Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Wine, Local Food, and Local Resilience: Part 1

A few weeks ago, the sustainability media outlet treehugger.com ran an article titled “Is Biodynamic and Organic Wine Still Green If It Is Shipped Halfway Around The World?” Author Lloyd Alter discusses the carbon footprint of wine shipped from different parts of the world and questions whether wine shipped from such far-off places as Australia, even if it’s grown “organically,” can be considered “green.” As it turns out, wines that come to us by cargo ship from Australia or Chile actually are “greener” than trucked-in wine from California.

Of course, the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine can’t be measured by shipping method and/or distance alone. Wine, like almost all agricultural products of our industrial age, is produced with fossil fuel inputs from the get-go, beginning with the fertilizers and sprays used in the vineyard all the way to the temperature controls during fermentation and aging, and, finally, the industrialized bottling processes. The bottles themselves are also products of industrial production using fossil fuels, and they have to be transported to the wine cellar from wherever they were made, using even more fossil fuel.

The questions that trehugger.com raised regarding whether and to what extent wine can be considered a “green” product at all have raised some additional questions in my mind. As I have watched the imminent end of cheap energy unfold and contemplated what this will mean for agriculture, I have realized that the wine industry will similarly have to change: we will no longer be able to count on the ready availability “two buck Chuck” at Trader Joe’s or similarly inexpensive California wine in our neighborhood groceries. We will soon have to begin relying on locally produced wine, made with locally grown grapes, just as much as locally produced lettuce.

But Ohio wines, at least the ones available in the Giant Eagle store, are sweet, cloying, grape juice-like products, aren’t they? Yuck. They hardly deserve to be called wines! Give me a good sip of Cabernet or Pinot Gris any day over that syrupy stuff! California, Chile, and Australia produce the best wines, unless, of course, price is no object and one wants to pay the premium for fine French or Italian vintages. But Ohio wine? Fuggedaboudit! Is it even possible that local winemakers in Ohio and other eastern and Midwestern states can produce wine from locally grown grapes that will satisfy the palates of those whose tastes in wine were forged with Californian, Chilean, or Australian vintages?

I will be addressing that concern, as well as some others, in the next few postings. Along the way, we’ll explore the complex (and fascinating) history of wine in the humid eastern part of North America, especially the particular challenges faced by anyone who wants to grow good wine grapes around here. Before we begin our survey of wine history, however, I would like to explain my interest and background in wine.

But first, some assumptions:

· I’m limiting this discussion to wine from grapes. Yes, wine can be made from other fruits, or even from non-fruits like dandelion blossoms, and many of these wines are very good, but usually sugar and water need to be added to the mashed fruit (called must, by the way) to achieve the right sweetness-acidity balance and to produce enough alcohol to preserve the wine. Grapes are the only fruits normally capable of achieving this balance without additives or amelioration; this is why grapes are the traditional favorite for wine production.

· If the global production of petroleum energy has not yet begun its irrevocable decline, it will do so within the next few years. I’ve already detailed some evidence for this in my earlier postings; here’s another report, this time from British insurance giant Lloyds.

· This means that petroleum fuels will never again be cheap; shipping costs will become an increasingly large percentage of the cost of any commodity delivered from faraway places, if it makes economic sense to ship them at all.

· American wine lovers’ appreciation for and dependence on wine shipped from places like Australia and Chile is likely to end in the next few years. Even California wines may become too expensive to afford or may even be largely unavailable east of the Mississippi. As our food supplies become increasingly localized, the need for wines from local sources will increase, if we are to have any wines at all.

· Additionally, agricultural inputs, especially fungicides, that help make viticulture and wine making possible in the humid East, may be in short supply or unavailable because of energy depletion. (I will discuss the reasons for viticulture’s dependence on these materials in a later post.)

· Wine can and should remain an important part of our diet and culture and is useful for other things in addition to its use as a beverage: most notably as an antiseptic and as a food preservative (especially for fruit).

· Winemaking is similar in many respects to other forms of food preservation: canning, cheese making, pickling, etc., and is not a difficult skill to learn. I am assuming that an eventual return to home-produced wines will be not only possible but in some ways preferable to reliance on commercially produced wines.

· I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on wine; far from it. I wish only to present my thoughts in hopes of starting a conversation about wine, local food, and local resilience in the face of energy depletion. Please feel free to correct any errors or post additional thoughts, opinions, or contemplations, in the comments.

Okay, now for my story. As many who know me well are quite aware, wine has long been one of my interests. This interest began soon after Liz and I were married. Just before she began her graduate studies at Bowling Green State University, we took a field trip to one of the islands in the western basin of Lake Erie. When we arrived on the island, we rented bicycles so we could explore the island more easily than on foot. It was quiet that day because the main tourist season had ended and it was a weekday. One of our stops was a winery that offered a visit to a cave on the premises, throwing in a tour of the wine cellar for a single admission fee. All I can remember about the winery tour is that it felt rushed and I don’t think we learned all that much about the winemaking process. But we got to taste some of the wines, and when we left we had to bicycle past their vineyards. The air was full of the sweet, pungent aroma of ripening grapes. Adding to that, these wines were not readily available on the mainland at the time, so finding a source for them became somewhat of a quest.

I was hooked. I started reading everything I could get my hands on about wine. I also began purchasing wines from as many winegrowing regions as possible, wines made from different kinds of grapes. I can recall offering, out of my ignorance, some odd bottles and/or odd combinations of wines at dinner parties we hosted for friends. I’m sure they wondered at times what I was up to! We also hosted some wine tastings at our house.

A few years later, when our first child was on the way and we were ready to move into our newly purchased house, I ordered some vines from a nursery. I asked permission to plant the vines in the back yard before we actually closed on the house (the home we were buying was unoccupied). I grew grapes there for seventeen years, until we moved from Bowling Green to Columbus. The wine I made was mostly drinkable; little was memorable, though I recall two or three batches that I thought were rather good. I even won an award or two at the county fair’s homemade wine judging. I learned a lot about the winemaking process, even though I remained and am still a novice at the craft.

Although I don’t grow grapes now (though that will likely be changing soon), we still visit wineries on occasion, and I have maintained my interest in the subject by frequent readings and, of course, by sampling all kinds of wines.

From the beginning, I was fascinated by the geography of wine—the different regions of the world where wine was made, the kinds of grapes grown in each region, and the particular character that the local sun and soil imparts to the finished wine. I reveled in trying out wine from odd corners of the world. Yet for some reason, I always came back to Ohio and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the other eastern and Midwestern states. Perhaps it’s because Ohio wines don’t often get much respect, as I already indicated, but also perhaps it’s because of my recognition that local food products go best with locally produced vintages.

Yes, food and wine are partners and always have been. The French and Italians know this very well. And they also know that the local wines almost always pair best with the local food specialties. They have had centuries of experience matching the local cuisines to the local vintages. Go to a restaurant in France or Italy and almost all the wines offered will be local. But here in North America, our cuisines are largely imported—from places like France and Italy, not to mention China, Mexico, Thailand, etc. So maybe it should be no surprise that, except in California and the Pacific Northwest, Americans seem to think that a wine from an exotic location like New Zealand must be better (or at least more interesting) than a wine produced locally from locally grown grapes. For example, the largest winegrowing region east of the Pacific states is the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Yet how many restaurants in, say, Albany or Syracuse, offer any Finger Lakes wines on their wine lists, let alone specialize in them? You’re more likely to find Yellow Tail from, literally, halfway around the world. How many residents of Manhattan, I wonder, know that premium wines are being produced on the eastern end of Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley, both regions only two or three hours’ drive from the City?

Premium Ohio wines are even harder to find in Ohio’s restaurants, groceries, or wine shops. This is a curious situation, but one that is likely to change in the next several years. One of the most important reasons for this odd state of affairs is the fascinating and complex history of wine in eastern North America. Some of that history will be the subject for my next post. (In the meantime, hold your glass up to the light to check your wine’s clarity, swirl it around, and then put your nose in the glass and take in the aroma. Until next time, enjoy!)


  1. There is nothing 'resilient' about turning food into poison. Alcohol is a neurotoxin and nephrotoxin and makes people stupid - a quality which they have proven to have in superabundance.

  2. Anonymous:
    I might take your comment more seriously if you had been willing to put your name to it. Nevertheless, you might want to tell the Slow Food Columbus that they're promoting poison when they hold their annual Ohio v. Michigan wine Clash in conjunction with the Ohio State v. Michigan football game. I'm sure they'll want to know.


  3. Jesus turned water into wine...I don't believe he would produce a poison!