Mark Bult Design: San Francisco, CA, Established 1988

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

The environmental impact of the wine industry

Updated January 2009: Added link Jean-Charles Boisset’s talk at Compostmodern 08, and link to journal entry on recycling Tetra Paks.



A few weekends back I attended a conference called Compostmodern, which consisted mostly of panels and presentations about sustainability as it applies to the graphic design industry. A couple of the presentations diverged slightly from the main focus, but they were interesting nevertheless.

One such was given by Jean-Charles Boisset, president of De Loach Vineyards and Boisset Family Estates, which make a wide variety of wine and spirits under various labels, in California and France. The charismatic Boisset’s presentation was interesting on many fronts, but I was struck by some of the things I learned about the wine industry as a whole, and about his companies’ efforts in particular.

Update: Listen to Boisset’s entire talk: Download the MP3.

Impacts

The global wine industry has a tremendous impact on the environment, from production and manufacturing through transportation and marketing, and ultimately with the consumer who must deal with the resulting packaging materials. Plenty of people don’t bother to recycle (or can’t) their wine bottles, and how many of us actually know what to do with corks, other than throw them in the trash?

Wine production itself accounts for a large amount of synthetic fungicides, herbicides, and fertilizers that end up in our earth and water. Not to mention the massive amounts of water used in grape production. “Likewise, untreated waste water from winery use — hosing down barrels, tanks and buildings — can harm the ecosystems in and around rivers, lakes and ponds.” [source]

A 2006 study showed that a pound of waste is created for every bottle of wine made, including the release of 16g of sulphur dioxide into the air. According to Boisset, packaging alone accounts for a whopping 49% of the cost of every bottle of wine manufactured (including design and production of said packaging, presumably).

Biodynamics

A growing number of wineries are embracing sustainable techniques, and some — like De Loach — are making use of “biodynamics.” I had heard the term before but I didn’t really know much about it until Boisset’s presentation about how his family vineyards in France are managed. Later I browsed the De Loach website and was enthralled by the unusually detailed description of what the vineyard is doing over several years to convert the estate entirely to biodynamic production.

From the De Loach website: “Converting 22 acres of vineyards to biodynamic farming methods requires time and patience. Before planting the new vineyard at DeLoach, we are enriching the soil by letting the land lay fallow through two cover crop successions and applying specific biodynamic compost and preparations.”

“We will apply horn manure and barrel compost in the fall in order to introduce more beneficial microorganisms into the soil. Horn manure is the most widely-recognized symbol of biodynamics; [Rudolph] Steiner named it prep 500 in his original lecture. To make it, we bury a cow horn filled with cow manure into the vineyards and let it remain over winter. The horn provides nutrients to microorganisms in the soil that turn the manure into compost. The finished compost is essentially a ‘bug in a jug’, or soil inoculum, that contains microorganisms naturally adapted to the farm’s soil since that is where the compost is made. The barrel compost we will use was started in March 2005, and is a mixture of organic barley straw and clean cow manure, containing no hormones or other chemicals....”

Alternative wine packaging

I’ve long been aware of several companies’ efforts to green the wine-making process, ever since 1996 or so when I learned of Fetzer Vineyards’ use of recycled glass in their bottles and other sustainability efforts. I visited Fetzer on a trip north one year with my friend Laura Stec, a chef and environmental educator.

Another vineyard I’ve been impressed by is Bonny Doon, located in our very own Santa Cruz Mountains. They’ve pushed the industry to adopt the decidedly unsexy screw cap as a superior alternative to corks, for both environmental and freshness reasons.

Boisset, for its part, is packaging some of its wines in the even less sexy Tetra Pak, an aseptic package that you might be more familiar with from soy milk cartons. Boisset’s French Rabbit label is sold in this alternative packaging.

As others have noted, the Tetra Pak is problematic. While it is theoretically recyclable, in the U.S. there are practically no communities that accept aseptic packaging among their recyclables (update: How to recycle practically anything). According to Boisset this packaging is more recyclable in Europe, but the fact remains that the U.S. recycling economy isn’t up to speed on this packaging yet, and it may be another decade before we see its wide-spread recyclability (let’s not forget that much of the middle of the U.S. still has no municipal recycling at all).

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