How to Go Green: Wine

how to go green wine bottle photo

Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan/Creative Commons

Ever since the days of Julius Caesar, wine has been big business-last year, California alone sold 554 million gallons at home and abroad. But back when Caesar and his men were toasting their latest military victory they weren't thinking about the ecological effects of that 100-B.C. vintage--because they didn't have to. Their vineyards weren't maintained with the same chemicals and pesticides that most modern wineries use; organic growing just came naturally.

These days, you'll have to look a little harder to find a wine that's not synthetically manipulated in any way, whether by man-made fertilizers, pest deterrents, or chemical-laden bottling processes. But even though they're hard to find, they're out there: more and more winegrowers are producing organic grapes using low-impact and biodynamic viticulture procedures, and upping the sustainability of their properties by controlling erosion, irrigation, and fertilization with the long-term health of the earth--not just their crops--in mind.

Still other vineyards are cutting back on their consumption and packaging-decreasing their wine's carbon footprint-while small, local wineries offer neighborhood customers an energy efficient alternative to vintages shipped from overseas. So whether you're looking for that perfect birthday-party chardonnay or just a merlot for sipping after a busy week, it's easier than ever to green your reds and whites.

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Top Green Wine Tips

  1. Start with organic ingredients
    The first step toward making an organic wine is growing organic grapes--which means no pesticides, chemical sprays, or forced growing processes. The root of all of this is the soil, of course, where animal manure and other natural fertilizers take the place of chemicals, and native predators (instead of pesticides) are allowed to defend the plants against mites and disease. Instead of lethal weed-killers, non-vine plants are allowed to grow around the grape plants--but then are trimmed and allowed to rot back into the earth as more fertilizer.

  2. Follow Mother Nature's lead
    The practice of biodynamic growing--developed by Dr. Rudolph Steiner in 1924--takes into account not just what you add (or don't add) to the soil and crops, but also the ways in which ecology ties into the movement of the moon, sun, and planets. Demeter USA--the current certification body for biodynamic farms--explains the process as one that lets the farm be as close as possible to its natural wilderness state; there's as little interruption as possible by humans, leading to a carbon footprint that's a fraction the size of other methods. Planting, sowing, spraying, and fertilizing are also done according to the natural rhythms of light and climate.

  3. Respect the land
    Sustainable wineries take steps that go beyond cutting back on paper and recycling glass: their main priority is keeping the land in good enough shape that it can support future generations of viticulture. Along with organic growing procedures, this means fertilizing only when necessary (instead of on a steady schedule); cutting back on erosion by planting cover crops and avoiding tilling; and staying on top of the soil's moisture to avoid over-irrigation.

  4. Pay attention to the process
    A vineyard may go to a lot of trouble to grow organic grapes, but that doesn't mean the finished product is organic; a winery that adds sulfites as preservatives can't be labeled organic under the USDA regulations. Watch out for labels that claim their product is "sulfite free"; small levels of sulfites are a natural part of the fermentation process and are unavoidable.

  5. Don't assume it's vegan

    Vegan wine sounds like a non-issue: it's made from grapes, so as long as you're not pairing that merlot with a steak, you're in the clear. But according to PETA, filtering the wine--to strain out protein, yeast, cloudiness, and other natural by-products--often means using animal-based fining agents, like egg albumen, gelatin, isinglass from fish bladder, and bone marrow. Vegan wines, on the other hand, use carbon, limestone, silica gel, and other non-animal products for equally smooth end results.

  6. Check for certification
    To be really sure you're popping open a bottle that lines up with your ecological morals, scan the label. Note the difference between "organic"--which means the wine is made with organic grapes and no added sulfites--and "made from organically grown grapes" (which means only the former is true). Other certification bodies--like French groups ECOCERT and BIOFRANC--govern wines from other countries. And an increasing number of wineries in Oregon are certified as sustainable by LIVE (Low Impact Viticulture and Enology), which grades growers on their plant protection, monitoring, and biodiversity methods.

  7. Get out your map
    Whether you're eyeing up the organic or biodynamic offerings at the wine store, remember: the benefits of eating locally apply to drinking locally, too. Supporting a local vineyard may be nearly impossible for folks who don't live in wine-growing regions, but on the West and East Coast, it might be just as green to choose a cabernet or pinot grigio that came from within 100 miles of your home. Smaller wineries tend to have smaller carbon footprints, too--and just imagine the carbon offsets you'd have to purchase to break even on that South African chardonnay.

  8. Think of the bigger picture
    A lot of energy goes into keeping a vineyard up and running--especially if you're looking at a wine from a region not native to grapes. The American Association of Wine Economists publication on wine's carbon footprint (pdf) shows that organic farms produce less greenhouse gas than their eco-harsh counterparts; though not by much, every little bit helps. And for U.S. wine drinkers, there's a sort of Mason-Dixon line that starts at the top of Ohio and runs through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana before ending on the west coast of Texas: west of the line, it's more energy efficient to get your wine from California; east of the division, stick with France (or, even better: New York).

  9. Consider the bottle (or box)
    Less packaging means less waste on the consumer's end, but also more efficient shipping: Magnums are better than regular or half-sized bottles, since there's a higher wine-to-glass ratio, and shipping wine in bulk to be bottled closer to the distributor cuts the carbon footprint even more. Tetrapaks like those used by French Rabbit are 100 percent recyclable and reduce packaging by 90 percent-and keep wine sheltered from the air long enough to have a shelf life competitive with screw tops. (Next up: an aluminum bottle that turns blue when properly chilled).

  10. Support green wineries
    Becoming an organic producer comes with plenty of hard work, both from the costs and time involved. Even wineries that aren't bottling an organic product can green their operations by sterilizing barrels with ozone systems instead of chemicals, reducing water waste during cleaning, using vacuum pumps during bottling, installing solar panels, and converting unusable wine into vinegar. California's Bay Area Green Business Program offers a list of all wineries that are reducing their consumption and energy use.

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Green Wine: By the Numbers

  • 529,000: Acres of land in California devoted to the state's 2,275 wineries.

  • 28: Wineries certified by CCOF as of November 2007.

  • 9,240: Acres of vineyard owned by those 28 wineries (a 10.4 percent increase from 2006).

  • 105: Wineries, vineyards, and traders certified biodynamic (or in the process of becoming so) by Demeter.

  • 2,258: Acres certified as sustainable by LIVE, Inc as of June 2005.

  • $80 million: Sales of organic wine in the U.S. in 2005.

  • 17: Percent that organic wine sales are expected to grow in 2008.

  • 3: Years it takes a vineyard to become certified as organic.

  • 10: Percent that production costs increase, on average, when a winery becomes organic.

Sources: California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, CCOF, Organic Wine Journal, L.I.V.E., Inc, Organic Consumers, Wine Business Monthly.

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Green Wine: Getting Techie

Biodynamic agriculture
It sounds more magical than material at first, but when you look a little deeper, biodynamic farming makes a lot of sense: it's organic gone one step further. Winemakers maintaining their lands via biodynamic processes take into account the Earth's rhythms when planting, spraying, harvesting, and making the wine; for example, they'll remove sediment from the wine during a descending moon to take advantage of the gravitational pull for a cleaner product and stronger scent. They also attempt to make each farm self-sustainable and balanced by, for example, letting natural predators take care of insects instead of using pesticide.

Sulfites have gotten a bad rap in the last few years; they're blamed for causing headaches?and sometime severe reactions?in the approximately 1 percent of the population that's allergic to them, but they're also a naturally-occurring food preservative that shows up in everything from eggs to dried apricots to?yep?grapes. But they've also, for centuries, been added in small quantities to wine to help it keep its color and flavor. The legal limit for sulfites in wine is 350 ppm (parts per million) though most clock in at under 150 ppm; wines without added sulfites often have 5-15 ppm.

USDA Organic certification
Wines with sulfites levels of more than 10 ppm are required to be labeled "contains sulfites," while wines with any added sulfites?no matter the quantity?can be qualified only as "made from organic grapes" or "made from organically grown grapes." Preventing the addition of sulfites has some winemakers worried that the uneven quality of wines without preservatives will hurt the industry by giving consumers a skewed idea of how good organic wine can taste; the Organic Wine Company points out that even with 100 ppm of sulfite, wine made with organic processes and grapes is still 99.9 percent organic.

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Where to Get Green Wine

Use the Winery Locator by State to find a winery or vineyard local to you.
The Organic Wine Company
Shopper's Vineyard
Organic Vintners
Organic Wine Company
Eco-Wine Monthly Club
French Wine Online
Organic Vintages
Stores and Wineries
Appellation Wine and Spirits
Frey Vineyards (Organic and Biodynamic)
Hallcrest Vineyards
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Green Wine: From the Archives

Dig deeper into green wine with these articles and resources from the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.

We found the best organic cabernet from five different continents - and five more with domestic shipping costs.

TreeHugger TV takes you behind the scenes with organic and biodynamic wines, while How Does Organic Winemaking Work gives you the lowdown on production.
Check Your Wine Labels details what to watch out for when buying, but you can skip the guesswork with Worry-Free Wines--then read about the difficulties that winemaker Robert Sinskey has with labeling his wine "organic".

Ready to hit the shelves? Find out how to choose an eco-friendly wine, and stock up for summer with these six picks. Run down the pros and cons of bottled vs. boxed vino, and check out these green brands. And for more green drinking ideas, check out Bask in the Warm Glow of Wine, Without Warming the Globe and Uncork Some Green Wine.

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Further Reading on Green Wine

HowStuff works has the goods on viticulture, how to taste wine, and how organic certification works.

Study up on the history of organic wine certification at the Organic Consumers Association, and on the principles of organic growing with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture.

For more specifics about biodynamic certification, head over to Demeter USA, and for questions about the planting process, turn to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association.

The Wine Institute offers more information on California's Sustainable Winegrowing Program.

Trying to get your own wine certified? Find requirements for the USDA's National Organic Program, California Certified Organic Farmers, and ECOCERT.

Calculate your favorite blend's carbon footprint with Dr. Vino and find a green alternative with articles, news, and reviews at the Organic Wine Journal.

And don't miss Plant Green's Buy Green: Organic Cabernet Sauvignon.

How to Go Green: Wine
Ever since the days of Julius Caesar, wine has been big business-last year, California alone sold 554 million gallons at home and abroad. But back when Caesar and his men were toasting their latest