Monday, June 30, 2008

Sustainable wine: Wolffer Estates

This week my husband wanted to take a crack a writing.  It is a subject that he is very fond of so I have taken the editor role and he is the writer.  Hope you all enjoy.  

Ok, I love wine. There I said it. I love it, and have a glass just about every night of the week -- partially because one or two glasses of red is good for lowering my cholesterol and partially because I just love the taste, the warming feel it gives in my belly. I don’t know all that much about wine, but know what I like and what I don’t.

Now you may not know who I am, but I’m Melissa’s husband (and editor) so I’m just about as much a nut when it comes to environmental issues as she is. Just about, but I do leave the occasional light on, and I do let the shower run to long in the morning before I get in so I’m not perfect.

I was really excited when Melissa told me that we had been invited to Wolffer Estates in Sagaponack, NY (The Hamptons) for a private tour and interview with the head winemaker and general manager, Roman Roth. Long Island wines have had a pretty spotty reputation, but a few vineyards are known for a consistent and quality product, and Wolffer is one of them. So needless to say I was psyched; I’d get to taste some really nice wines, and talk with someone who is VERY knowledgeable about winemaking.

Until now, I thought my nightly wine drinking necessitated me breaking my environmental vows. But I discovered from our visit to Wolffer, the vineyard is not only known for their reputation for good wine but for their sustainable wine growing/making practices.

Wine making on Long Island has a relatively short history. On Long Island alone there are more than 43 vineyards (according to the Long Island Wine Council). These winemakers cover nearly 3,000 acres and produce upwards of 4,000 tons of grapes a year. So for a small area, Long Island produces a lot of wine, employs a lot of people, and generates a lot of revenue. The first commercial vineyard was planted in 1973, and Wolffer’s first vines were planted in 1987. Wolffer has two area’s planted, one covering 50 acres (which we visited) and another 20 planted on the North Fork of the island. The vineyard produces around 15,000 cases of wine a year. Wolffer is not the only sustainable vineyard on Long Island, there are 7 others, but it’s among the most vocal in touting its farming practices.

Now before I get to the wine, let me take a moment to explain what sustainable growing practices are or “Sustainable Agriculture”.  According to the University of California, Davis: “Sustainable agriculture integrates three main goals--environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Therefore, stewardship of both natural and human resources is of prime importance. Stewardship of human resources includes consideration of social responsibilities such as working and living conditions of laborers, the needs of rural communities, and consumer health and safety both in the present and the future. Stewardship of land and natural resources involves maintaining or enhancing this vital resource base for the long term.”

Why should you or I care if the wine we are drinking is grown sustainably? As a consumer, and someone who cares about environmental and health issues, we can make purchasing decisions that encourage the type of practices we all want to see used.

While the definition of sustainable agriculture is constant, the method varies from region to region, reflecting differences in soil and crop, climate and management styles. For the grape growers of New York State, it’s a process by which growers choose practices that are environmentally responsible while still maintaining the economic viability of the business. Some methods include efficient use of equipment, maintaining soil health and vine nutrition and managing vines for improved pest control.

Roman told us that Wolffer had not used any insecticides in eight years. This was both due to the fact that there hadn’t been any major outbreaks of bugs in the region and that the vineyard has made a decision to farm sustainably. Pests can kill a crop. Fungus can destroy both a crop and the vines themselves. To protect against fungus, Wolffer doesn’t use industrial fungicides, rather Roman sprays his vines with Stylet-Oil. “Stylet-Oil is a food grade, high purity mineral oil. It has had impurities removed through additional distillation steps involving high pressure and steam, leaving a tech white mineral oil-similar to Johnson's Baby Oil. Additional ingredients include emulsifying materials blended into the oil allowing it to mix with water,” according to Jeff Symons President of JMS Flower Farms (makers of Stylet-Oil).

While walking between the rows of Chardonnay grapes, Roman showed us the way the vines had been planted. Amazingly Wolffer had been designed to focus not on increasing yield, but rather increasing the viability of the overall vineyard. Every other season, Wolffer field-hands plant mustard and clover plants in between ever other row of vines to help mitigate pest. There are four acres of wildflowers planted to encourage bees to visit the vineyard to assist in pollination.

Well over the course of an hour talking with Roman we discussed Wolffer’s commitment to sustainable farming while sipping some truly nice and memorable wines.

We started off with the Wolffer Rosé from 2007. As we sat outside, on their covered patio, overlooking the vineyard, Melissa and I were treated to a very nice, crisp Rosé with just enough fruit to keep it honest. Neither of us expected to like this refreshing wine, as we both tend to like full-bodied reds to blended, chilled whites. But, it was hot, it had taken us nearly 2 hours (in Hamptons traffic) to get to Wolffer and this Rosé really took the bite off the heat.

I asked Roman if Wolffer had chosen to farm sustainably for economic or marketing reasons. Roman stated quickly that for Wollfer “…this is a decision made from a healthy vineyard perspective. This is the right approach to keeping a healthy vineyard, to keeping it alive with its own bio dynamic.” Roman explained that while it might cost a bit more to farm in this fashion, with a tunnel sprayer to collect the drippings from any sprayed fertilizer or stylet oil to keep fungus outbreaks down, that long-term it made better economic and environmental sense for Wolffer.

As Roman poured us our second glass of wine, a sparkling Brut Cuvee from 2004 the talk turned to whether or not Wolffer was an organic vineyard. Turns out it is not, but this might not be such a bad thing according to Roman, “By keeping very neat rows and open canopies we have less fungus pressure. We are not organic but, we try to do as much as possible. You have to work your way towards organic and sustainable farming. You can’t just do it over night…well you can, but you’ll make horrible wine, and that’s not in anyone’s best interest.” And in this instance the proof of this fact was in the tasting. This champagne-style wine was excellent – sharp, but not bitter, crisp with a bit of apple taste to it, and very drinkable. Continuing on the discussion of Wolffer’s organic goals, Roman told us it was a possibility but not a guarantee.

After a walk through the rows of vines we went back to the patio for our final glass of wine of the afternoon, a truly impressive Merlot from 2004. Now this was more to our tastes. The wine was bold for a Merlot, with a strong flavor of berries and a smoky, coffee flavor. As the final taste of the afternoon, we settled in to enjoy the sun, the view (Wolffer’s tasting room/patio is one of the most beautiful I’ve been in) and finish our conversation about the value of sustainable viticulture. Roth summarized the entire sustainable winemaking philosophy perfectly, “You have you to be a steward for all of this (the environment), this has to last for hundreds of years, and this sustainable movement is helping us both today, and tomorrow.”

If you are every in the Hamptons, I suggest stopping at Wolffer Estates tasting room. Sit on the patio looking at the beautiful vineyard while drinking some really good wine that has been produced in manner that is not only good for you but the environment.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Recycling Does A Milk Carton Good

I was reading a recent issue of National Geographic's The Green Guide (Spring 2008) and on the last page of the magazine was an image hundreds of milk cartons lining a street to demonstrate how much milk American's consume. The image was taken from National Geographic Channel documentary Human Footprint.  

According to the movie, America consumes 989,985,594,240 half gallons of milk over the course of a lifetime and it takes more than one trillion kilowatt-hours of energy to produce, ship and landfill the milk cartons.  That amount of energy emits 740,674,244 tons of greenhouse gases.  Amazingly, only a tiny fraction of the cartons are recycled.   

That got me thinking.  How many milk cartons does my household go through over a short period of time, say a week? More importantly, why are milk cartons not recycled? They are made of paper aren't they? Even more puzzling is the fact that on the side of some of the cartons I buy, it says "please recycle".  I want to, but my town will not take them. So I decided to do some research on how to recycle a milk carton, and why my town won't do it.  I thought the information would be readily available.  I was wrong.

Initially I was going to save my cartons for one week, assuming this would be plenty of time to get enough information to write on the subject. Well, do a "Google" search on "milk carton recycling" and you will basically come up with... nothing. Four weeks and 30 cartons later, I am finally writing about it. 

This is what I discovered...

Milk cartons ARE recyclable, however, according to an EPA report of MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) provided to me by the National Recycling Coalition, in 2006, 510,000 tons of milk cartons were generated in the United States and less than 0.05% (5,000 tons) were recycled.

In 2006, only a little more than 550 towns across the country recycled milk cartons (source: Organic Valley).  To put this into perspective, there are 556 municipalities in New Jersey. Doing a non-scientific search on the internet of various towns across the country, I discovered you cannot recycle milk cartons in San Diego, DC, the entire state of Pennslyvania, Los Angeles and Austin but you can in New York City and Boulder, CO.

But why?

According to Ed Skernolis, Policy and Program Director for the National Recycling Coalition, "Milk cartons, because of the wax lining, are not universally recycled. Each locality is different, depending on their recycling processing capability. Some communities may allow milk cartons to go into composting/food waste bins if offered."

Boulder, Colorado's Eco-Cycle is the most progressive recycling program in the country. They do recycle milk and juice cartons. Dan Matsch, Manager for the Center for Hard Recycle Materials, Eco-Cycle, said that milk cartons are very good source for recycled paper because the fiber are long, however, they have a plastic coating which sometimes makes it difficult to recycle.  According to Matsch, the main reason that many municipalities do not recycle milk/juice cartons is that they need to be rinsed out which rarely happens.  Once the cartons get to the recycling center they get bailed and shipped (usually by truck, then boat) and by the time they reach their destination for recycling they are "ripe" or partially composted.  

Boulder has dedicated significant resources towards education to teach the community and kids in school the importance of recycling.  The city has been involved in recycling education in the school system for 21 years!  Students are involved...they even have milk carton monitors to make sure that the leftover is poured out prior to placing in the recycling bin.  

Most milk cartons, such as those sold by Organic Valley, are made by Tetra Pak. Tetra Pak manufactures two types of cartons: gable-top and aseptic cartons. The first ones are the chilled cartons, mainly for milk and orange juice. The aseptic ones are used for a variety of food products and have shelf life of up to 12 months without the need of refrigeration or preservatives. They rely on three things: packaging material (six layers of protection), UHT (ultra high temperature) food processing and aseptic filling machines. UHT, or Ultra High Temperature treatment takes place in optimised heat exchangers before packaging. This process minimizes heat penetration problems and allows very short heating and cooling times, at the same time minimizing unwanted changes in the taste and nutritional properties of the product.

One of the biggest challenges with carton recycling is generating volume enough for the recycling chain to make a profit out of recycling cartons. According to Tetra Pak, as recycling is a business, all players are looking for sustainable business: from the recycling facilities to the tissue mills. Tetra Pak has been working with cities and schools across the country to increase milk and juice carton recycling.

Ok, all of this is good and well right?  But, it begs an important question, which is better, milk cartons or plastic ones?  According to Organic Valley, "Plastic is easier to recycle, but is oil based. Paperboard is made mostly of a renewable material paper." Matsch of Boulder's Eco-Cycle believes that "Tetra Pak beats the pants off anything in terms of carbon foodprint. Tetra Paks are very space efficient, using less square feet for shipping, however, they do need to be refrigerated."

Where does the recycled paper go?  To one of the biggest paper companies in the world, Weyerhaeuser. Weyerhaeuser is one of the largest pulp an paper company in the world. In addition, the company collects and recycles wastepaper, boxes, and newsprint to make new products. According to Pete Grogan, Manager of Market Development for Weyerhaeuser Recycling, "We [Weyerhaeuser] accept Tetra Pak and gable top containers (milk) for recycling. In our case, we produce recycled content newsprint from these materials in addition to using old newspapers and magazines as a feedstock."

Ok.  This is a ton of information to swallow. So lets take a quick moment to put it all into perspective. We all consume a ton of milk.  If you're a mom like me, you're practically swimming in the white stuff. If you're reading this you care deeply about both the environment and a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. And, after reading all this you're probably a bit confused on what to do.

Here's my conclusions:

(1) Paper cartons are WAY better than plastic.  They are healthier for your you and kids, and have a much smaller carbon footprint to produce and ship than plastic ones.
(2) Paper can be recycled, so each one of us needs to petition, lobby and work to get out towns and cities to recycle these cartons.  If we each do a little, we'll all add up to a lot of impact.
(3) Read more, learn more and educate more.  Every little bit helps, and my month-long odyssey to learn about this issue has taught me a great deal.  But I have a lot more to learn.  As I do, I'll let you all know.

Monday, June 9, 2008

WIRED Environmentalism

"Attention Environmentalists: Keep your SUVs. Forget organics. Go nuclear. Screw the spotted owl." Wow, if that is not an attention getting headline I don't know what is. Well that is what is stated on the cover of the June issue of WIRED magazine.  The headline continues "If you're serious about global warming only one thing matters: Cutting Carbon. That means facing some inconvenient truths."

So what is this all about? Yes our climate crisis is important but forget organics, drive an SUV... huh? According to WIRED magazine, "The war on greenhouse gasses is too important to be left to the environmentalist" and we need to push everything aside and just focus on our reducing our CO2 emission. Forget about everything else? Our health, cleaning up toxic areas, erosion, our culture and work only on global warming? 

This single minded way of looking at the environment is split up into "10 tenets" of what WIRED magazine calls "the new environmental apostasy."

Here's what WIRED says:

(1) Live in Cities.  WIRED posits that urban dwellers emit less greenhouse gases than those living in suburban sprawl.  Well this is true.  As reported by Reuters on May 30th in a story entitled Big US Carbon Footprint Lie East of the Mississippi,  "metropolitan areas, where people drive shorter distances and use less electricity in their homes, are greener. On average, an urban dweller's carbon footprint was 86 percent of a suburban or rural resident's." So we should all move to cities? Is this realistic? Cram everyone into NY, LA, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, and Denver? LA where you can only see the surrounding mountains when it rains and the smog settles? What about health issues? Also, "green" goes beyond just CO2 emissions. Cities can't sustain themselves. Central Park isn't a farm, and Staten Island isn't used as a giant diary. So yes, urban areas may emit less greenhouse gasses per person, but they are still massive heat islands, net consumers of food, oil and other things that are generated by the generation of CO2, NO2 and SO2.  

(2) A/C is OK.  According to WIRED it takes more energy to raise the thermostat in New England to 70 degrees when it is zero outside then it takes to lower the temperature in Phoenix to 70 degrees when it is 110 degrees outside. Therefore using the A/C emits less greenhouse gases in heating a house in winter. Well how about all the greenhouse gases emitted from shipping all the food that does not growing 110 degree weather to feed those people using the A/C or all the water that needs to be pumped into the swimming pools to cool down those sweating people in Arizona.  

(3) Organics are not the answer. WIRED magazine's argument here is organic dairies do not produce as much milk as industrial dailies.  Organically fed animals take longer to fatten up before going to market.  More time breathing means more time to burp, fart and poop emitting more greenhouse gases e.g. methane. Organic farmers do not produce as much produce per acre as industrial farmers.  Even so, organic farming has become big business delivering "wholesome" food to moms like me across many thousands of miles; think grapes from Chile or Strawberries from California. Well this is one that rips my heart out. Don't eat organic? Are they kidding? First, don't we need to be healthy and alive to save the environment? Organic produce and meats are significantly more nutritious than industrial foods. (To read more about the nutritional difference of organic over industrial produce read my past post "Another Point of the Organic Industry!") The pesticides and fertilizers that are used on industrial farms are ALL made out of fossil fuels, degrading the land and polluting the water from runoff. And the same trucks and planes that are hauling the organic foods are also hauling their industrial counterparts.  So organic or industrial? Go organic. Now I will agree with WIRED on one point.  Buy local.  But local industrial is worse than shipped organic. WIRED's reporters would have us eat the pesticide laden lettuces grown locally. Yuck! Not for me and my family.

(4) Farm the Forest. WIRED reports that 55 years is the age at which a tree's ability to absorb carbon begins to decline. Their solution -- cut down trees and plant new ones -- clear old trees and landfill the scraps. So now we need landfills for trees? Then they suggest planting seedlings and cut them down as soon as their CO2 absorption declines and make furniture. According to Alex Steffen of Editor of in his rebuttal article in WIRED, "Older trees can absorb CO2 for centuries after reaching maturity, while replanted forests can emit more CO2 than they sequester until the new trees are as much as 20 years old." He continues to say "Chopping down forest causes massive soil erosion and leads to desertification, making repeated plantings a dodgy prospect." Gosh, clear cutting just doesn't make that much sense does it? Old growth is still better than no growth.

(5) China is the solution. WIRED says it is the solution because China is producing 35% of the worlds photovoltaic factories (solar panels) and soon will produce inexpensive wind turbines--though there is currently more than a 3 year backlog of orders for wind turbines globally.  I would not say that this makes China the solution. With China's population at more than 1.3 billion and rising, they are more of the problem than the solution. China heats itself with coal, can't feed itself, and has become the fastest consumer of oil and other petroleum-based products in the world. Additionally, China (like the US) has not signed the Kyoto treaty, so they will pump the greenhouse gasses out as fast as they can. So they are the solution? Also, just between you and me, while I love solar and wind, neither are base-load solutions, and can only supplement coal, gas or nuclear plants (and yes I know all about geothermal, but there aren't enough resources to really make a difference.)

(6) Accept genetic engineering. WIRED believes that we need to look at Mosanto, Dupont and Syngenta as saviors who will feed the world- where's Bob Geldoff when you need him? They gleefully report that genetically engineered crops creates higher yields, and that they are the only hope for biofuels. WIRED's reporters even discuss genetically created meat -- lab-grown animal flesh--think Soylent Green--its people. (To read some of my rants on Monsanto  check my past post on milk labeling.) Are they kidding?  

(7) Carbon trading does not work. Now I cannot dispute or agree with this position. I have limited knowledge on this issue. According to WIRED magazine, the trading system put forth by the Kyoto Protocol will slow rising emissions by 6.5 days. That does not sound so good. They feel that a carbon tax would do a better job. To understand the difference between carbon trading and tax read "Carbon Taxes vs. Emissions Trading: What's the Difference, and Which is Better?" by Kevin Baumert posted on the Global Policy Forum. Also, check out Gar Lipow pieces on Grist called "Emission trading: A mixed record with plenty of failures, regulations work better."

(8) Embrace nuclear power. Well I am not sure I can embrace something that leaves us with a lot of radioactive waste. However,  nuclear power does emit a lot less carbon than coal as it is currently used but it is not zero--there is no zero carbon electricity generation. Uranium needs to be mined, refined and enriched; the power plant needs to be built and operated; each step uses fossil fuels, emitting greenhouse gases. The biggest issue for me is safety. A nuclear accident could do extreme harm to people and the environment -- killing thousands of people, injuring hundreds of thousand and contaminating a very larger area of land. Is that worth it? I say no, my husband says yes. 

(9) Used cars not hybrids. A company called CNW Marketing Research Inc. released a study titled Dust to Dust Energy Report which analyzed data on the "energy necessary to plan, build, sell, drive and dispose of a vehicle from initial concept to scrap." Based on the results of this report, which used data points from 2005 and earlier including setting oil at a maximum of $80 per barrel and gas at $3.00 per gallon (a worse case scenario they say), WIRED suggests that we purchased a used car and that a hybrid such as a Prius has a larger carbon footprint than a Hummer.  From concept to road, CNW discovered that because of the nickel hybrid battery of hybrids the complete carbon footprint is higher than a Hummer. To get the full gist of the study you have to read it but what WIRED is suggesting is purchase a used car that the first owner already paid off the carbon debt such as a 1994 GeoMetro XFi -- what they say is the most fuel efficient car there is. However, I do not think I would put my kids in a car that has no airbags with all those "green" Hummers on the road.  By the way, I not sure how this all applies in 2008 when oil is at $140 a barrel and gas is as high as $4.40 in some places.  

(10) Prepare for the worst. So WIRED says some type of climate change is going to happen and I agree with them. We are already seeing it around the world.  But this just means we have to get with the program and stop delaying the necessary steps needed. We have been talking about this for years and we still see delays. The auto industry should be forced to build more fuel efficient cars. Heavy manufacturing industries need to be forced to reduce carbon. Utilities need to invest in new energy sources. Ethanol subsidies need to end. There is so much that must be done.  

Does that mean I need to buy more bikini's to prepare? Not sure what WIRED wants us to do.

What do you think? What are you doing?


Monday, June 2, 2008

Green Your Zip Code

Sometimes someone comes up with an idea and you hit yourself on the head and say "Wow" I wish I thought of simple and pure genius. Well that is what I think about a new program call Not only is it great but it is GREEN.

So what is it you ask? is a unique program that helps your town raise funds for their environmental initiatives. Basically, the company will put your town's zip code on reuseable water bottles and grocery bags and/or magnets. The product says your town's zip code and the words "goes green" after it. So say you live in Maplewood, NJ (the hometown of the man behind the program), the bag or water bottle would say "07040 goes green."  

I first spotted a water bottle at meeting at my son's school and quickly looked up the website on my phone under the table. As a member of my town's "Sustainable Task Force" working to green our town, I quickly wanted to find out what a local zip code was doing on a water bottle.

What I learned was 25% percent of the sales of a town's products goes directly to the organization tied to the program.  It is a fast and easy way to raise awareness and needed funds for any local environmental program.  The money raised could just go to pay to rent a table at the town's street fair where you can sell the product. Resident's using these products will feel like they have taken a step to help a local initiative and be a part of a community that is working to be more sustainable.  

ZipGoesGreen products can help local communities minimize waste, assists in funding green and other town initiatives and serves as an ongoing, street-level ad campaign for the greening of the town. Brilliant!

"Like so many critically important social and political movements, much of the energy and conviction related to environmental issues is being harnessed and organized at the local level. ZipGoesGreen is a unique initiative where towns and local organizations partner with us to collaborate on raising funds to support their green efforts. Our mission is to deliver the simplest and most creatively compelling way to help raise funds to support you and your neighbors’ local green initiatives – the initiatives that are shaping America’s response to the environmental issues that we face," said Mike Aaron, President of ZipGoesGreen.

If you have any role in your local environmental initiatives or know someone who does, pass this along.  To sign up for or learn more about the program, go to the website, email or call 973-821-4213.

I am working on getting it for my zip.

Also, if you know of any other ingenious green ideas like this, please pass them my way.