The Issue of the Year

The Issue of the Year

As the new year dawns unseasonably mild in Ontario—with yet another week of above-freezing temps already showing on the forecast charts—there can be only one issue of earth-shattering importance to the wine world. That would be global warming and the many environmental issues that spin from the eye of this ever-growing storm.

We can’t accurately predict for the weather ahead in 2007, but the mind races with possibilities. Could this be the first year that Ontario doesn’t make icewine? Could bud break come much earlier, increasing risk of a sudden spring frost? Will we repeat the blazing summer of 2005? Will severe wind and hail strip vines of foliage and fruit? Will the remnants of hurricanes like Katrina return in early September, soaking the ground, splitting ripened fruit and inducing rot?

Little can be done to protect vineyards from the effects of global warming in the year ahead. But the industry—including those of us who consume wine—are in a unique position to effect longer term change because we have a built-in respect for weather and the land. We can understand its impacts from the ground up and begin to adapt. There are already hopeful signs that the process is underway.

The most important trend to continue in 2007 will be the global movement to organic and biodynamic viticulture. It is no longer the subject of musing by an enviro-conscious fringe. Virtually every winegrower I have talked with in the last year has voiced genuine concern and interest in applying its principles. Organic growing is more about reducing chemical soil pollution than directly affecting climate change, but lessened dependence on substances that create greenhouse gases in their manufacture, transport and application in the field can only be a good thing for the atmosphere.

Consumers can best help with this movement by supporting organic producers. We can do so by getting over our fear that organic wines are too often weird and not wonderful (most are getting better). By encouraging producers to indicate which wines are organically produced, in whole or in part, in a manner meant to educate, and not only market-driven. And rather than evoke the tangled, bureaucratic world of official certification, why not just a simple statement and logo on the label that says: We Care—with direction to a Web site that explains the extent of that producer’s involvement.

Another area of direct impact is wine packaging, with radical change already well underway. The LCBO has aggressively introduced tetrapaks, which are claimed to be more environmentally friendly. But there are questions about the recyclability of tetras. Less are actually put out in recycling bins than bottles. They are also apparently less easy to recycle than glass, and they are not re-usable. There are also concerns about biodegradability of those that do end up in landfills (75% paper fibre with an aluminum interior liner and plastic outer layer). It can’t be denied however that tetras are lighter than glass and will use less energy in their shipping and handling, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The TetraPak company literature claims that if all wine in Canada were tetrapaked it would be like taking 43,000 cars off the road.

At the moment, tetrapaks are also embroiled in a separate debate about the quality of the wine therein. It is usually mediocre wine without much personality beyond basic varietal character. If tetra is the answer, then the industry must come forward with better wines packaged this way—just as screw-caps now appear on expensive wines. If the methodology of filling and storing wine in tetrapaks cannot physically accommodate better wine, the industry and LCBO needs to admit this, and market tetras with clear indication of certain quality expectation, usage parameters and something like “best before” dates. Still, when all is said and done, if the vast majority of the wine purchased is indeed inexpensive and consumed within 24 hours, and if tetras are better for reducing greenhouse gases, then they should be embraced.

Likewise, we should embrace the upcoming program to return wine bottles for refund of the new 20 cent bottle deposit. Questions remain about the efficiency of the program—which will require returning wine bottles to the Beer Store (not the LCBO) with the added costs of time, effort and gasoline—but if it does increase the number of glass bottles being recycled or re-used then that too is a good thing for the environment.

In the end, wine consumers need to be open-minded about these issues, which may be easier said than done. Wine is an emotional thing for those who have come to embrace it in their lifestyle. It comes with tradition, ritual and a certain sense of entitlement as a noble product and pursuit. But if the looming crisis of global warming is real—and I believe it is—then we might just have to put a screw-cap on some of our high-minded notions and accept, even demand, changes in the way our favourite beverage is made and handled.