A small news article from Science has been taped above my desk for the last few years. I don’t remember who originally gave it to me, or why I even hung it up, but there it is, nestled between a couple XKCD cartoons. The article is titled “The Wine Divide” and it raises many questions about sustainability, inherent biases in conventional wisdom, and what the term “local” means in a global economy. And it’s about wine.
The basic premise of the article is that, in general, the carbon-cost of shipping wine by freight (as in, on a truck) is greater than the cost of shipping by cargo (as in, on a boat). In wine, transportation outweighs all other aspects of production and distribution, so using the cost of transport, two scientists calculated the cost of buying wine from Napa Valley or Bordeaux, France if you live in New York.
Shipping a 750-milliliter bottle from Bordeaux to New York City emits 1.8 kilograms of carbon, whereas trucking one from the Napa Valley emits 2.6 kg.
They also calculated a Napa-Bordeaux line, which determines which region (Napa Valley or Bordeaux) has the lower carbon cost for where you live.
In a thorough review of the life cycle of a bottle of wine, Colman and Päster presented some surprising insights into the real cost of transportation. Among the most counter-intuitive results is how dramatic the differences among ships, trains, trucks, and airplanes really are. This is scaled by the total amount of cargo shipped, so while the actual amount of fuel burned may be greater, the amount of goods transported is even larger.
These data challenge the conventional assumption the local is better. For many goods, distance is significantly less important than the method of delivery, at least when looking at the cost of transportation. For someone living on the East Coast of the United States, wine from Bordeaux, France is more sustainable than the relatively closer wine from Napa Valley, California.
Tyler, Colman, & Päster, Pablo (2009).
Red, White, and ‘Green': The Cost of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the
Global Wine Trad Journal of Wine Researc, 20 (1), 15-26