Devil's Advocate: Heavy Bottles and Wine Tourism - and their Carbon Footprint

Responding to some of the feedback to his recent piece on the challenges facing wine producers looking to reduce the weight of their bottles, Robert Joseph wonders whether the focus on the carbon footprint of heavy packaging is not, in any case, distracting the wine industry's attention from some of its other environmentally-unfriendly activities.

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Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

If there are two things on which most wine people agree, it is that heavy bottles and wine tourism are what the classic book 1066 and All That would have described as respectively a Bad, and a Good, Thing.

So, what could be better than an environmentally-conscious winery welcoming lots of people, telling them its stories and allowing them to sample the wines it sells in lightweight bottles?

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the winery concerned has taken the matter of glass weight to heart and reduced the weight of its bottles by 40%. According to WRAP, who focus on such things, if one includes the energy required to manufacture and transport them, ditching the heavy bottles would cut the winery’s carbon footprint by a massive 234g per bottle. Or nearly 23 and a half tonnes a year for a winery producing 10,000 9-litre cases.

The problem of how to get there

The only problem is that this laudable effort is undermined by the people who turn up every weekend to taste and buy. If our hypothetical producer were in the Napa Valley, for example, many of its visitors would drive up from San Francisco, a round trip of around 150 miles. Now, taking Exxon’s estimate of 2,500 miles behind the wheel creating a tonne of CO2, it would only require 390 such trips to wipe out all the savings achieved with the bottles.

The 35 cars in the winery car park on a Saturday afternoon may collectively represent a couple of tonnes of CO2.

Burgundy domaines generally produce rather fewer than 10,000 cases and do not see anything like the number of visitors welcomed by their Californian counterparts, but they are part of the same scenario, and in some cases their wine tourism might have a disproportionally negative impact. The kind of wine lover who can afford to buy premiers and grands crus by the case may well begin their trip with a business class flight from the US or Japan.  A couple who jet in from Tokyo would leave a footprint of 19 tonnes before they get into their rental car at Charles de Gaulle airport and set off for Beaune. Possibly more than all the Côte d'Or vigneron's bottles create in a year.

American wine lovers often travel in groups. Three pairs of well-heeled New Yorkers visiting that same estate would have to plant enough trees to offset 54 tonnes of CO2, just to cover their flights. 

Planting a tree?

This is not a subject I often see being brought up by the wine critics who are among the most vehement enemies of heavy bottles - quite possibly because of the environmental damage they themselves do as they fly from one wine region to another.

As someone who is guilty of far too much air travel - and far too aware of the insufficiency of my own tree-planting efforts - I certainly don’t want to shame anyone else, or to suggest that any winery or wine region should put an immediate halt to wine tourism.

But maybe it’s time to look beyond overweight bottles and to acknowledge some of the other less obvious ways in which the wine industry is contributing to the climate crisis, and the challenges involved in addressing them.

One suggestion for wineries that genuinely want to be environmentally responsible while encouraging wine tourism, would be to plant a tree for every carload of visitors - and to invite them to contribute to the programme. Trees For Life calculate that six trees offset one tonne of CO2, so that winery with 35 cars in its car park following my suggestion would be four tonnes in credit. 

Tree-planting is cheaper than many people imagine. To offset my air travel, I pay Ecologi around $23 a month, which, over the last three years, has covered the cost of nearly 1,800 trees at around $1.43 apiece.

Of course, this kind of offsetting is not the solution to climate change; in the big picture, it's little better than a sticking plaster. But it's better than nothing. And if some wineries decide to do it, even at least partially, for marketing reasons, just as some have linked tree planting to the sales of their branded wines, well, they're still contributing to making the world a slightly better place.

And that has to be a Good Thing.




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