Serious Grape: Back to the Barrels? An Old-Fashioned Proposal

On Fridays, Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 drops by with Serious Grape. This week, she rethinks how we should make, package, and ship wine.


Photograph from brewrat on Flickr

Picture yourself walking into your favorite market. You've got your reusable grocery bags and a few wine bottles with screw caps.

You do your shopping, you head to the wine section before checking out, and a nice person in the wine section takes your wine bottles. He or she either fills them with wine or cleans them and gives you replacements, filling the new bottles with wine and screwing on the cap.

In a time when everyone is thinking about alternative packaging and the environment, why isn't anyone talking about going back to the days of buying wine straight from the barrels?

I was inspired to think about these issues by my fellow wine blogger, Tyler Colman. Author of the recently published book Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink (University of California Press), Colman blogs about wine under the nickname Dr. Vino. Because of his thoughtful research and writing, I've come to share his concerns about the enormous carbon footprint that wine leaves on the environment.

Much of this footprint results from shipping. Essentially, we ship wine very inefficiently in multiple, relatively small, containers. Glass is heavy, as are the liquids the glass carries. Sure, there's boxed wine, but this hasn't really caught the public imagination, and it still involves recycling and shipping issues. Ship wine in a bigger container, however, and you leave a smaller footprint.

One barrel contains enough wine to fill 300 bottles. When you ship wine in a big, reusable and recyclable container like a barrel, you are moving wine from its source to its destination, which does far less damage to the environment.

Wine is sold from barrels directly to consumers all over the world. Here in the United States, wine used to be sold this way—before Prohibition. Since Prohibition, however, the government has erected complicated legal barriers that restrict consumer access to wine and limit the ways wine can be bought and sold.

It's time for all that to change.

If you feel it's time for politicians to get out of the wine business, you can make your feelings known at Free the Grapes!, an organization established to help remove the last vestiges of Prohibition from the United States.

If you also feel that it's time for us to start considering alternative ways to buy wine and find alternative energy sources, then start lobbying your local markets. We know that many Americans (specifically Whole Foods shoppers) are willing to pay more and make an extra effort if it means making less of an impact on the environment.

I'm not saying it will be easy or happen overnight, but Tyler Colman's work has convinced me that we need to rethink how we make, package, and ship wine. Do you agree?

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