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Absolving Guilt Through Uneducated “Green” Wine Consumption

Like many holiday travelers, I spent several days this past December going from one airport to another, heavily weighted by bags packed to the gills with Christmas gifts. Sweating under my dozen layers of cotton and fleece, and swearing from the inanity of what we put ourselves through just to add more “consumables” to our lives, I plopped myself down in a large vinyl chair, praying that my plane wouldn’t be delayed (no such luck). Not five minutes after my exhaustion induced nap, I heard a woman with a southern accent snap, “where the hell are the recycling bins?! With thousands of people traveling through here, forced to buy bottled water for ‘safety’ concerns, why there isn’t a recycling unit to be seen?!”. Clearly unable to speak with her “inside” voice, she caught the frazzled attention of the entire gate, which of course, started an international debate.

“Maybe it’s too expensive to recycle all these bottles?” said a large brunette downing a plastic wrapped sandwich in a plastic container.

A bald man in his 60s retorted in a thick and resounding French accent, “Recycling is a waste of time. If you really want to do something, stop buying that plastic wrapped shit.”

“Well” said the brunette, while shaking her bobble like head, “If there were options to buy food that wasn’t wrapped in plastic, people wouldn’t think it’s sterile and clean. At least recycling gives us a way to feel we’re contributing to the ‘green movement’!”

You can imagine where the conversation went from here. The woman with the southern drawl took out her sustainability sword and began wielding contrite terms such as “reuse”, “responsibility”, “transparency” and “the future of our planet”. Ironically, not once did anyone point out the fact that they were about to fly on a gas guzzling machine that was made only more petrol hungry from their gift filled luggage.

To be sustainable is “in”. Eco-friendly, green products line the store shelves, and people are more than happy to lecture you on the ways they’re fulfilling a green lifestyle. Wineries are no exception. Biodynamic, organic and natural wines are the rage, and one only needs to walk into Whole Foods to encounter a local producer offering a tasting of his/her “natural” wine. “Ma’am, this is all chemical free with no additives. It’s 100% natural, and we really work to hard to ensure that you get the best product possible.”

But here’s the rub. Saying a winery is “green” is often times equivalent to robbing a bank knowing that you can go to confession to absolve you of your sins and then doing it all over again. Wineries may claim their wines are green in some capacity, but what does that mean? If you don’t put chemicals in your vineyard, does it absolve you from recycling your water, using solar panels, or buying tractors that run on vine cuttings? If you bottle your lower end wines in tetrapak and your higher end wines in 2lb glass bottles, complete with a “natural” cork, does this give you a right to call yourself “sustainable”?

Recently, we went through another “cleanse” of winery paraphernalia, throwing away dozens upon dozens of winery DVDs, brochures and pamphlets, knowing full well we would never look at them. How eco-friendly and intelligent is a winery who spends thousands of dollars on glossy brochures knowing that the majority of people receiving them will immediately toss them in the trash?

Then there’s the future of PET, a plastic formally known as polyethylene teraphthalate, which is considered a eco-friendly alternative to glass as it marketed to lower gas emissions as result of its light weight. The downside being that although it’s recyclable, it’s still plastic, which means that it’s a bitch for the environment if people are simply tossing it in the trash bin, not to mention the potential health hazards of drinking from a plastic container.

Let’s be honest, “green” is a fabulous marketing term that doesn’t mean squat without context.

I say this because I fear consumers are buying “green” because it absolves their conscious’ from making different choices in their lives. Rather than reduce their consumption, or choosing products that aren’t enveloped in plastic, heavy glass, or styrofoam, they’re simply spending more on products that laud their sustainable practices. Wine writers are no exception when falling pray to such practices. Regardless if we support “green” causes, we’re all victims of wine samples shipped by plane from around the world often enveloped in styrofoam: far from sustainable and “green”. As Steve Heimloff, West Coast Editor of Wine Enthusiast, so rightfully complained back in 2008, “Let’s get rid of styrofoam, guys!” Jancis Robinson has made it her personal crusade to ward off styrofoam in her email signature stating, “PLEASE JOIN ME IN REJECTING POLYSTYRENE”, suggesting tough cardboard as an alternative.

Closer to home, we can find many examples of winery’s talking the talk, but not walking the walk. Joan Gómez Pallarés, founder of the Slow Wine movement here in Spain, has seen his fair share of hypocrisies. When asked where “green” has become synonymous with marketing rather than sustainable practices,  he replied, “I know some cases of “fake green wineries” around Spain, Portugal and Italy…using labels or publicity the name organic/biodynamic without a real biodinamic or organic practices in the vinyards or in the cellar. I know one special case in the Priorat were a little but very succesful winery produces one so-called “wine following biodinamic principles” with grapes nor controlled neither owned by the winery!!!”

To be clear, I’m not saying that even the simplest of sustainable practices aren’t worthwhile, because they are. Any winery willing to add a few solar panels, lighten their packaging, transport wines by ship rather than plane, or use their water waste to irrigate their vineyards is well regarded in my book. If they’ve gone so far as Parducci Winery, the first carbon neutral winery in the US, or Bodegas Torres – focused on both prevention and adaption to climate change – I’m elated to sing their praises. But what I want to caution, is the blind support of consumers for products marketed as “green”.

How can we better educate consumers as to the difference between green marketing and sustainable winery practices? Does it matter? What should we do to demand better accountability? Please let us know in the comments below!


Gabriella Opaz

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