for cleaner operations
Vineyards are essentially farms – they have big buildings, they use heavy equipment and they require a lot of energy. Some wineries have gone to great lengths to reduce the impact of their day-to-day operations.
Hall St. Helena in Napa Valley was the first winery in California to obtain Gold LEED certification and it gives tours of its production facility to help educate visitors on green construction and winemaking methods. Its cellars are topped with solar panels, its large spaces have radiant flooring that use water to keep the temperature steady and it cuts water use by recycling all its used water.
Another Gold LEED-certified winery is Oregon's Stroller Family Estate, which was the country's first winery to earn that certification in 2006. It uses gravity to move wine from tank to tank rather than electric pumps to save energy. Its tasting room is made almost entirely of reclaimed wood, much of it from a nearby forest ravaged by fire.
Many vineyards have embraced solar power, but none more so than Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg, Calif. It is powered by the largest solar array in the wine industry – 4,032 solar panels that produce 766 kilowatts. Parducci Wine Cellars in Mendocino, Calif., says it is 100 percent carbon neutral, generating its own solar energy and purchasing carbon offsets. It also uses biodiesel for its farm vehicles, composts waste and recycles water on-site.
Smarter packaging makes a big difference
Almost half the environmental impact from a bottle of wine is in the packaging, namely the bottle. That's one reason there has been a resurgence of boxed wine as well as more wine introduced in Tetra Paks. These mostly paper containers use 92 percent less packaging and 54 percent less energy than wine bottles throughout their life and produce 80 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than bottles.
DeLoach Vineyards in Sonoma County in California uses Tetra Paks, along with aluminum bottles and recyclable cardboard containers, to reduce packaging costs as well as transportation costs. The vineyard was also a pioneer in replacing corks with screw caps to help eliminate waste from cork failures.
The Benziger Family Winery, also in Sonoma County, has reduced bottling costs by lightening the weight of its bottles by 30 percent as well as adding recycled glass to the manufacturing process. It uses recycled paper and soy-based inks for its labels, too.
Making strides on transportation
Wine bottles are heavy and fragile, so transporting them can be costly. This is one area where consumers can choose wisely by looking for wines that have traveled the shortest distance and by the most eco-friendly means. Choose wines that have been transported mostly by sea rather than by air or truck. This means if you live in the Eastern U.S., a bottle of wine from France actually uses less energy to get to you than a bottle from California. Also, don't be afraid to try local wines. Just about every state has a wine industry, and taste tests have proven that many from the East Coast rival those from the West.