Dr. Vino’s Fine Wine Line

| 3/25/2008 4:36:01 PM

“Dr. Vino” Tyler Colman claims to have calculated the carbon footprint of wine and come up with a simple answer: If you live west of the line he’s drawn through the middle of the country, you should buy wine from California, and if you live east of the line, you’re better off buying from East Coast or European wineries. You may have good reason to think twice about his findings, however.

Colman and his partner Pablo Paster use their research paper to unload a metric ton of scientific-sounding chatter, largely regarding variables and calculations that are either undeniable or not on the table, and then use this data to somehow carve out their precise line. Easily digestible, easily reprintable. Colman and Paster’s proscriptions about wine buying have run, seemingly unquestioned, in several places, including a New York Times op-ed and in a non-peer-reviewed section of Science (subscription required).

But their research is suspect. First, they look at just three wineries located in three widely disparate growing regions, Yellow Tail (New South Wales, Australia), Coulee de Serrant (Loire, France), and a hypothetical “cult” winery in California’s Napa Valley. These three wineries ship wine to just one major market, Chicago. (Colman, when he’s not professing at New York University, happens to teach at the University of Chicago.)

Large cargo ships are said to carry the bottles from the Australian and European wineries. These ships dock in the U.S. (Los Angeles for Yellow Tail; New Jersey for Coulee de Serrant) and the wine is then hauled by road or rail to its Chicago destination. By comparison, the imaginary Napa winery (call it L’Strawman) ships exclusively by air overnight express.

Basically, Colman and Paster use lots of fancy footwork (and irrelevant calculations) to say that shipping a bottle of wine via sea and land is more efficient than flying the same bottle in a plane, even for a shorter distance, if you divide the carbon output by the number of bottles each vessel can carry. But they are comparing apples to oranges and vastly oversimplifying the issue. If they compared apples to apples—mass market to mass market (or cult wine to cult wine), normal carriers to normal carriers—it is unlikely that Colman and Paster would get a simple line dividing the country. Or, for that matter, very much attention.

(Thanks to David Egerton, Ph.D. candidate, University of Louisville.)

Adrian F
4/7/2008 5:22:36 PM

Hey thanks for the great blog, I love this stuff. I don’t usually do much for Earth Day but with everyone going green these days, I thought I’d try to do my part. I am trying to find easy, simple things I can do to help stop global warming (I don’t plan on buying a hybrid). Has anyone seen that www.EarthLab.com is promoting their Earth Day (month) challenge, with the goal to get 1 million people to take their carbon footprint test in April? I took the test, it was easy and only took me about 2 minutes and I am planning on lowering my score with some of their tips. I am looking for more easy fun stuff to do. If you know of any other sites worth my time let me know.

Tod Lewark_1
3/28/2008 8:50:11 AM

Greener than any of the above is learning to make your own wine (and beer) at home. Plant the grapes and fruit that suit your climate and interests, then find a winemaking supply shop locally or online. You can get the basic equipment for about $90, and a good quality concentrate kit for $60 and up, to make 30 bottles of good wine. Of course, you may have to wait a year or two for the best results. No instant gratification. At least any water used is local, and bottles are reused, not trashed. A good place to start is www.winemakermag.com, and also your yellow pages.

David Egerton
3/27/2008 11:47:40 AM

Jason raises some excellent points, but my biggest beef with Dr. Vino lies somewhere else. In one word - statistics. Dr. Vino's study takes data from three sources (n=3?!) to make a grand assumption regarding the preferred hemisphere to purchase their wine from. A single instance of each example does not make for any kind of average. If other examples into account they were not mentioned in the paper, nor were any calculations showing the origin of the numbers. I accept that this may be a work in progress, and that people naturally appreciate a simple graph or map, but to publish this map without further data is scientifically dishonest. Now this unfinished work has been picked up by the NYTimes and even the journal Science! All academics have a responsibility to ensure the scientific validity of their work before publication, and Dr. Vino's work doesn't offer any calculations to prove itself. Please, editorials on your own website are one thing, but don't try to justify yourself with an unfinished, presumeably scientific, work. -David Egerton

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