If you’ve been staying up to date with the news lately, you’ve probably heard of COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference that just took place in Glasgow. The effects of climate change, and what we can do to mitigate them, are front and center in peoples’ minds - and the wine industry is taking note. Producers from all over the world are stepping up their game by making eco-friendly, sustainably certified wines, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by using lighter packaging.
With all of these buzzwords, it’s easy to get lost. In a nutshell, sustainable wines are made by conserving resources and protecting the water, soils, and animals in and around the vineyard or winery. Sustainability is also about taking care of people, ensuring social responsibility and economic viability in the long term. And the number one way wineries can be more sustainable is by using less or lighter packaging. Wine sustainability certifications, including USDA organic and Demeter biodynamic, allow producers to signal to consumers that they take this stuff seriously.
Let’s break down what it means to make sustainable wine during the processes of grape growing, winemaking, and packaging.
To start with the obvious, making wine requires growing grapes. In this sense, wine is an agricultural commodity just like apples or potatoes. The practice of grape growing for winemaking, also known as viticulture, can be especially damaging to the environment. Grapes are finicky things - not enough water and they’ll produce shriveled fruit, too much water and they’ll be prime targets for mold. To combat these issues, many conventional winemakers will use tons of water to irrigate their fruit in dry climates like California. Along the East Coast, they’ll use fungicides and pesticides to fight mold and other grape diseases that flourish in humid climates.
Being sustainable in the vineyard is primarily about reducing environmental harm due to excessive water consumption or chemical sprays. There are many ways this can be achieved, but the main eco-friendly vineyard practices can be grouped into the following categories: sustainable, organic, and biodynamic.
While the term “sustainable” is unregulated, the wine industry has agreed on a loose definition. Sustainable winemaking takes into account the environment, the people, and the profit, placing equal weight on the health of the land and the long-term financial sustainability of the farmer.
There are lots of sustainable winemaking certifications out there, including:
Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW): This is a certification for California growers that sets standards on greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and pesticide usage. Plus, if you see this logo, grapes will be 100% Californian.
Sustainability in Practice (SIP): This certification, established in 2008, values the 3 P’s: people, planet, and prosperity. Winegrowers must create a plan for over 200 practices outlined in the SIP rulebook, including reducing packaging waste and programs for employee development and safety.
Napa Green: As the name suggests, this one is just for Napa. There are two certifications, one for the vineyard and one for the winery. Both certifications aim to reduce carbon emissions, save water, and be good neighbors to fellow Napans.
What it means for you: If you see one of these sustainable certifications, you can be sure that the wine is made by treating the environment, the workers, and their communities with care. Just keep in mind that these certifications do not prohibit certain wine additives common in winemaking, and the grapes don’t necessarily need to be grown organically.
Organic wine is made from grapes that were farmed without synthetic chemicals, the same way all organic fruits and vegetables are farmed.
In the United States, certified organic wines will have the USDA organic label - but there’s a catch. In order to carry the USDA organic label, the wine must also be made without any added sulfur, a common wine additive used to protect against oxidation and microbial spoilage. If the grapes are farmed organically but the winemaker adds sulfur to the wine, the bottle cannot carry the USDA organic label. Instead, it must be labeled as “Made with Organic Grapes.” Plus, the rules for organic wine differ between the U.S. and Europe. In Europe, they’re a little more lenient; the wine just has to be made with 95% organic materials, and low doses of sulfur are permitted.
While you may have heard that sulfites are public enemy number one, don’t fret! Wine made from organically grown grapes containing a little bit of sulfur is actually a win-win. The wine stays fresher for longer, and you can be sure that the grapes were grown with care for the environment. Plus, the notion that sulfur causes headaches is a myth. Dried fruits usually contain over 40 times the amount of sulfur as the average wine, and we don’t hear people complaining about headaches after polishing off a bag of Trader Joe’s dried mango.
What it means for you: If you do buy wine with the USDA organic label, it will be farmed without synthetic chemicals and weird additives like Mega Purple, and won’t contain any sulfur. Once you open it, drink it quickly, since there is nothing protecting it from oxidation!
Picture this: you bury cow manure in a cow horn for the winter. In the spring you dig it up and mix it with rainwater. Then you spray it on the vines, but only in the evening when it’s overcast. If the moon’s orbit around the earth is intersecting with the earth’s orbit around the sun, the vine won’t be receptive to the spray. You’ll have to wait until the stars are not aligned.
It might sound a little kooky, but the biodynamic way has gained a lot of popularity in the last decade. Biodynamic viticulture is based on the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who believed that a farm is a “single, self-sustaining organism that thrives through biodiversity, the integration of crops and livestock and the creation of a closed-loop system of fertility,” according to the Biodynamic Association.
According to Happy DIY Home, who published an extensive guide to Biodynamic Farming, "[there's] a strong focus on soil health that aims to leave the soil in better health year after year. It’s considered one of the first sustainable agriculture movements that emphasize the interrelationships between all aspects of the living farm, with a spiritual and mystical outlook embedded in its core." With a major focus on soil health, studies show biodynamic farming can create more nutrient-rich produce and a decrease in soil erosion, reduction in harmful agricultural run-off, and more CO2 capture from the air.
The most famous biodynamic certifier is called Demeter International, which offers a paid certification, just like the USDA organic logo.
What it means for you: Biodynamic wine takes organic to the next level. When you buy biodynamic wine, you can be sure the soil and vines are well tended to. Expect to pay a similar price as organic wine. Sulfur is allowed in biodynamic winemaking, but check the bottle, since some producers choose to omit it anyway.
Taking care of the grapes and the land is only part of the eco-friendly equation. Being sustainable in the wine cellar means using as little resources and creating as little waste as possible. Here are some examples of what sustainable wine companies are doing to innovate and ensure that our wine drinking habits aren’t doing unnecessary harm to the planet.
One of the biggest byproducts of wine fermentation is carbon dioxide (CO2). And we’re not talking about a little bit of CO2 here. Even in the smallest family winery, we’re talking about enough to kill you if you get stuck in the wine cellar with fermenting tanks and no ventilation. Not only is CO2 a greenhouse gas, it’s a dangerous part of winemaking.
Thankfully, some wineries have started to capture that carbon and turn it into products for reuse. In Napa Valley, Trefethen Family Vineyards has partnered with the Texas-based company Earthly Labs to repurpose and sell their CO2. Since the aftermath of Covid-19 has most things in short supply these days, there is high demand for CO2 at breweries, wineries, and even marijuana grow houses. Torres, a Spanish company, has pledged to reduce carbon emissions per bottle by 80% in 2045 compared to 2008 standards. They’re doing this by investing in a smart energy system that transforms CO2 from the fermentation process into methane to fuel the winery’s forklift trucks.
Repurposing Grape Skins
If there’s one thing French people got right, it’s drinking wine and looking beautiful while doing it. At Château Smith Haut-Lafitte in Bordeaux, France, they’re partnering with Caudalie to turn used grape solids and into skincare and makeup products. When you’re growing nearly 200 acres of fruit, you have literal tons of grape solids to discard. Rather than throwing away those rich, antioxidant-packed grape skins, Smith Haut-Lafitte has figured out how to turn them into a value-added product. It’s a win-win.
This is the number one way wineries can be more sustainable. Glass bottles filled with liquid are extremely heavy to ship. Research shows that manufacturing the glass bottles, transporting them to the winery to be filled, and then shipping those bottles to consumers is the leading source of carbon emissions in the wine industry. Clearly, the wine industry needs to start innovating in lighter, bulk packaging.
Enter boxed wines.
Boxed wines contain 4x the wine as a standard glass bottle, but have just half the carbon footprint. Most wines are meant to be consumed quickly, which means they don’t need to spend time aging in a cork-sealed bottle. According to a New York Times op-ed, if we put 97% of wines that are meant to be consumed within one year into boxes, it would be like removing 400,000 cars from the road for an entire year in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
At Really Good Boxed Wine, we’re proud to be doing our part in making the wine industry more sustainable. Our recyclable cartons contain 3 liters of wine in a single food-grade bag and are shipped in a lightweight cardboard box. Compared to traditional bottles, this reduces the packaging costs by almost 90% and the weight by 50%, making shipping wine a lot better for the environment and your wallet. Plus, we’re working with certified sustainable producers based in California, and we’re convinced this is the way all wines should be made.
Check out our available wines today to buy one of the most eco-friendly wines on the market.