The carbon footprint of wine in National Geographic

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National Geographic has produced an excellent graphic in the May issue about wine’s carbon footprint (unfortunately, no link is yet available but the magazine is arriving in mailboxes and newsstands now). Pablo Paster and I provided the numbers for them based on our joint research on the subject.

We previously discussed the “green line” for wine and how it is more carbon efficient for a New Yorker to raise a glass of Bordeaux rather than a glass of California wine. Well, New Yorkers can now also raise a glass of Australian wine to achieve the same result: holding production method and bottle weight constant, the efficiencies of container shipping from a CO2e standpoint are such that a bottle of wine from Sydney arriving in New York City has a less than a quarter of the carbon emissions as one from California, which had a long journey by less efficient truck. The efficiencies even stretch to Chicago, assuming the bottle went through the Panama Canal to New Jersey and then had the shorter truck journey.

Astute readers will note that this finding was not in our original working paper. This updated version reflects the correction of a typo in one of our source materials (a reader of this site actually tipped us off to that), which, when corrected, made the efficiency of shipping even greater.

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31 Responses to “The carbon footprint of wine in National Geographic”


  1. I notice that all ground transportation is by truck. Is any wine being shipped within the country by train? I would expect this to reduce the carbon footprint.


  2. Hey MrTaz –

    The mode of transportation is the key and, yes, train would be much lower than truck. It’s hard to get data on how much wine goes by train around the country but it is often a journey of longer duration and more logistically difficult.

    Wouldn’t that be cool if each bottle stated its mode of transport and route on the label?


  3. Dr. Vino,

    Hello. I hope this finds you well.

    I was asking the same question as Mr. Taz while reading your post. Living in Seattle, not far from the BNSF mainline that runs from Seattle to Chicago, a lot of ‘trucks’ ride the rails. It seems anytime I have something shipped UPS from east of the Mississippi, it goes via train, which makes me think the domestic carbon footprint could be much lower than thought, especially given the proliferation of multi-modal transportation. Was truck transportation an assumption of the study or based on fact?

    Best regards,

    Boettcher


  4. i am very much looking forward to reading the entire article, but it seems to focus on transport only – does it touch on packaging at all? i can only think that the heavy thick glass bottles (bludgeons) that seem to be all the rage MUST leave more of their lasting mark – in terms of the raw materials but also the sheer weight during transport. And what of other packaging decisions – cardboard choices, styro, etc??


  5. Hi Boettcher,

    We only ran the numbers for container ships, trucks and air freight in the study. One of the main findings was that mode of transportation matters greatly. If we would have included trains, it would have been certainly below trucks. Again, some wine is shipped across the country but it’s difficult to ascertain how much.

    Hi Emily,

    Yes, another main finding of our original research was that packaging mass matters greatly. The lighter the packaging, the lower the carbon dioxide emissions.

    We did not contrast Styrofoam vs cardboard for shipping small amounts (e.g. a case) of wine. While cardboard is heavier, it can be recycled and also biodegrades, two things that are difficult for polystyrene to claim. Kind of like the “paper or plastic” dilemma.


  6. [...] more at this link about the original National Geographic article … including this great little [...]


  7. Garbage. Burgundy is as far from a seaport as Napa is to LA…what about adjusting for that? And why is the numerical data from NYC to LA different than Napa to NYC?


  8. It would only be fair to show the carbon footprint of local wines from closer to New York and Chicago. There are many good ones.


  9. @Philip…where are you looking? There is no numerical data on the chart showing NYC to LA.


  10. Katie- Not Phillip, but look at the “truck” leg from Bdx to LA. Presumably that makes port on the eastern seaboard and goes by truck across the country? And the value assigned is 2.7 vs 4.4 from Napa to NYC.


  11. Thanks for clearing that up, Nathaniel! Guess we can wait to hear from Tyler on why the two numbers vary.


  12. Hi all,

    Thanks for the interest in this topic. I checked with my co-author and we used a port in Texas as the American port for the Bordeaux wine to Los Angeles in this scenario. So there were fewer miles driven.

    Local wine is, of course, a very low carbon option. I wrote an op-ed about that in the NYT:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/30/opinion/30CTcolman.html

    It’s just that California produces 90% of American wine while over half the population lives east of the Mississippi.

    Please note that the above data are just for transportation; bottle weight and production method were assumed constant. For full details, please see the research paper.

    And also please bear in mind that the carbon footprint of wine is just one aspect of a wine buying decision.

    Cheers,

    Tyler


  13. Tyler – Is making port in Texas common for wine being transported by container from Europe? Or from anywhere for that matter?


  14. French wines arrive at ports on the East Coast. How can the CO2 number for the truck going from the East Coast to LA be so much less than the truck going from Napa to NYC? That does not make sense…


  15. analyst – see my post and tyler’s above. the #s were arrived upon by using TX as the port for the BDX portion, so trucking is form TX to LA.

    I must say I’m not familiar with ports of entry for French wine, so I can’t say how accurate a picture this really paints. I had always assumed they arrive via container on the eastern seaboard.


  16. Dr. Vino- You seem to have moved on to some very high-traffic comment sections in other posts in your blog, but I would love to see you follow up here.

    The two things I find troubling with this graph are:
    1. It seems as though some assumptions are made about ports of entry and distribution of CA wines, for instance choosing the most “green” port for the Bdx leg (how much of it really arrives in TX?), while ignoring the fact that a lot of transport is done by train here in the US. Gallo has the tracks running through their warehouse in Modesto if you don’t believe me.
    2. The convenient choices of jumping-off points for starting the meter on carbon. How are the wines from Chile, Oz, and various parts of France consolidated in port in their respective countries? It appears that is ignored in this graph, while the meter starts on CA wines at the cellar door.

    I had some similar issues with the original working paper (conveniently assuming that all CA vineyards were tearing down forests to plant, using extra-heavy bottles, etc, and thus assigning extra carbon to them as compared to the other bottles tracked – not to mention the comparison of a miniscule production “cult” Napa winery to Yellowtail et al, where economies of scale among other factors like lack of barrel use were obviously going to work in the imported wines’ favor). However, this particular graph, if I read your entry correctly, will be printed in National Geographic, with a circulation no doubt in the millions.

    I object because I feel the readership of Nat Geo is conscious of these sorts of factors in making purchasing decisions, so there will certainly be a real effect of lost sales for CA wineries, whatever the exact number may be. I think this will be based on some information that is first, perhaps skewed to one side by the choice of data to include, and second, not presented clearly in this graph (the TX issue, for example?).

    As a suggestion for continued updates to the working paper, why not weight your data for the real distribution method, in effect comparing apples to apples, 2 Buck Chuck to Yellowtail? This will take into account the actual consumption by domestic wineries with respect to glass used, amount of barrels imported, use of modes of transport other than truck (at least you didn’t stick us with all air cargo!) and so on.


  17. Hi Nathaniel –

    There are many routes that a bottle of wine can take on its journey from the winery to the consumer, especially wine from around the world. In our paper, we looked at two specific wines, Yellow Tail and Coulee de Serrant, and hypothetical one from California. For the actual bottles, I called the American importers and spoke with logistics managers about various modes of transport (including refrigerated truck from the winery in France to the port) as well as various routes (Yellow Tail often maximizes the sea journey, for example, and uses ports throughout the country). We factored this information into our study.

    I gather from your comments that you are in the wine trade in California (in what capacity?). Once we crunched some numbers, it became clear that the packaging mass and the mode of transportation were key variables in determining the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine. We wanted to capture those findings in a way to deliver this message and selected a cult (heavy) bottle from a mailing list seemed like a good way to capture that. The goal was to provide information about the various modes of transportation and packaging mass, not to stigmatize wines from California.

    As to this material for NG, we were asked to add some new places of origin and a new point of consumption, LA. Because we were dealing entirely with hypothetical bottles in this instance, we did not have anyone to call and went with something approximating an average journey. Certainly much wine from Europe comes in through NY/NJ and is trucked across but ports in LA (Long Beach) and the Bay Area (Oakland) are also points of significant importation and warehousing. So we could have used NY and added a truck journey, which would have been higher than the number in the graphic above. Or we could have used the LA port itself, which would have had an even lower number than in the graphic above. So we split the difference and we opted for Texas.

    As to neglecting the road portions of the foreign wines, the truck journey to the port is relatively small and for the sake of the graphic, the editors may have taken an artistic decision to consolidate the trucking data from both sides into one arrow.

    I am encouraged that since the initial release of our paper that many wines from California have taken efforts to reduce the packaging mass either by using lighter weight glass or switching to box format (e.g. Almaden and Inglenook).

    Best regards,


  18. Thanks, Dr. Vino-

    I will write more when I have a chance, perhaps even just drop an email so as to do so in private.

    I don’t object to the assertion that transport and packaging are large energy sinks. In fact, while I have not put the time into the subject that you have, I agree wholeheartedly. I do disagree with the way the information has been chosen for inclusion and the way some of it is presented. As I read it, this graphic will only have a small caption with no other text? In the 30 seconds it has to send a message to the reader, that message is “buy non-domestic wines no matter where you live. they’re greener.” If that were the truth and the entire story, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

    As for insignificant port consolidation, if the hypothetical bottle in question were made in Burgundy? Mosel? Many other landlocked regions through out the world? Those hardly seem like insignificant journeys….especially when compared to Napa -> LA.


  19. Dr. Coleman: I take issue with many of your conclusions. Regards – John M. Kelly


  20. [...] frugal wines, I’ve never considered the carbon footprint of wine – until now.  According to Dr. Vino, National Geographic just published a diagram that illustrates the carbon footprint of wine by [...]


  21. I am a life-long California resident, a subscriber to National Geographic, and have spent 17 years of my career in the IT department of APL, a container shipping/logistics company (from which I retired a few years back). I have no connection to the wine industry, other than a 200+ bottle wine cooler in my garage and membership in 3 wineries’ wine clubs. I DO have an appreciation and understanding of global transportation.

    I’ll keep this short… I see some serious flaws in the methodology used to produce the chart in the National Geographic article: 1) a failure to perform due diligence in discovering ACTUAL or COMMON origin-destination pairs used (rather than cherry-picking what discharge port works best for imports), 2) a gap in not including trucking emissions from origin (winery) to load port (Napa wins hands down), and 3) a serious flaw in ignoring the EXTENSIVE use of rail within the US.

    EVERY ONE OF THESE ISSUES has been set up in your chart to work to the advantage of foreign imports over California-produced wine, leading one to question not only the rigor of your work, but also whether there is bias involved.

    Perhaps even with the elements I cite above corrected, Napa still “loses”, I don’t know. The issues are so broad and pervasive however that I expect this will not be the last flame you and National Geographic receive on this topic.

    As far as pointing out how transportation modalities CAN make a difference in carbon footprint, your paper is of definite value. We should be looking at and discussing these issues. In particular, the advantages of rail over trucking need to be fully understood; this work ignores those advantages.

    In terms of the National Geographic article being presented as an authoritative account of ACTUAL carbon footprint… the California Wine Council should sue you for slander.

    A more honest (real world) example would have wine from Australia shipped to LA, then sent by train to CHI and NY. Wine from France should be shipped to the east coast (NJ most likely), then by rail to CHI and LA. Wine from Chile actually MIGHT go up each coast… this is the one scenario where it would be justifiable (in the real world) to have two different sea legs. Each evaluation should take into account the origin to load port leg (by truck); Napa to Oakland (50 miles), Bordeaux to Le Havre (400 miles), Yenda to Sydney (300 miles). To ignore the significant carbon footprint/penalty of the French and Australian wineries distance from a seaport in this presentation is perhaps the most egregious lack of rigor in the fatally flawed graphic. If you TRULY want people to be choosing wine based on total carbon footprint (due to transport), you MUST include winery-to-distribution center tallies to be honest to your audience (distribution center to retail can be considered a wash).


  22. Don Casey brings up some interesting points. Dr. Vino, could you weigh in and clarify?


  23. [...] Dr. Vino: “The Tolll of WIne” [...]


  24. [...] calculating the environmental footprint of wine, National Geographic and LiveScience have both noted a study on the same phenomenon: a New Yorker causes less [...]


  25. [...] are equally dirty. A famous recent National Geographic piece on the carbon cost of wine put a great big hole in the locavore movement’s hull by pointing out that in many cases it’s better to buy products that come thousands of [...]


  26. [...] made sure to get sparkling wine from Europe. Wine travels a long way to the East Coast, but its carbon footprint is smaller if it’s shipped by boat from Europe than by truck or rail from [...]


  27. My wife gave this link so I am very late judging be the date of earlier entries. I am actually in the seafood/tuna/ food business where we ship from half way around the world to USA markets. We ship into ports using freezer containers that are near in to our markets, and use trucks to haul the container from the port to cold storage and then 3,000 – 10,000 parcel shipments to our customers depots for final distribution.
    If size one carbon footprint =’s cost, and these days it seems to, then our footprint is small. I like the idea of this type of looking at one’s footprint be it with wine, food or tee-shirts. Yes there are some faults with this graph and many have put forth valuable critical input. But this does not detract from the point, that we should look at this matter and see how we can improve.


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    co2를 생각하면 배로 수송되는 상품을 써야겠군. RT @narae_riva: The carbon footprint of wine in National Geographic | Dr Vino’s wine blog [link to post]

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  30. [...] Dr. Vino on his blog presents a Sankey diagram of wine that was originally shown in National Geographic. To be exact, it is a diagram of greenhouse gas emissions associated only with the transport of wine from certain wine producing areas (Australia, Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Chile) to consumers in three U.S. cities (Los Angeles, Chicago, and N.Y.C). So the title should rather read as “Carbon Footprint of Wine Transport”. Neverhteless, an interesting Sankey diagram: [...]


  31. [...] have a lesser carbon footprint (688 kg per tonne) than UK raised lamb (2,849 kg per tonne). My own life cycle assessment of global wine production and distribution found, to the annoyance of the California Wine Institute, that French wine had a lower carbon [...]


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