Big Wine & Global Warming

by Darwin Bond-Graham on Jul 21st, 2011

Mendocino County’s wineries have been among the most aggressive in branding themselves, and the rest of the haute alcohol industry, as ecologically sustainable. They’ve been successful enough so far that the ubiquitous vineyards dotting hillsides and carpeting valley floors, and the enormous stocks of fine vino lining store shelves receive little to no scrutiny from many who otherwise consider themselves environmentally conscious.

polar bear with wine imageThe Anderson Valley’s vineyards and wine shops are among the most prominent in obtaining and advertising their environmental bona fides. For example, Goldeneye winery is certified “LEED Gold” by the US Green Building Council. Or take Cakebread Cellar’s Anderson Creek vineyard north of Boonville. Like other grape plantations in the valley, Cakebread’s vines have been certified a “Fish Friendly Farm” by the private California Land Stewardship Institute. It’s a “voluntary, self-directed compliance program,” according to that organization’s website, for whatever that’s worth. The entirety of Mendocino County has even been deemed “America’s greenest wine region” by Visit Mendocino County, Inc., a private tourism lobby run by the Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission and various local chambers of commerce (with $300,000 generously contributed by Mendocino County). They apparently even trademarked the phrase.

Yet for all the attempts to project an image of stewardship, there is no escaping the fact that so much vineyard acreage, no matter how golden or fish friendly it may seem, is exacting a harsh toll on the region’s rivers and forestlands, causing soil erosion, loss of habitat, and sucking watersheds and aquifers dry. Will Parrish’s recent series, and other coverage in this newspaper, has revealed the scale of the industry, its resource requirements, geographic footprint, and detailed the various agricultural techniques used to grow grapes, all of which are simply bad for the environment.

As if this weren’t enough, there’s an even more systemic environmental problem that won’t be overcome, no matter how many vineyards convert to organic, bio-intensive, or some other regime of “sustainable” practices: carbon emissions. Premium wine, it turns out, is a very carbon intensive commodity to produce, and even more so to market.

Greenhouse gas emissions are produced at various stages of planting and tending grapevine acreage. First of all, there’s the tradeoff of using land that could otherwise grow trees — which are tremendous carbon sinks — to grow vines that store virtually no significant CO2 themselves. This is especially true in Mendocino County where the largest trees on earth grow across much of the land area and need only to be left alone to flourish. Then there are the petroleum inputs associated with farming. This includes tractors and other heavy equipment, transport of materials and crops, transport of field workers, etc. On top of these field sources of carbon emissions, which are shared by pretty much any other crop, from soybeans to garlic, there is another that is unique to wine. Wine grapes are, after all, not a finished agricultural product. After being plucked from the vine, they must undergo one extra biological process before making it to market.

When grapes are crushed and yeast begins fermenting the sugars to produce alcohol, these microorganisms also produce CO2 as a byproduct. Much of this CO2 escapes the wine into the atmosphere. In fact some of this escaping CO2, heavier than the air around it, blankets the tops of fermentation tanks, preventing wine from oxidizing. Winemakers have known about and relied on this process for thousands of years to keep their product fresh. Even this blanket eventually dissipates into the air though, adding to the global atmospheric stock of the single most important and dangerous cause of planetary climate change. Furthermore, being the industrial processors they are, wineries today purchase CO2 by the tank-load for use as a anti-oxidant in later stages of the manufacturing process, when the wine batch produces too little of the gas on its own.

A better world for nothing?If the irony or weirdness of all of this is lost on you, then allow me to spell it out: the primary byproduct of the favorite drink of so many self-proclaimed environmentalists and conservationists is carbon dioxide, or “yeast farts” — the primary cause of climate change. All the wealth, energy, and prestige endowed in wine, winemaking, and wine connoisseurship is rather bizarre given that it literally involves nothing more sophisticated than humans initiating a feeding frenzy of trillions of Saccharomyces cerevisiae so that these same humans might then imbibe one of the two waste streams to get high.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy an alcoholic beverage every now and then myself, or that I don’t appreciate the wonder of what’s happening biologically in fermentation. Rather, it’s the contrived image of the elegant, cosmopolitan wine aficionado, especially the sort dominant in the greenwashed Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino scenes, that strikes me as absurd. What is so absolutely elegant and sophisticated about catalyzing huge emission cycles of CO2, and drinking the leftover ethanol, and furthermore being so obsessed with this ritual as to dedicate the majority of arable land and huge flows of water in places like Mendocino to it?

Just how much CO2 does wine fermentation emit? It depends if it’s red or white grapes because each has a different sugar content, or degrees brix, the dissolved sucrose in the grape juice. It depends still again on the specifics of the fermentation process of different wineries. Whatever these details, the basics are as follows: each single molecule of sugar, when broken down by the yeast, turns into two molecules of ethanol, and two molecules of CO2. On way to think about this is that a wine’s carbon emissions are roughly equivalent to its alcohol content (roughly because a tiny amount of ethanol is lost through evaporation).

Various calculations have been done to put exact figures on the global wine industry’s CO2 emissions. Tyler Coleman and Pablo Päster, two economists who have tried to calculate wine’s total carbon footprint, have estimated that 1 liter of grape juice at 22 brix (about average for wine grapes) undergoing fermentation will release 107 grams of CO2. A typical wine bottle is .75 liters, thus a bottle of wine is responsible for about 80 grams of CO2 released into the atmosphere through fermentation.

Multiply that by the number of wine bottles sold and you get some idea of wine’s CO2 emissions from fermentation. According to the Wine Institute, California produced 199.6 million cases of vino last year. That’s equivalent to 2.3 billion bottles, which is equivalent to 211,000 tons of CO2 emissions from fermentation alone.

To put this in perspective, let’s look at an analysis of Fort Bragg’s carbon emissions calculated in 2006 by Cities for Climate Protection. That year the roughly 7,000 residents of Fort Bragg, in driving their cars and trucks, lighting and heating their homes, and powering their workplaces, generated about 152,000 tons of CO2 emissions. CO2 emissions from wine fermentation are obviously not trivial then.

Aware of wine fermentation’s status as a greenhouse gas pollution source, an advisory group to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors on energy issues recommended several years ago that the county’s general plan should be amended to “encourage wineries to develop methods to capture the CO2 emitted from fermentation and to sequester that which is captured.” The Board and its planning staff chose to pass the buck instead to the Air Quality Management District, and nothing has been done by local government. Wineries, however, have been keen to talk about CO2 emissions when it can be incorporated into their advertising and PR. Parducci Winery, for example, sells all of its wines under a “sustainable” moniker and claims to be the “1st carbon neutral winery in the US.” Much of the company’s website is dedicated entirely to advertising the Parducci brand and operations as eco-friendly, and no aspect of the company’s public image lacks for green gloss. One of the more absurd examples of Parducci’s climate PR is a short video entitled “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Top Turn-Ons.” Yes, that’s turn-ons, as in sexually arousing fetishes, which for the former Governor are women and wine, we are told. The video depicts Schwarzenegger presenting a Parducci executive, who just so happens to be a woman, with the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award. It concludes with triumphal music and a subtitle announcing: “Parducci — sexy green.” (google Schwarzenegger’s Top Turn Ons)

A “Wine Industry Greenhouse Gas Calculator” created by the Australian consulting firm Provisor for the Wine Institute of California and its industry counterparts in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, has been developed and can be used to comprehensively determine greenhouse gas emissions from specific vineyards and wineries. Interestingly CO2 emissions from fermentation are calculated in the Provisor application, but not reported through this tool because, according to its creators, “fermentation is part of the ‘short-term carbon cycle,’ and is not considered to contribute to global warming.”

In other words, grape plantations sequester carbon from the atmosphere when they leaf out and fruit. That carbon is quickly released again via fermentation and fall pruning, and then recaptured in next year’s growth. This can be taken to mean that grape growing and fermentation is essentially a carbon neutral cycle, or can be made into such through the kinds of fancy organic methods Mendocino’s wineries are keenly promoting. What’s implied here is that if wineries install solar panels, and use sheep to keep the weeds down and fertilize the rows, then all will be well since fermentation balances out. The industry has already convinced itself and its technical consultants, and mostly sold government regulators on this logic.

The problem with trying to claim that vineyards and winemaking are carbon neutral, or can be made carbon neutral, is that the vast majority of California’s grape alcohol plantations were established after 1970. According to data gathered by Sonoma County’s Agricultural Commissioner, plantings of Pinot Noir in Sonoma County exploded from just several hundred acres in 1970 to upwards of 10,000 acres by 2005. In the same period plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon shot up from 1000 acres to more than 12,000. Most other varietals followed similar trajectories in the overall rush to fill former orchards and forestlands with grapes. While not at the level of its southern neighbor to convert forests and pastures into grape plantations, Mendocino County’s rush to stick grapes in every nook and cranny has been remarkably aggressive also. Winegrape plantations now sprawl across about 60,000 acres in Sonoma County. Mendocino County is planted with 16,600 acres, according to its 2010 crop report.

Conversion of forestlands to vineyards, such as that which is being proposed by Premier Pacific Vineyards at its 20,000 acre “Preservation Ranch” site, releases huge amounts of stored greenhouse gases. One of the worst aspects of the recent boom in winegrape planting is that many of the newest vineyards are being established on hillsides and mountaintops, in search of the perfect marginal soils and climatic exposures for trendy varietals, but requiring removal of much existing biomass. Forest ecosystems which can lock away huge and increasing amounts of carbon each year are thereby being destroyed, causing a one-time release of massive CO2 stores. These sinks are then replaced with mono-crop plantings that have no comparable capacity to sequester carbon, merely cycling smaller quantities through the chain of premium vintage which begins with grapes on the vine and ends in the tipsy urine streams of affluent, image conscious consumers. In a paper written for the American Association of Wine Economists in 2007, Coleman and Päster explain:

“While many French vineyards have been established for hundreds of years [and it should be added were planted without the benefit of the industrial timber cutting and earth moving machinery being used today in Mendocino], vineyards in other countries, such as in the Napa Valley of California, are being established on recently forested land. An increase in demand for California wines has meant that some crop fields are also converted for grape cultivation. Due to the increase in global demand for wine, new crop is being planted on land that was previously used otherwise in a natural state. Much of this land is being converted from prime agricultural land or from forest. Such a land-use change can decrease that parcel’s ability to sequester CO2 and the burning or decay of the removed biomass contributes CO2 and CH4 [methane] to the atmosphere.”

When all things are taken into account, CO2 emissions from fermentation actually comprise a minuscule portion of wine’s overall carbon footprint. Coleman and Päster again pointed out that “the CO2 emitted during fermentation represents less than 3% (around 100 g) of the overall CO2 emissions resulting from the production and delivery of one bottle of wine.” Even deforestation and changes in land use account for only a small fraction of the wine industry’s carbon emissions.

The most intensive CO2 emissions source in the wine industry is actually the transportation and marketing of wine. It’s the wine tasters arriving in their BMWs and Volvos to sip Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay in cozy tasting rooms. And it’s the marketing of premium and discount wines in a globalized marketplace that burns the most fuel, emits by far the majority of greenhouse gases, and is on balance the most wasteful part of the whole.

Paradoxically the image of North Coast wine as a special, premium product crafted in an earth-friendly fashion, and having a special value, a value based in part on the provinciality of the winery and vineyard’s supposed environmental credentials, is part of a marketing strategy used by Mendocino’s wineries to cleave a larger market share in distant US and foreign cities. Wine buyers in Tokyo, New York, London, and Shanghai, seeking that self-congratulatory sense of sophisticated élan, often grab a California estate bottle from their local shop’s shelves, in large part because it comes from a supposedly environmentally sustainable winery. This profound contradiction is at the very heart of the North Coast wine industry today. Positioning itself as a green or sustainable enterprise may very well be an actual goal pursued by some honest vineyard owners and vintners, but mostly it is a marketing strategy to create a global demand for California’s finest.

The Wine Institute is unambiguous when presenting export figures and describing the bigger profits to be fetched by marketing California’s “green” wines on a global scale: “In 2010, US wine exports, 90% from California, jumped 25.6% in value to an estimated $1.14 billion in winery revenues,” explains the Institute in a press release earlier this year. According to Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a wine consulting group that works with the Wine Institute, California’s biggest markets include the EU, Hong Kong, Japan, and China.

It takes a lot of fuel to ship $116 million worth of wine to Hong Kong, and half a billion dollars worth to Europe. Carbon emissions from this trade dwarf anything caused by winegrape cultivation or winemaking, and make wine, regardless of whether it’s produced by “fish friendly” or “LEED certified” operations, an enormously polluting luxury.