National Geographic Slams CA Wine – Eco Unfriendly

Yesterday’s mail brought our May 2009 copy of National Geographic. I was surprised to see the Environment page devoted to a wine topic; surpised and a bit dismayed. It seems that our colleague Tyler Colman (Dr. Vino) has had an abstract of his study of the carbon footprint of wine transport published in NGM — kudos!

However, the ominous title “The Toll of Wine” is accompanied by a large and very misleading graphic, with disproportionately HUGE arrows representing the carbon footprint of shipping wine from Napa to NYC, relative to wine from other parts of the globe.

National Geographic’s site does not have a link to the article, and I’m not going to risk the ire of their legal department by reproducing the offending graphic (by NG staff artist Mariel Furlong) here. But Tyler Colman has it in his blog and I encourage the reader to pull it up to see what I’m talking about. Below I show a graphic of the same data, free of hyperbole: click for larger image
The top graph shows the carbon footprint data for a bottle of wine transported between the indicated origins and destinations. The relatively large footprint for moving a bottle of wine from Napa to NYC assumes routing via truck, presumably warehouse-to-warehouse via the shortest route. The relatively smaller footprints for moving wine from overseas destinations reflect the greater efficiency of sea transport. Again, I assume these footprints are calculated dock-to-dock: nowehere in Tyler Colman’s postings or in his original paper is it explicated that “last mile” carbon is included in these summations. I am going to guess that “last mile” carbon consumption has been left out of the calculus — if so, between these routes the differences are artificially larger than they would be if the costs of getting the wine to the final destination are included.

I’m interested in the indicated difference between the carbon costs of shipping Napa wine to NYC and French wine to LA — it makes no sense that the former should be greater than the latter. Tyler Colman has responded to questions about this discrepancy from commenters on his blog by noting that he and his co-author “used a port in Texas … (so) there were fewer miles driven.” No explanation was given of the reasoning behind picking a port closer to LA, rather than the East Coast ports where most Bordeaux is actually landed. The data presented in Table 1 of Colman’s original paper are distinctly at odds with the figures presented in the NGM article — the transport footprint presented for France to San Francisco is 22% greater than that for Napa to NYC; the Australia to NYC footprint presented there is 52% greater.

The bottom graph adds some much-needed context to the picture: I have included the proportional carbon footprint — a whopping 22.9 pounds of CO2 — for trucking a bundle of just 25 National Geographic magazines from NYC to Napa. Yes, I have included this as a slam against NGM for publishing a misleading graphic, depicting some questionable numbers, on paper, in a magazine with international distribution. I won’t go so far as to call out NGM as a sanctimonious, hypocritical, greenwashed old-media irrelevancy for doing so. I won’t.

At least my agenda is explicit. I object to the portrayal of California wine as somehow less eco-friendly than wine produced elsewhere, simply according to the criterion of the cost of transport to consumers in NYC — especially if the numbers are suspect. I am left to wonder what Tyler Colman’s explicit agenda is.

I’m not looking for a fight. I am deeply committed to reducing my personal and business carbon footprints. I take into consideration who is making stuff, how it’s made, and where it comes from in all my purchasing decisions. I posted a year ago about moving to lighter packaging for our products. Like others in the wine business, we are actively encouraging our direct-sales customers to choose alternatives to air shipping. I don’t sell a lot of wine on the East Coast yet, but as more rail options for small shipments become available, we will use them. I am personally disinclined to ship by sea, as I believe the ecological costs of ocean transport are greater than the oversimplified considerations of carbon cost alone.

Nevertheless, I’m reading RED, WHITE AND “GREEN”: THE COST OF CARBON IN THE GLOBAL WINE TRADE by Tyler Colman and Pablo Päster very closely, both as a practitioner trained in a “hard” science and as a concerned citizen. I find the authors’ model for calculating carbon emissions unsubstantiated. Many of their assumptions and assertions range from “questionable” to “susceptible to outright refutation.” There is also an implicit but unsubtle negative bias expressed toward high-end wine from California. In my opinion this paper lacks enough scientific rigor to have any merit with respect to moving public policy, much less public opinion.

8 thoughts on “National Geographic Slams CA Wine – Eco Unfriendly

  1. John M. Kelly

    Thanks Don, and I applaud the forceful directness of your comment on Dr. Colman’s blog post (cited above).

    Tyler Colman is unquestionably a good writer, and I often enjoy reading his blog. However he is not a trained economist, he does not seem to understand life cycle assessment, and apparently his training as a political scientist left out the “science” part. I can’t imagine any justification for his original paper other than as a platform to express his personal disapproval for “expensive” California wines.

    As to fact-checking at NGM? I can imagine their perspective: they were presented with a plausible story that fits NGM’s explicit agenda, as well as one of those not so explicit (specific examples don’t come to mind, but IIRC this is not the first time I have seen NGM print something with a neo-prohibition slant).

  2. John M. Kelly

    Don – Here’s the email I sent to National Geographic Magazine:

    My 6-year-old daughter was enthralled with the baby mammoth story in the May issue. We were flipping through the magazine together and came across the “Environment” page. She stopped me – “daddy look! It’s about wine!” (she’s reading pretty well). We went through the article together and I had to spend the next hours explaining to her how dad’s work is NOT destroying the environment.

    See, I run a small winery that makes some of that expensive California wine that Tyler Colman decries for its heavy carbon footprint. I won’t go into my objections in detail in this note because I have gone into them on my blog, here. Seems others have agreed with me. Bottom line: Colman’s numbers are suspect, and the portrayal of those numbers in NGM was unnecessarily hyperbolic.

    I’m not sure what or whose narrow interests were served by this trivial, incomplete, contextually-challenged and misleading portrayal of the ecological footprint of California wine. I am also concerned that the magazine has presented Colman’s internally-inconsistent and poorly-documented work as fact. I will be reading the magazine in the future with a more critical and jaundiced eye than I have in the past.


    John M. Kelly
    Sonoma, CA”

    You might also catch in my next post that Colman’s figures for CO2 output form the transport of wine seem to have changed pretty substantially.

  3. Don Casey

    I intend to drop NatGeo a note as well. I suspect we won’t be the only ones. In IT, you quickly learn that attention to detail counts, and this “analysis” was the most amazing mix of incredible detail mixed with conjecture I’ve ever seen. It’s like saying to build house you need exactly 34,687nails, and a bunch of wood.

    Anyway, glad I stumbled across your blog: I also intend to try out some of your wine next time my wife and I come up to Sonoma. Who knows, we may need to add you to Pine Ridge, Rombauer, Matanzas Creek and Peter Michael on our “club” memberships. (Popped open a 2005 “Les Pavots” last night… OH MY GOD!).

    Don Casey
    Concord, CA

  4. Don Casey

    Sent the following off the NatGeo (spelling errors and all):

    Dear Sirs:

    I take great exception to the “science” behind this article. I have a
    background in IT and transportation, and although a lifelong resident of
    California, I have no financial interest in the wine industry. I have
    reviewed Dr. Colman’s papers, website, and comments thereon, and what
    follows is my analysis of the (lack of) rigor behind the article you chose
    to print.

    Note that a fuller anaylsis is needed to understand the true carbon impact;
    I did not attempt to determine the exact carbon footprint advantage of rail
    over truck (other than knowing it is significant), nor did I attempt to
    ascertain what percentage of Napa wine travels to NYC via rail rather than
    truck… BUT THEN NEITHER DID Dr. COLMAN, or his partner Mr. Päster or
    (regrettably) your author. As it currently sits, the “science” behind this
    article appears to be an odd combination of exact numbers coupled with vague
    and unsupportable assumptions; misleadingly presented.

    I understand you need something crisper than this entire tirade for
    publication, so in the event you choose to publish portions of this letter,
    herewith a condensed version:

    Both the graphic and the research behind this article are
    fatally flawed, and present an inaccurate picture of true carbon footprint.
    Here are just four critical errors:


    Päster’s and Colman’s analysis ignores the impact of movement from
    winery to load port; typically via truck. Napa is only 50 miles from
    Oakland and 400 miles from LA; Bordeaux is MORE than 400 miles from Le
    Havre, yet this component of transportation is ignored. Similar issues
    exist for the other foreign wine producing regions.


    Selecting discharge ports to minimize the distance wine is trucked,
    rather than real-world discharge ports. French wine is typically NOT
    discharged in Houston when destined for LA, and Australian wine is
    principally discharged in LA or Oakland, not NYC. Yet all Australian wine
    in this analysis gets to take a slow, low carbon boat to NYC?


    They completely ignore the significant use of rail in North America,
    a considerably greener alternative to trucking, to the great disadvantage of
    Napa (in this analysis, but not the real world).


    The graphic appears to use line width to demonstrate relative carbon
    contribution, but the human eye and brain tends to interpret area rather
    than width in performing comparisons, thus significantly multiplying the
    perceived impact on the viewer.

    Taken individually these are regrettable lapses. Taken as a
    whole, where every single one “favors” foreign wines over California
    wines… one wonders about hidden agendas.

    I would be happy to provide further information if needed.

  5. Joe

    "Taken individually these are regrettable lapses. Taken as a
    whole, where every single one "favors" foreign wines over California
    wines… one wonders about hidden agendas."

    Amen brother, I feel that the europeans and their loss of market share is making them desperate, again. I'll let our wines stand on their own but what can be done about the article and taking them to task ?


  6. John M. Kelly

    Joe – I don't think the NGM article was driven by Europeans fighting a loss of market share. I think it was driven by Tyler Colman's understandable interest in self-promotion, and his less-laudable interest in slamming "expensive" California wines.

    Fred Franzia's tagline is "No wine should cost more than $10." after reading his stuff over the years, it seems to me that Tyler Colman's persona wallet-o-meter pegs out at around $15. I think it is telling that he beats on the cost of transporting Napa wines to NYC, while never mentioning the far greater volume of cheap Central Valley wines that leave our state via truck.

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