Fair trade and the complicated ethics of buying wine from elsewhere

My October article for Palate Press asks: “how fair is fair-trade wine?” Data exist to help answer that question, though the data are always partial, imperfect, and from a particular point of view. Other data could point to different conclusions. The data I looked at point to some of the structures of fair-trade wine and say that they’re not doing the things that ethically-minded consumers would hope or expect them to be doing.

It’s easy to think that the wine industry isn’t like growing sugarcane or coffee or rubber. I mean, most people at most wineries are pretty well off. Some are millionaires who live in mansions and sit in the front row during Paris fashion week. If you know any winemakers or vineyard managers, they’re probably comfortably middle-class people, better if you’re in a ritzy neighborhood. But the parallels are numerous once you start looking for them. Wine isn’t known for abusing child labor, but Mexican vineyard laborers working in California routinely faint from heat exhaustion, common vineyard chemicals threaten worker health (even in heavily regulated countries like France), and “employees” are often contract workers with inconsistent incomes and poor working conditions. Many operations take excellent care of their vineyard crews*, employ a year-round team, provide job security and treat their folk with dignity, but that sort of thing isn’t universal. Fair trade’s point is that enough vineyard workers in South Africa, Argentina, and Chile (where the program is active) are bad enough off to warrant an intervention in the name of social welfare. The point of the study I describe is that fair trade has a good point, but hasn’t created an intervention that does much good.

The obvious question at the end of that whole discussion is: if I’m a wine consumer who cares about what my money does in the world, if I buy free-range chicken and organic kale and go to the farmer’s market, what should I look for when I buy wine? One easy, obvious answer is to buy local. When you’ve been to the winery and know the people who work there, it’s easier to know what you’re supporting. But that solution begs the question: if all of the free-range chicken- and organic kale-eating people buy their chardonnay from their sustainability-minded regional wineries – and maybe if the people eating pasta and canned tomato sauce from the grocery store start doing the same thing – what happens to the Argentinian wine industry? Do all of those workers end up worse off because they end up out of a job?

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Wine’s environmental impact: the bottle hits hard (but so does the fertilizer)

The book The 100-Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon opens with a glorious British Columbia meal made entirely from ingredients grown outside the door of an isolated cabin in the woods. Except the wine. The wine is from Australia.

Locavorism and the sustainable food culture has long since turned its gaze — and its mouth — to drinkables, with the Drink Local movement and a plethora of sustainable wine associations and alliances and the wine selection at Whole Foods attesting to its success. If you don’t care about the earth-friendliness of your wine, you at least know that there are people who do care.

A lot of environmentalist action seems intuitive. It took more energy to convey a Sangiovese from Umbria to my table than this bottle of Washington Carménère that I picked up from the winery on my way home from grocery shopping last Saturday. And I’m better off buying this bunch of organic radishes from the lady who grew them at the community farmers’ market than industrial radishes from a massive farm in Mexico. Duh. But decisions about wine are rarely so obvious, mostly because the vast majority of wine lovers are unsatisfied with the prospect of only drinking local wines. Like the 100- or 50- or 10- mile diet — a regimen of eating only foods produced within a limited radius of their kitchens — it can be done, but not without missing things like coffee and chocolate and pepper and olive oil and rice…and Australian Shiraz, evidently. It’s telling that so many farm-to-table restaurants still serve primarily non-local wines.

What’s a savvy, environmentally-conscious oenophile to do? Data to the rescue.

A number of studies — more than a number, really — have examined the environmental impact of pieces of the winemaking process or elements that contribute to shipping a final bottle, mostly in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. A few have looked at the entire winemaking process, but generalized for an imaginary average wine from a particular region. Fusi, Guidetti, and Benedetto aimed for a more specific and precise picture by performing a complete life cycle analysis — from “cradle” with planting the winery to “grave” with bottle disposal — of a single wine: a Sardinian Vermentino made by Sella and Mosca, the area’s largest producer. A life cycle analysis (LCA), considered the gold standard for evaluating a product’s impact, tracks a product from creation through to distribution (cradle to gate, a partial LCA) or disposal (cradle to grave, a complete LCA) and sums the impact of everything that goes into making that product. It also considers multiple forms of environmental impact beyond just CO2 emissions to potential acid rain production, eutrophication (dumping nutrients into water, causing algae blooms and disrupting the ecosystem), ozone depletion, water use, and so forth.

Smith and MacKinnon found that their simple-seeming 100-mile diet became a lot more complicated when they considered everything that went into food production. If the cow down the street in Illinois is being raised on grain grown in Washington, is the cow’s milk still part of a 100-mile diet on the street in Illinois? The number of fiddly little inputs — the lubricating oil used on the tractor used to help plant the vines, for example — that contribute to Fusi and company’s analysis is impressive. The list of different types of emissions they considered, to soil, to water, and to air, at every stage of vine planting and growing and winemaking, is impressive and moderately unpronouncable. The authors had to make some assumptions when precise data just wasn’t available — how much of the electricity used by the entire winery could be attributed specifically to the production of the Vermentino, for example — but they do seem to have been thorough.

Results confirmed what we already know from other studies, but they serve as both a good confirmation and a good reminder.

First: glass bottles are the most significant source of a wine’s environmental impact in every regard save ozone depletion. Machinery that goes into maintaining the vineyard wins in causing ozone depletion.

Second: What the authors call “the agricultural phase” — the work of planting and maintaining the vineyard before grapes are harvested and winemaking begins — is a major contributor to use of fossil fuels, water pollution, global warming potential, and ozone depletion. Maintaining the vines caused more harm in most categories than planting them, but vine planting still accounted for a third or more of the overall impact of the agricultural phase almost entirely because of diesel fuel used to prepare the land and lay down trellises. More ozone depletion was caused by the production of fertilizers used in the vineyard than by any other component of the winemaking process.

And this is at a winery that has won awards for its environmentally friendly practices. A similar LCA of a Portuguese vinho verde (made at a winery with presumably less scrupulous vineyard practices) and an imaginary average white from Ribeiro showed that agricultural inputs — essentially fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery — were the number one cause of environmental impact in every category.

Third: What about distribution? Shipping the wine from Sardinia to the US was a major source of potential acid rain production, and a smaller but still significant source of other types of pollution. Shipping the wine from Sardinia to anywhere else in Italy never accounted for more than 5% of any impact measure. Shipping to the rest of Europe landed somewhere in the middle.

The most important ways in which the average wine is hurting the environment? Making the glass bottle, diesel used to prep and maintain the vineyard, fertilizer production, and shipping the bottle overseas if it needs to go that far to get to you.

The ramifications in practical terms for that savvy, environmentally-conscious oenophile: favor wineries practicing low-input viticulture, especially those eschewing synthetic fertilizers and using horses instead of diesel. Take advantage of wine on tap when it’s available. And yes, drink local.

In real terms, I can’t imagine that oenophile — let’s say she’s living in San Francisco — not drinking the occasional Sardinian Vermentino, or any other interesting wine from Europe or South Africa or New Zealand. But maybe her standbys, if she has them, can come from closer to home. We have good data to say that Drink Local and low-input viticulture are more than just marketing schemes.

**For the record, in light of articles I’ve written on the environmental impact of wine closures (here and here), the wine in this study was closed with a cork  which, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t important enough to warrant discussion.