Consumers Contribute to Wine Footprint

Nova Scotia researcher reports a trip to the wine shop can double a bottle's environmental impact

by Peter Mitham
Carbon Footprint
Emma Point studied wine's environmental impact for her master's thesis, and discovered that a mere 3-mile jaunt to the wine shop nearly doubles a bottle's footprint.
Halifax, Nova Scotia -- One of the single biggest contributors to the environmental impact of wine--at least in Atlantic Canada--is the purchase of the wine itself by consumers. That's one of the conclusions reached by Emma Point, a postgraduate student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as part of an analysis of the environmental impacts of producing and consuming a 750ml bottle of Nova Scotia wine produced in 2006.

Assuming the average consumer might make a roundtrip of 5 kilometers (3 miles) in a car to pick up a bottle of local wine, Point determined that up to half the environmental impact occurs during the purchase and transport of the wine by the consumer.

"In the Nova Scotia context, a consumer driving to purchase her wine even a short distance like 5 kilometers can strongly increase wine's overall lifecycle impacts," Point told Wines & Vines. "The emissions from the car alone in many of the impact categories are almost half of all the impacts of wine's lifecycle--most specifically in contributions to global warming and ozone depletion."

The analysis took into account local viticultural practices, the production and transport of vineyard inputs, winemaking processes, bottle manufacture, the transport of bottles to the winery, transportation of the finished product to retail and then the consumer's purchase of the finished bottle of wine. Chilling the wine at home and recycling of the empty bottle were also taken into account.

Various kinds of environmental impacts were measured, including the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions, smog creation, and emissions contributing to watercourse acidification and eutropification, a phenomenon that eliminates oxygen and creates dead zones in water bodies.

Besides the consumer's purchase of the wine, vineyard practices and bottle production are two other key areas that boost the environmental impact of Nova Scotia wine. Supported in part by a grant from the Grape Growers' Association of Nova Scotia, Point's work promises to help the local wine industry make an argument for focusing efforts to reduce its environmental impact.

Reducing electricity or fuel use may seem like an obvious target for wineries seeking to improve their environmental footprint, but Point's work suggests otherwise. She suggested that it would be better to direct efforts to managing nutrients--both manure and chemical fertilizers--and sourcing bottles from manufacturers in regions using renewable energy (hydro, for example, rather than fossil fuels).

While wineries can't control how consumers buy wine, winemaker Bruce Ewert of L'Acadie Vineyards in the Gaspereau Valley believes Point's results could encourage wineries to choose sales strategies designed to shorten the distance between wine and consumers. Many wineries already engage in local promotions designed to attract both visitors to the area and local residents to wine shops, but Point's work backs up the importance of these strategies.

"If it's not happening, it's going to happen, and it's something we should focus on," Ewert said.

A participant in Point's study and an organic operator, Ewert said the final results of the study will help him improve his commitment to low-impact viticulture and sustainable production practices.

The variables--such as shipping, the scale of the industry and other factors--mean the results of Point's work aren't necessarily transferable to other wine-producing regions. Still, her research highlights the fact that the environmental impact of wine depends on a range of factors that complicate the definition of sustainable winemaking.

Indeed, Point, a master's candidate in environmental studies, pursued the project because she was having trouble understanding what exactly made food production and distribution sustainable.

"Organic is the big thing, and local is a huge thing and everyone's jumping on these bandwagons," she said. "But then I was also coming across literature that was saying not in all cases is organic the better option, because one of the biggest reasons for that is that organic will sometimes give a lot lower yields. And in some cases local is not always the best thing if the overseas production system is actually much more efficient."

The questions led to her thesis research, which she eventually hopes to publish. She plans to complete and defend her thesis by the end of the year. In the meantime, she and her partner are moving to British Columbia, where she hopes to apply her knowledge and skills in the Pacific Northwest food industry.
Posted on 09.11.2008 - 12:59:53 PST
The obvious conclusion to this article is that all states, provinces, or other local jurisdictions that don't already allow wine to be sold in supermarkets and food stores should amend their regulations to do so, for the sake of the environment if not for the convenience of the consumer.
Fresno, CA USA

Posted on 09.11.2008 - 13:05:47 PST
This would suggest that one can easily reduce one's "footprint" by buying wine by the case!
Los Angeles, CA USA