How to Enjoy Your Wine in a More Sustainable Way
In this moment when few of us are travelling or even going out much, many seem to be reflecting on how very unsustainable our pre-pandemic lives actually were and vowing to rethink our choices going forward. Wine, while in many ways a natural product, can also impose some very unnatural conditions on the environments where it’s grown and produced. Packaging, transport and storage all contribute further to wine’s carbon footprint.
The wine industry is quick to tout its environmental chops, with many waving “organic” or “biodynamic” banners but neglecting to mention the impacts of increased copper sulphate and tractor usage that may result (not to totally denigrate organics or biodynamics, both of which are usually net positives). Because measuring overall impact involves a series of trade-offs, greenwashing is sadly far too easy. True sustainability is also more than ecological; factors like social equity are often overlooked in an industry that relies heavily on inexpensive temporary labour.
There are a few pieces of good news for anyone who is questioning the ethics of their oenophilia. One is that the overall carbon footprint of wine, while non-negligible, is comparatively moderate––to produce the same level of carbon emissions as a one-way business class flight from HKG to SFO, you would need to drink around seven bottles of Napa cabernet daily for a year (even I don’t know anybody who loves wine that much!). The other is that many regional and national wine promotion bodies have developed holistic sustainability standards that encompass environmental, social and economic sustainability (New Zealand, California and Chile have especially successful, externally audited systems) making it easier for somebody who wants to drink conscientiously to do so without performing exhaustive research.
Beyond looking for reassuring certifications, here are a few practical, easily implementable tips to try to reduce the impact of your own habit:
1/4 Bottle Weight
According to a carbon emissions audit by Jackson Family wines, a leading proponent of emissions reduction, the glass bottle contributes the largest share of emissions to every bottle of wine. While other environmental impact factors are less apparent, bottle weight is simple to gauge. Heavier bottles can use more than twice as much glass as a standard bottle with no discernible benefit other than lending an aura of high quality. Some bottles sneakily hide their extra glass in the punt, the indent in the bottom of the bottle fetishised by certain consumers (who should probably consider talking to their therapist about this).
Pick up the bottle and if your wrist aches, consider a different one. The one place where a deeper punt is needed is on a sparkling wine bottle for distributing force across a larger surface area.
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Transport is the next largest contributor to the carbon footprint of the vast majority of wines, particularly for consumers in Asia. Figuring out the impact is not as simple as measuring the distance from origin to endpoint because different modes of transport have vastly different impacts. Air freight is the worst by a long way, followed by overland truck, then rail, then ship.
In Asia, where many wine importers are also retailers, ordering directly from an importer/retailer raises the likelihood that the wine will have passed as few stops along the way as possible. By being patient and planning ahead, you can almost avoid transporting wine from overseas by airplane (your wine will thank you too; the yoyoing temperatures in cargo holds can be murder on wine).
(Related: The Most Influential Female Wine Experts In Asia List Their Top Wine Recommendations)
For most urban dwellers in Asia, a home wine cellar is not really feasible. For those who have the space, unless great care is taken with the insulation, the energy bill and environmental impact can be astonishing. The better choice is usually to store wine in a shared facility with comparatively efficient systems and good insulation and then regularly transport about a month’s drinking supply home for storage in a wine refrigerator.
If you live in a relatively cool environment and only want a moderate amount of wine at home (no more than 24 bottles), a thermoelectric fridge can be an energy-efficient choice. For a warmer climate and a larger collection, a compressor fridge is better.
(Related: 5 Books on Wine to Help Deepen Your Knowledge at Home)
Recycling is one of those activities that many of us assume is hyper-virtuous but doesn’t necessarily live up to the hype. The challenge with glass recycling in many Asian cities is that we don’t always have a closed loop (i.e. those bottles won’t be turned into new bottles), nor do we have scope for returning wine bottles for reuse like milk bottles. However, the alternative is that glass (non-biodegradable!) ends up in landfill. The most ethical answer is therefore probably to drink fewer (but higher quality) bottles.
At the moment, most glass waste is either crushed into glass cullet (for export to countries where it can be made into new containers) or glass sand for use in construction. The former is arguably a better use of the glass, but it can only be made from unbroken bottles that can be sorted by colour.
To maximise the chances that your bottle will make the cut, rinse it, remove any metal (including screwcap O-rings and capsules) and drop it gently into the container to avoid breakage.
(Related: These Holiday-Inspired Wines Will Make You Feel Like You're on Vacation)