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Go ‘green’ with your wine: Choose cans or boxes, drink local and consider farming practices

Crushed glass from recycled wine bottles is used as coarse sand, which is then used as mulch in the vineyard at Afton Mountain Vineyard in Afton, Virginia.  (Elizabeth Smith/Afton Mountain Vineyard)
Crushed glass from recycled wine bottles is used as coarse sand, which is then used as mulch in the vineyard at Afton Mountain Vineyard in Afton, Virginia. (Elizabeth Smith/Afton Mountain Vineyard)
By Dave McIntyre Special to the Washington Post

When buying wine, most of us probably have three main questions: Does it taste good? Is the price right? And is the label cute?

OK, so the first two are important, but they aren’t exclusive. More and more, we base our purchasing decisions not just on the value of the product but also on our values for the environment and society.

As we think about greening our kitchens, we can green our wine cellars, too, in ways that might be counterintuitive. Here are some environmental factors to consider when purchasing wine:

Farming

Look for wineries practicing environmentally friendly viticulture. Words to look for on labels are sustainable, “made from organic grapes,” Demeter biodynamic and the newest, regenerative agriculture. There are several certifications that vary by country or even region, but they all show the winery’s commitment to eco-friendly practices such as avoiding pesticides and herbicides.

Many wineries follow good practices but don’t get certified for various reasons. In general, smaller, family-owned wineries use fewer chemicals than the larger, more industrial producers you see in every grocery store.

Social responsibility

Wineries are increasingly becoming Certified B Corporations or joining 1% For the Planet, organizations that promote corporate responsibility through fair wages and social responsibility. These wineries are going to be focused on making quality wine, as well; they’re worth supporting.

Packaging

Avoid wines in heavy bottles. There’s a lot of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in wine, and heavy, imposing bottles meant to make the wine look like it tastes better are a big part of the hooey. They stroke the winery owner’s ego, but they also add to the price we pay and to the wine’s carbon footprint through shipping. We don’t have to fall for the pretense. Glass accounts for about 60% of wine’s carbon footprint mostly through the production and transport of empty and full bottles.

If you visit a winery and notice an unwieldy heavy bottle, question it. Complain about them to your retailer, then choose a wine in a lighter bottle. Eventually, wineries will get the message. Many wineries have shifted to lighter bottles to lessen their carbon footprint. Let’s reward those who make more responsible choices.

If you’ve ordered wine online for delivery to your home, you’ve probably noticed creative configurations of cardboard or plastic shipping materials to protect your bottles in transit. Some wineries continue to use plastic foam, which might be the best insulation for temperature protection, but it is difficult to recycle.

And oh those worms or the little dots that stick to everything in the house! Next time your wine arrives packed in foam, consider complaining to the winery or the store that shipped it. If we raise our voices, they’ll listen.

Recycling

Here’s where the picture gets cloudy. We might feel virtuous stacking empty bottles in blue recycling bins for the weekly pickup, but, in fact, glass is not very recyclable, as I learned when I visited my county’s recycling center. Many jurisdictions have stopped collecting glass for recycling because it isn’t profitable. Bottles get broken, and the glass is easily contaminated, with clear glass (the most valuable) mixing with green and amber (known as gramber in the trade).

If we really want to help local recycling centers, we would buy wine in cans or boxes. Aluminum and cardboard are easily recycled, more profitable for the collectors to sell and lighter in carbon footprint. However, cans and boxes represent a tiny fraction of the wine market, and they are not likely to eclipse glass bottles in our lifetime, if ever.

In Virginia, Afton Mountain Vineyards uses a machine that pulverizes glass to turn empty bottles from their tasting room into coarse sand, which is then used as mulch in the vineyard. It’s an experimental practice, and, unfortunately, the machines are too expensive for home use.

Meanwhile, here are some small steps we can do to help on a daily basis. Make sure your bottles, cans and boxes are empty. Give the bottles and cans a quick rinse with water before tossing them. This eliminates residue and odors that might attract rodents. Toss screw caps in the bin separately from their bottles.

Tear the plastic bag from your boxed wine and toss it in the trash before recycling the cardboard. Use your corks for crafty projects such as trivets, or take them to a local grocery or wine store that collects them for recycling. (Check recork.com for collection sites.) Natural corks – not plastic or other synthetic stoppers made to resemble corks – are biodegradable. Toss them into your compost bin for pickup, or cut them into smaller pieces and add them to your own compost pile.

Finally, drink local. Our support of local agriculture should extend beyond farmers markets to include local wineries. Not only do we support local businesses, but we lower our wine’s carbon footprint because it doesn’t have to be shipped across the country or around the world. We also get a fun outing and a lasting memory from the experience of local wine tastings.

There are a lot of delicious wines out there. By considering these environmental factors, we can narrow our choices and encourage the wine world to take better care of our world.

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