Raisin the bar for people and the planet

Photo by Kym Ellis on Unsplash

La vie en rosé

For the third consecutive summer, I worked remotely from France. It’s the perfect set-up where I work while overlooking the ocean and finish the day playing beach volleyball.

It was also a beautiful opportunity to reconnect with friends and family as I travelled around the country. No matter where I was, there was a common thread. You’ll surprise many French people when they hear you are vegan!

French cuisine and veganism aren’t exactly synonymous. As a Frenchman, refusing cheese and meats could almost be considered blasphemy. On the bright side, I could never refuse a glass of wine when visiting the Loire region or Bordeaux.

Wine plays a central role in France’s culture and economy. The country is the 2nd producer of wine, responsible for 16% of global output. Nationally, the sector employs 600,000 people and attracts 10 million tourists annually.

Whilst we are very proud of our wine, it is not historically a French invention. Viticulture is estimated to have started in Western Asia around 6000 B.C., with the Greeks bringing it to France around 600 B.C.

A grape environmental impact

Since then, wine has become a $340.8 billion industry. In 2021, 236 million hectolitres of wine were consumed globally, nearly 3 litres per human. The French are certainly pushing the numbers up, drinking 46 litres annually per capita!

As 75 cl bottles have an average carbon footprint of 1.2 kgCO2e, it would lead the average French drinker to emit 74 kgCO2e per year, equivalent to driving 296 km by car.

While it’s interesting to put the impact into perspective at the individual level, decarbonization of sectors requires systemic change. The 33 billion bottles of wine consumed each year globally would lead to the emission of 39.6 million tCO2e, the annual emissions of Switzerland!

Life cycle assessments (LCAs) help us understand the environmental impact of a product throughout its lifetime from raw material extraction, manufacturing, distribution and use.

While LCAs rely on many assumptions, they can help identify the hotspots of emissions for various products, such as wine! Let’s take the example of a California wine to paint a picture of its emissions:

  • 34% come from the vineyard when fertilizers are sprayed in fields and fossil fuels are consumed by machinery to maintain and harvest the grapes.
  • 15% arise at the winery when grapes are processed and fermented.
  • 38% are due to packaging, with glass bottling taking up 29% of total emissions.
  • 13% are caused by transportation, from the winery to retail locations.

Keeping tabs on emission reduction opportunities

There are many reasons to improve environmental management and reduce emissions in the wine industry, one of them being that climate change threatens the production of the wine itself!

Grapes are very sensitive crops to changes in weather patterns, a vulnerability exacerbated by climate change. The increased frequency of droughts and warmer temperatures can negatively impact yields, while extreme cold spells can decimate entire vineyards.

Going back to our California wine, we can explore the decarbonization levers at every stage of the bottle:

1. At the vineyard:

  • Switching diesel-powered vehicles and agricultural machinery to electric alternatives can reduce fuel emissions.
  • Minimizing soil tilling reduces soil erosion and increases its carbon sequestration capabilities. Cover crops can be planted to naturally add nitrogen to the soil, improve water infiltration and increase yields.

2. In wineries:

  • Procuring energy-efficient machinery and refrigeration systems can reduce electricity consumption and energy bills.
  • Producing renewable energy on-site can displace fossil fuels and provide additional revenue streams when excess power is sold back to the grid.

3. With packaging:

  • Reducing the weight of the bottles can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of wine, providing cost-saving opportunities when raw materials are procured and when bottles are transported.
  • Sourcing recycled glass and ensuring that packaging suppliers use renewable electricity for their furnaces promotes strong environmental performance in the supply chain.

4. Through transportation

  • Shipping wine in bulk and bottling it closer to consumers reduces the weight transported and requires less energy.
  • Favouring local and national distribution channels reduces transportation distances and emissions.

As individuals, we can purchase locally and recycle the bottles. More importantly, we can use our purchasing power to reward the wineries proactively working to reduce their environmental impact.

A corker of a winery

I talked about the blasphemous act of being a vegan Frenchman, but promoting an American winery may arguably be worse. Good thing I have dual nationality!

Located in Northern California, Bonterra Organic Estates is the perfect case study of how wineries can positively impact people and the planet. As a B Corp, they challenge the status quo and use their business as a force for good.

The first step towards achieving emissions reductions in any industry is to calculate them, which is precisely what Bonterra did by measuring its:

  • Scope 1 emissions: Those for which the company is directly responsible, such as burning fuels for farming equipment.
  • Scope 2 emissions: Those from purchasing electricity, heat, steam or cooling.
  • Scope 3 emissions: Those arising in the value chain, including procurement of goods, shipping and transportation.

Their wines have been farmed organically since 1987, and regenerative practices are at the heart of their vineyards. Rather than using polluting chemicals, chickens and sheep are welcomed in the vineyards to eat weeds and provide fertilizer for the soil.

At Bonterra, the soil is everything. That is why they plant cover crops in the vineyard. They naturally compete with weeds, catch nutrients and allow for increased water retention, which reduces the need for irrigation. The cover crops are then composted and fed back to the soil.

Through these practices, the soil in Bonterra’s vineyard stores up to 12.8% more carbon per acre than traditional farms. On top of the soil management, 100% of Bonterra’s energy is from renewable sources, and 35% of its glass is from recycled materials.

The ambition to drive positive impact extends to people. Employees are paid a living wage and can benefit from educational programs such as English language courses or financial literacy programs. Bonterra is living up to its B Corp certification, and we can only hope they will inspire other wineries.

Climate change can be daunting, and it is perfectly understandable to whine or drown our sorrows with wine. However, it is vital to look past the doom and gloom stories to imagine a future in which we want to live. Paired, individual climate action and systemic change will get us there.

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Pierre-Louis Godin

Pierre-Louis Godin

67 Followers

Always looking to learn more about environmental sustainability and climate change. I'll mostly be writing about these topics!