10/23/2009 06:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Life Cycle: Green Wine

Life Cycle is a series about the stories of our stuff.

Shall we raise a glass to the fact that no other item in our Life Cycle series achieves such praise for traveling long distances, in heavy glass bottles, by way of fossil fuel powered planes, boats and automobiles, as vino? While eating locally has become a real movement, drinking wine from across the globe is still cool. For amateurs and oenophiles alike, international labels are a pleasure of partaking.


Paradoxically, the same fossil fuels that transport merlots from Europe are changing the grape harvests there. Just as weather and location add texture and nuance to a wine, subtle differences in temperature hugely impact crops. That means climate change is already affecting the wine industry. Some theorize that Germany's Rhine Valley will be producing luscious reds in just 50 years, a major deviation from the crisp white Rieslings that thrived for centuries in the area's cold season.

By making a few alterations to your daily pour, you can work against the climate change that threatens our cold-climate grapes.

It's all about how far your bev has been shipped, and the materials used to package it. Aluminum screw-tops are more likely to be recycled than natural corks, and they prevent wines from going bad--a fate that sends nearly 1 out of every 10 bottles down the drain. Synthetic corks made from plastic also will guarantee against the wet cardboard taste of spoiled wine, but are rarely recyclable and can't be re-used as they expand once removed from the bottle.

Traditional cork can be thrown in the compost pile, used as mulch or recycled to make flooring, wallpaper, placemats and shoes. The Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood program works with the Forest Stewardship Council to certify sustainable cork growers, who harvest their cork from young trees that continue to grow and produce. Supporting sustainable cork farms means supporting biodiversity along the Mediterranean, and the rural farmers who have made their living off cork since Dom Perignon, a French Benedictine monk, first stuffed it into a bottle. Send your natural corks to Yemm & Hart or ask a local wine merchant about recycling programs in your area.

The average wine bottle weighs a little over one pound when empty, and about 3 pounds when full. That's a lot of glass to lug around the world, especially when the bulk of it makes up the heavy, concave base of the bottle, which doesn't really serve a purpose. California's Fetzer Vineyard began manufacturing flat-bottomed bottles this year, reducing weight by 11 percent. The lightest option is the wine-in-a-box routine, perfect for sunsets on the beach. But while the cardboard exterior is easily recyclable, the Tetrapak plastic inside goes straight to the landfill .

If you'd rather hit the bottle than the box (you snob), buy local to minimize shipping. And don't think you need a villa in Napa Valley or Bordeaux to score a decent local glass. A quick search reveals vineyards in every state, even Alaska and Kansas. Now you have an excuse to explore your local community, experiment with unfamiliar flavors and work up a buzz at the same time. If you live west of the Mississippi and must buy out of state, look for wines from California and Oregon. French imports have the lowest carbon footprint for East Coasters.

Organic wine means no pesticides, herbicides or insecticides on the land, seeping into groundwater or sloshing in your glass, which is always a good thing. Biodynamic growers take sustainability one step further, employing age-old farming techniques that even take sun and moon cycles into account.

In case you're thinking "wine is fine but liquor is quicker," look for choices like organic mixers and local spirits (in their grain state, Simran likes Most Wanted grain alcohol and Sarah favors Honor Vodka).

We all know where this drinking can lead. Stay tuned for our next posts on greening your sex life, from condoms to candles.

This post was written by Simran Sethi and Sarah Smarsh. Thanks to the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Merete Mueller for writing assistance and Rune T for the image.