Is Cheap Wine Bad for the Environment?
#EcoAdvice from our expert
Dear Dr. Donley,
I drink a lot of wine and usually end up buying bottles that are pretty cheap so I don’t break the bank. But I’ve been trying to make more environmentally friendly choices with the food that I buy, so I figure I should do the same with my drinking choices. How do I know if wine is produced sustainably?
Wow, I never thought I’d be giving advice about wine. Let’s just say that if someone gave me a glass of wine and asked whether it came from a bottle or a bag, there’s a 50 percent chance I would guess wrong. My non-discerning palate served me well as a poor college student, but I stopped going elbows-deep in the couch cushions for a bottle of Two Buck Chuck long ago for the exact reasons you mention. Although it’s becoming common for people to make sustainable choices with food, that doesn’t always translate to their vices.
Although it can vary widely, it takes more than 160 gallons of water to produce one bottle of wine. And the chemical inputs are enormous. The state of California alone uses more than 27 million pounds of pesticides on wine grapes each year. In 2016, 26,000 acres of California vineyards were sprayed with the neurotoxin chlorpyrifos, which is infamous for sickening farmworkers and causing brain damage in children. 290,000 acres were treated with neonicotinoids, which are a leading cause of pollinator declines, and nearly half a million acres were sprayed with the widely overused glyphosate (aka Roundup).
Also, popular grape growing locations like the Napa and Willamette valleys are seeing vital forest and grassland habitats destroyed so developers can plant row after row of wine grape monocultures that are impossible for rare plants and wildlife to thrive in. In Napa County alone, 500 acres of land are being converted to vineyards each year leading to habitat destruction, increased water and pesticide use and soil erosion.
As with everything these days, there’s a lot that goes into the blanket “what’s best for the environment” question. With wine you have the agricultural practices of grape cultivation, land-conversion issues with newer vineyards, the actual making of the wine and storage, packaging and labeling and, finally, transport to where the wine will be consumed. Some winemakers may excel at one or two or even most of these steps, while others fail miserably at all of them. The lack of transparency surrounding all of this means that it’s up to you to tease out the good from the bad from the ugly.
There are a few things you can look for but, as is the case with food, it’s not as easy and straightforward as it should be. When you chose “USDA organic,” you’re taking an important step toward choosing a bottle that’s better for the environment. But while this will tell you that the grapes were grown using more sustainable methods, it won’t tell you how much water was used, how much waste was produced or the carbon footprint. Wines that are certified “biodynamic” go even further than organic but are often tough to find.
While I’d love to tell you to go visit a bunch of wineries and talk to the winemakers about how they make their wines and where they source their grapes, I know it will make your eyes roll quicker than when your brother-in-law detects notes of cinnamon and cherry in that bottle he bought while vacationing in the south of France. The far easier thing is to find someone to do all that for you.
Most wine merchants are very knowledgeable about the wines they sell — not only the flavor but also the practices used to make the wine. Winemakers who go above and beyond to ensure they’re producing their product in the best way possible quickly develop a reputation, and any vintner worth his or her salt should be able to direct you to the most environmentally friendly bottle they carry. No need to go to a hoity-toity wine shop, either: Most local markets will have a wine buyer who should be able to point you in the right direction.
While there’s no reason to believe that cheap wine is necessarily worse for the environment, it’s likely that the most eco-friendly wine you buy won’t be the cheapest. If it were cheap and easy to do the right thing, everyone would be doing it. Perfect time for a New Year’s resolution: Cut your wine intake by half, and you can double the amount you spend on that eco-friendly bottle… at least until February.
Dr. Nathan Donley is a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity who answers questions about how environmental toxins affect people, wildlife and the environment. Send him your questions at AskDrDonley@biologicaldiversity.org