In the Press – Australian Financial Review

In the Press - Australian Financial Review

4 June 2021

Enough of bottles already, urges top Australian wine consultant

by Max Allen - Drinks columnist

Richard Smart has been calling himself “The Flying Wine Doctor” for decades.

After gaining a PHD in vine canopy management in the US in the mid-1970’s, the Australian viticultural expert has forged an illustrious career, consulting to wine growers in 40 countries, lecturing at universities, presenting papers at scientific conferences, writing books.

“Thirty years ago, people who travelled the globe working in different wineries started calling themselves ‘Flying Winemakers’,” says Smart. “So, I became the ‘Flying Vine Doctor’.”

AFR - Richard Smart - Image by Arsineh Houspian
Dr Richard Smart says wine pouches are far better for the planet than wine bottles. Image by Arsineh Houspian

Not any more. At 76, he’s still working, still consulting, still writing papers. But now he calls himself “The Carbon-Conscious Vine Doctor”. Now, he consults to vineyard owners on the other side of the world over Zoom.

“I think COVID has been a good thing,” he says, with typical bluntness. “It has taught us that you don’t need to fly to have a meeting. I don’t need to fly to go to a vineyard. That’s amazing. I’m so bloody stupid I didn’t realise it before. My logo used to be an aeroplane. Now it’s an internet [Wi-Fi] symbol.”

Throughout his career, Smart has been unafraid to say things his clients, or a regions grape-growing community, or the wine industry as a whole, find uncomfortable. Especially when it comes to climate change.

AFR Richard Smart Napa
Dr Smart demonstrates shaded canopies and yellow leaves, somewhere in Napa in the 1980s.

He first raised the issue at a wine conference in Europe in 1988, telling an incredulous audience that, thanks to the warming planet, they would one day be forced to grow grenache in Bordeaux. Back then, the Bordelais laughed. Three decades later, they voted to allow seven warmer-climate grape varieties into the appellation, including, remarkably, the Portuguese – i.e. non-French! – red grape touriga nacional.

In 2007, I was in the audience at an Australian wine conference when Smart told the assembled growers and producers that “climate change is the biggest challenge the Australian wine industry has faced in its history.” I could hear sharp intakes of breath as Smart predicted that some regions would be too hot to grow grapes by 2050, and that there needed to be major viticultural change – moving vineyards to cooler regions; planting heat-tolerant grape varieties – to adapt.

Even before the pandemic forced planes out of the sky, Smart had shifted his focus on climate-change mitigation and carbon-reduction from the vineyards in which he has spent his life to the wineries, wine retail trade and us, the consumers in the bottle-shop aisle.

“I believe that the wine industry has an ethical and economic imperative to lead by example in this area,” he says. “They owe it to their employees and their customers.”

“A lot of the big wine companies are talking about emissions reduction and sustainability but it’s bullshit. They buy carbon credits rather than actually doing something about the problem.”

wine bottles
Glass bottles can account for up to 50% of the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine. Alternative packaging, such as Greenskin Wine’s pouches, could reduce its impact on the planet.

Wine bottle production in Bordeaux.  Smart says glass is problematic because it takes a lot of energy to make, little of it is recycled and its shape is inefficient.

One of the things wineries could do better, he says, is to concentrate on making their waste streams more efficient.  For example, wineries could take all the vine prunings and stalks and seeds left over from wine growing and making, and put them through a pyrolysis machine (where organic matter is burnt in the absence of oxygen) to produce not only energy to run the winery but also biochar, which can be returned to the soil, sequestering carbon.

Smart also points out that wineries produce lots of CO2 during fermentation – “about the purest form of CO2 you can get” he says.  “And we have the technology to collect and reuse it.  So why aren’t they doing it already?”

But the biggest problem, he says, is bound up in how wine has been packaged for the past 300 years: in heavy, round glass bottles.

“Why is glass such a problem?  It takes a lot of energy to make it.  Very little of it is recycled – and when it is, it has to be sorted and reheated.  More energy.  More carbon.  And the shape is so inefficient: think of all that space between each round bottle.”

Greenskin Wine - perfect picnic wine
Glass bottles can account for up to 50% of the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine. Alternative packaging, such as Greenskin Wine’s pouches, could reduce its impact on the planet.

He points to Life Cycle Analysis research showing that the packaging and transport of wine in glass bottles can account for 50 per cent or more of that wine’s carbon footprint.  This, he says, is indefensible when you consider that 90 per cent of all that wine is drunk within two weeks of purchase.  The costs to the planet far outweigh the benefits to the consumer.

Alternative packaging, such as the new range of Greenskin Wines reviewed here, needs to be promoted, and a broad cultural shift away from bottles needs to be encouraged.

It will be consumers and retailers who will drive the change.  Smart says: consumers who are worried about reducing their carbon footprint for the sake of their children and grandchildren, and retailers who respond to that concern and demand change from the producers.

“One of my visions is for a retail wine store that will have a house white and a house red in a keg.” He says.  “Consumers can bring a bottle, fill it up, take it home and, when it’s empty, bring it back for more.  It’s ‘recycling’ glass at a household level.  Like how I used to buy wine in Griffith when I was working there in the 1960s: we would take our empty flagons along to Penfolds and get them to fill up for us.”

The pandemic showed us we can change our behaviour in radical and unexpected ways, Smart says.

“It almost makes me believe there is a god, who sent COVID to make us ready for climate change,” he says.  “It has forced on the world an alternative lifestyle that it otherwise would not have embraced.  If we can adapt to planes being taken out of the sky, we can adapt to alternative packaging of wine.”

AFR - Greenskin - the bottle-less bottle

“To my mind, this is the best alternative packaging currently on offer,” says Richard Smart.

He’s talking about Greenskin Wine, a new business developed in Western Australia by Mike Davies, who has decades of experience in the field through his wine-bottling company, Portavin, and marketer Kim McKee.

The lightweight, strong, re-sealable Greenskin pouches each hold 750ml of wine, take 80 per cent less energy than glass to produce, and weigh 40 per cent less than bottles, producing far fewer emissions in manufacture and transport.  They’re also completely recyclable.

“We have set up a free, easy recycling program,” says McKee.  “Each six-pack includes a pre-paid satchel for people to put their empties in and drop in the mail.  They then go direct to our recycling partner, REDcycle.  This is the first ‘mail-in’ system of this kind that we know of.”

The first Greenskin release features six different wines from the 2020 vintage made by top producers in Margaret River and Great Southern.  I found the pouches easy to handle and good to pour from, and the wines inside were pretty tasty too – the fresh, lemony chardonnay and slinky, plummy syrah are particularly good.

They sell in packs of six, costing between $135 for six pouches of the sauvignon semillon and $199.20 for six of the cabernet merlot.  You can also get a mixed pack of all six wines for $186.50.

AFR - Max Allen

Max Allen is the Australian Financial Review’s drinks columnist.  He is an award-winning journalist and author who has written about wine and drinks for close to 25 years.  Connect with Max on Twitter.  Email Max

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