Wine - Seeing the World Through the Bottom of a Glass (5)

Cross-posted from

What can wine tell us about the world? Plenty, it turns out.  It is one of civilization's oldest products.  At one time it was a necessity, when food was served rotten and water was where you washed and evacuated.  Now it is enjoying a resurgence.  It is an agricultural product, and a unique one.  You see, vineyards have kept records of temperature, yield, and ripeness-dates for centuries, giving us incredibly precise records that tell us reams about the global environment. It is also a luxury item, particularly at the top end.  As such, its sale and purchase can tell us volumes about the global economy.

Today we look at wine, ethanol, and biofuels, and their effect on hunger and the economy.

"If my grandfather could taste what I'm turning into alcohol, he'd turn over in his grave."

The combination of a glut in wine and increased oil prices have led grape growers, and even genuine wine producers, to start turning better and better grades of wine into ethanol.  In 2005, French producers turned enough wine to make 133 million bottles into fuel.  And the trend continues.  

There is so much surplus wine in Europe that the European Union is holding it in vast multi-million gallon wine "lakes." In 2007 it auctioned off 18 million gallons for ethanol production.

Australia, too, is looking to get in on the action, hoping to turn some of its wine into ethanol (though recent droughts, discussed at some length here, might change that).  

Good, right?  Well, maybe not.  The whole purpose is to prop up wine prices, not to create biofuel.  It turns out not only that wine is an incredibly expensive and inefficient biofuel, but that biofuel itself might have some hidden problems that were not adequately considered.  Not big problems, just little things like crippling inflation and actual starvation.

Let's start this look by giving a well-deserved shout-out to the California wine growers, who had the good sense to look at the whole concept.  It takes about 10 gallons of wine to make a gallon of ethanol.  Add to that the cost to process it, to transport it, etc., and the need to keep its price competitive with oil (even at $100/bbl), and it becomes cost-prohibitive.  It makes more sense, if you can't sell your grapes for wine, to pull them up and grow something else.  The only reason Europe is doing it is to subsidize their wine growers.

What else happens, though, when you start making ethanol out of other agricultural products, the ones people actually eat, and the ones that are not in a glut?  In particular, what happens when the government subsidizes such production for political reasons, not economic or environmental ones? Let's see, shall we?

Ethanol can be made from lots of different sources.  The two big ones these days are corn and sugar.  Environmentally, they are simply not competitive. Corn ethanol offers a 0-3% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  Sugar ethanol offers a 50-70% reduction in the same gasses.  Guess which one the United States government subsidizes?  If you guessed "corn" you win.  Here's another one.  Guess which one the United States government hits with a $0.53/gallon import tariff?  Yup, sugar.  But why?

Have you ever heard the phrase "Big Sugar"?  If you haven't, you should Google it.  It is one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, controlled by a tiny handful of companies.

Biofuels are contributing to inflation and hunger world-wide.  Have you bought a bagel lately?  Did you notice how much more it cost than last year?  Bakers are paying three times what they paid year ago for flour.  Why?  Part of the increase is the increased cost of oil, with increased transportation costs. But a bigger part is the move on agricultural land from food production to biofuel production.  

Start with a basic food-fact, calories.  A calorie is a description of energy calculated in heat:

Any of several approximately equal units of heat, each measured as the quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1°C from a standard initial temperature, especially from 3.98°C, 14.5°C, or 19.5°C, at 1 atmosphere pressure.

That energy can be used to fuel a car or to fuel a body.  How do they correlate?  

In agricultural terms, the world appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year.

The UN says:

"People are simply being priced out of food markets. . . . We have never before had a situation where aggressive rises in food prices keep pricing our operations out of our reach."

Thirty percent of this year's grain harvest in the United States will go ethanol production.  Ten percent will go in Europe.  Additionally, the drive to increase biofuel production is leading to increased clearing in the Brazilian rain forest.  In Mexico, the bread staple, the tortilla, has doubled in price this year, entirely from diversion of corn from food to biofuel.  Wheat prices in Pakistan have doubled.  Developing countries find themselves competing with cars and trucks for the very staple of life, bread.

But wait, there's more.  You see, increased corn ethanol production is predicted in increase the Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone":

What is the conclusion? Drink more wine. And on that note, today's Wine Tasting Note:

1997 Chateau Gloria St. Julien

Color was medium garnet but slightly cloudy. The scent was very floral, with violet and lilacs, along wtih black fruit and a whiff of nutmeg. Blackcurrants and violets start the palate, followed by black raspberries and then soft tannins. It finished with a hint of bloody meat and black fruit. This was a little thin on the mouth feel, almost watered down. Finish was medium-long.

On the second night this was still floral, with a little unsweetened cocoa joining the blackberries on the nose. The palate still had the same blackberries and violets, but some leather, unsweetened cocoa and hints of tar were there, too. Finish was still medium-long, and the tannins softer.

If you have this, drink it now. It is good, not great, but it's not going to get any better.

Tags: corn, Economy, Environment, Ethanol, Iowa, Mexico, pakistan, sugar, wine (all tags)



by sricki 2008-04-09 09:04AM | 0 recs
Great diary - what a pleasure to read...

something with substance.  

Anyway, yes, let's all drink more wine.  For a lot of good (yummy) reasons.

Have you ever heard of Tobin James wines?  Probably not very chi-chi in wine circles, but very good none the less (in the humble opinion of someone who knows NOTHING about wine...except what I like.)

by Shazone 2008-04-09 09:54AM | 0 recs
Re: Great diary - what a pleasure to read...

I have not, but a quick peek at Cellar Tracker tells me perhaps I should look for it - ble=Notes&szSearch=Tobin+James

by dhonig 2008-04-09 10:39AM | 0 recs
Here's the one we love... 7/01/tobin_james_not.html

I get wine headaches but not with this one.  It's very drinkable (shows what I know about wine!).

Now if only I could find it for $15/bottle!!

Thanks for the cellartracker website - I've bookmarked it.

by Shazone 2008-04-09 11:54AM | 0 recs
ah, gloria st. julien.

gloria has always been an excellent value for a bordeaux, and a consistent producer - i can't say i ever had an undrinkable bottle. it's an upstart of a vineyard- it didn't exist in 1855 (?) when the original classification system was devised. it's soft, smooth, and drinkable at a relatively young age. the blend of grapes and fermentation process is designed for short-term pleasure, not decades of cellaring.

long after i gave up drinking, i used bottles of gloria as a hostess gift - think i was paying $25-30 just a few years ago. the people who didn't thank me effusively when i gave it to them always did so later. it's an ideal wine for a dinner for two, after you're run all the guests off ;-)

by campskunk 2008-04-09 10:54AM | 0 recs really know your wine!

I know you know your opinion of you grows daily!!

by Shazone 2008-04-09 11:56AM | 0 recs
Re: really know your wine!

thanks! gloria's the best wine i'll pay for if someone else is drinking it ;-)

by campskunk 2008-04-09 12:04PM | 0 recs


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