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The Road to Carbon Zero: How Sommeliers Can Travel on the Right Side of the Carbon Road

Jeremy Ellis and Christophe Heynen may be located half a world away from each other, but the sommelier and Master of Wine share a commitment to our environment. Ellis is a mainstay of the New Zealand hospitality sector, starting is sommelier career in the late 1990s and eventually making his mark at some of country’s top restaurants including Badduzzi Restaurant, working as Group Sommelier of the prestigious Robertson Lodge Group and then as a private hospitality consultant with restaurants, luxury lodges and retail groups as clients, including Huka Lodge, New Zealand’s oldest and top-rated luxury Lodge.  This year, Ellis accepted the position of General Manager of Maison Vauron, an Auckland based retailer of French wine and cheese.

Christophe Heynen is founder and managing director of Gustoworld Belgium, owner and board member of several wine import companies in France, Luxembourg, and Belgium. His main company, Gustoworld is a well-known, leading fine wine importer with extensive activity, notably in Belgium and France. In 2019, Gustoworld became the first wine importer in these countries to be certified fully C02-neutral.

After graduating with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management in Switzerland, Heynen worked for years in the hospitality business in North America before returning to Europe to begin his life in wine within his own company. Christophe has lectured about wine in several of Belgium’s most prestigious business clubs and schools and has judged at several international wine competitions but never lost touch with service roots. He trained several of the world’s leading sommeliers in their quest to become the last Best Sommelier of the World title in 2019.  In 2020 Heynen obtained the title of Master of Wine (MW).

 

Of his own personal journey to carbon-neutrality Heynen says “five years ago, it became clear to me that in the long-run I could not be in agreement with my own company’s core business – the import and distribution of wines from around the world into Belgium and France. As an individual I am attentive to the impact I have on the environment – a subject that we as a family have often discussed. I live in the countryside, where we source most of our products from local farms, or local business (butcher, cheese, bread…). We’re lucky in the sense that this is possible to purchase all these quality products, locally grown or sourced. My thought process at the time was: what is the point of importing a wine from Patagonia or Central Otago? Does this still make sense in the long-run?”

Heynen was also in a period at the time of excess travel, an unfortunate biproduct of anyone’s journey to become a Master of Wine. Ironically as Heynen traveled to all corners of the globe he says, “the main discussion points were often centered around climate change, its impact on viticulture, on wine style, on the future of our business.”

These discussions led to Heynen wanting to precisely understand his carbon footprint was, and how he could limit it while continuing to create value for his company.  According to Heynen “we all have our contradictions when it comes to the impact we have on the planet, as consumers which includes me. Decisions must be made on a permanent basis, and factual elements are often overlooked for more emotional ones. Things also move quickly in our world, and I am very busy that it is not always easy to reflect and act. After reading articles, books and making internal audits on our carbon footprint, my interest spell over quickly to larger questions of equity, fairness in the treatment of people, the planet, our society. I believe that in this life, it’s about making small steps, little by little – make a change. “

ASI sat down with both Ellis and Heynen to get their insights on the impact climate change has now on how we do and should do business, along with ways sommeliers can be part of positive change. Ellis provides the perspective of someone working closely with restaurants and retailers within a single country (New Zealand) while Heynen provides his perspective from as an importer of wine.

ASI: How did you steer your company to carbon neutrality?

Christophe Heynen: Every year, we welcome trainees from the best French wine universities at our company HQs for 6 months. They usually have to write an internship report. When recruiting the trainees in 2016 and 2017, I chose young people with an interest in environmental questions. Each of them was asked to perform a complete study of all our operations; the way we import (quantity, frequency…etc.), impact of our cars/trucks (also our delivery tours), mobile phones, internet/social media, building (offices and warehouse) maintenance/repair, heating, waste sorting, our wines (production, approach) …a real complete study to understand all the flaws or options to improve (and there were many). This served as a basis to make changes and reinforced our desire to drastically reduce our carbon footprint. So, we started little by little implementing solutions and modifying our behaviors, and this led in 2018 to our complete carbon neutral certification as a company. We also reduced the use of plastic, increased recycling, the use of renewal energy, and reduced our carbon emissions by at least 30% over these years.

The adaptation was important and is now fully part of our company’s values and philosophy. It’s not greenwashing, but a fundamental company value adopted by all our employees, at the core of the way we want the business and move ahead in the future. We want to be the leader on this segment, and actively communicate with all our producers about this.

 

ASI: Chefs have long championed an imaginary 100-kilometre circle for sourcing produce. Can we apply similar standards to our wine lists?

Jeremy Ellis: While there is obviously a relationship between food and wine, comparing wine to food as a direct product is a little misaligned. If you were to take this question to its logical conclusion you would then ask should you be buying glassware from Austria, coffee from the Caribbean and so on…I believe this question is more relevant in a country like the USA, Australia or Canada where geographical stretches from city to city and vineyard area to dining precinct are much larger than New Zealand. Western Australia to Sydney exceeds 3000 kilometers by crow flight or almost 3900 kilometers by road or rail.  British Colombia’s Okanagan valleys five hours drive from Vancouver, the nearest largest city.

There is a practical question that needs to be asked. Can you provide your guests with a broad and qualitative dining experience if one was to apply that? And there are far too many variables to summarize effectively. If you are a small niche business, you can probably achieve this- as long as you are in proximity of a wine region. However, f you are a fine dining restaurant, or a smart casual restaurant with a large customer base, this may not be so achievable.

The good news is many restaurants in New Zealand do have a local focus for wine. Even large upscale restaurants will have good representations of local wine regions, but the market pressure does not allow for this practice alone. Trends, specifically local ones, such as tourism expectation – who would come to an Auckland restaurant from overseas and not be able to buy a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or Central Otago Pinot Noir? – and so on all play a part and so this must be balanced against this desire.

The reality is I can grow potatoes pretty much anywhere, I can’t grow quality grapes just anywhere. The comparison between food production and wine is faulted in this argument because of the requirements of producing quality wine, versus the requirements of producing quality food. While there are similarities the challenges of food production can be offset in other manners, that simply is not practical for wine production. Think greenhouses, and ability to change management techniques. Further to this market expectation is different because of ignorance. New Zealand has mostly grass-fed beef. Consequently, ‘Kiwis’ tend to enjoy grain fed beef far less. Does this mean grain fed beef is worse or better? Of course not, but market drive is for grass fed beef and thus restaurants that don’t accommodate that, have to be niche and thus smaller in their focus or risk closing their doors. The same can be applied to wine. The difference is I can literally raise cows anywhere and modify certain aspects to bring out the best results. I can’t do the same with grapes if I am focused on producing quality.

In summary – yes you need to apply a different imaginary circle. In New Zealand’s case it’s not a circle. It’s a ruler. We are a thin country. Should the motivation be carbon offset alone? I am not sure on that.

 

ASI: One of the greatest impacts our industry has on the environment is through the shipping of wine. How do you measure the impact of shipping when calculating your businesses carbon footprint? Does shipping distance ever become a factor in your decision-making process whether to represent a wine or not? What other factors are there to consider?

Christophe Heynen: The greatest carbon impact in the industry is not the transport, but the production and use of glass bottles. We never favour wines in heavy bottles. The ideal would be Bag-in-Boxes from a carbon perspective, but that does not fit with our level of market and our market positioning. Oh, and we’re no fans of wooden cases either. Despite the numerous prestigious wines, we import we favour cardboard boxes, even for very high-end wines.

Nevertheless, of course transport has also a major impact, since wine is heavy and takes space. We measure the carbon impact of each bottle by looking at the exact distance that the truck(s), ship(s) take, and what type of trucks are used, how many palettes or size of containers/how many containers to the ship, the carbon impact of that ship. The distance is not a factor of decision for us, since we import wines from all over the world and that is our core business. We cannot change that aspect in the company.

To reduce our carbon footprint, we made modifications to the way in which we import: we try to favour larger quantities or consolidations of several producers to get full truck loads, with minimal to no over carriage. From the New World, we always favor 40-foot containers, direct lines to Antwerp if possible. We fill the palettes to the maximum. We can see from the calculations that this reduces our carbon emissions. Lately, we are looking into bringing the containers from the port of Antwerp to Liège Port by barge (one barge is 52 times less impactful on environment than a truck). It’s a process that would slow down delivery by at least a week and remains currently more expensive than road/truck delivery.

All of this leads to precise calculation and large Excel files (that take a lot of time), which are audited twice. Once by our certifying body (CO2Logic) and a second time by the company Vinçotte, which all look at all our carbon impacts (not only transport). In the end, we compensate our CO2 emissions by financing a project through CO2Logic which offsets our carbon emissions somewhere in the world.

 

Jeremy Ellis: It’s important to note that New Zealand has relatively good infrastructure for moving freight across New Zealand’s many agricultural regions. Originally driven by sheep and dairy this is now also used for wine production and freighting, resulting in easier access and even wine making happening in regions outside the place of origin. Rail particularly plays a big part as does shipping. Commuting flights happen every day from centers around the country, the cost to patrons is offset by freight. Road freight is used, but less so.

The bigger challenge for a country like New Zealand is the carbon footprint in wine production. Bottles must be imported along with barrels and so on. Being in New Zealand this impacts the carbon footprint more dramatically. Ironically cork is a huge issue as we can only source from Europe, while glass is available in Australia. Screw caps are available for relatively cheap because of aluminum smelting here. Throw in that 90% of our energy in the South Island is hydro and you end up with a far greener product than cork.

 

ASI: How should, does natural, biodynamic and organic fit into your selection process? When making choices to represent a wine what is your personal philosophy with respect to making selections based on farming and winemaking processes?

Christophe Heynen: It is a complex subject, and there are no absolute right or wrong answers. In all three “categories”, there are areas of improvement necessary. More often than not, carbon footprint is just a consequence of certain actions. Emotional and factual elements impacting the decision factors are not always aligned, in particular when it comes to products as wine with emotional connections. This results in many wine professionals actually following or supporting trends in a general understanding that they are better for humans and the environment, but not looking exactly at the carbon consequences. I believe that unfortunately, it takes more than just “talking”.

In a vintage like 2021, northern production regions (Burgundy, Champagne…) all suffered heavy rains. As such, many organic and biodynamic producers were out with their tractors many times spraying (copper sulfate preparations, or biodynamic preparations). In such instances, saving the grapes is more important for the survival of the operation than carbon impact. Regulations have little impact on this. Bringing a harvesting crew into Burgundy from Romania has a higher CO2 impact than using a harvesting machine in Chablis…yet we are still all to consider that the greatest wines of this planet are made by hand harvest. If you want to consider CO2 as the main focal point, things become too complicated. We are not the company with the lowest CO2 emitting producers.

As far as we are concerned, I always visit the winery before importing a new wine; it is important for me to understand how the wine is made, where the grapes are grown. Is the fruit (grapes) purchased? From which sources? How is it transported? How is the wine produced? What are the sustainable practices in place in the vineyards and in the winery? Are there certifications? In every instance, I take into consideration the country, the region and most importantly the people. With respect to my choice, it is firstly based on the quality of the wine – so the carbon impact is not the first factor – but as an expert in the field I consider it when analyzing all elements. I consider this is a plus. From studies, we understand that a 3 Euro wine will have to be made in a more “industrial” way, with usually a higher CO2 impact. It will “sometimes” also be less fair in terms of how people are treated, paid for their work. I take all these factors into consideration. And while we had many low-end wines at the beginning of the company, I have moved away from this sector over the years.

 

Jeremy Elllis: My concern here is that we have put natural and organic/biodynamic in the same basket. Natural wine is not always biodynamic nor organic.  Personally, the more science that is coming out is pressing natural as actually being worse for people’s allergens than sulphur dioxide alone, as the production of animes within the wine (specifically anti-tyrosine, antihistamine, cadavasine and others) are often the resultant allergens that people are responding to. The earlier sulphur is introduced to the winemaking, the less of these reactive proteins exist within the wine.  There is much to debate around this- and my first thought is:  is the wine any good? If the answer is yes, then great. List it. If the answer is: actually, it is prematurely oxidized, faulted, bacterially infected etcetera. then my answer is probably don’t encourage poor production behaviours.   Natural wine is not the same as organic or biodynamic and should not be treated as the same.

Organic and biodynamics have been in movement in NZ wine, since James Milton first went full organic in 1984 in Gisborne. Slowly around the country other producers have been doing the same.  Does it make a difference in selecting the wine for a wine list? Biodynamic and organic wines tend to be produced by people with hands on approach. Often practicing minimalist intervention winemaking already. This generally means producers practicing these philosophies are already prepared to take greater care than producers whom may not be doing so. This means the wines tend to be of a high quality. They also tend to be more expensive because of this.  For listing on wine list, it still needs to fit in within the overall strategy.  So for me, it’s more: do I want to represent producers whom have a hands on and caring approach with decisions made in the field, or do I want mass farming practices and decisions made in a board room? I always look at the former as a guideline for quality.

Does it add a unique selling point? Yes and no in New Zealand.  Rippon, Millton and Felton Road all practice organics, and Felton Road and some of Milltons’ wines are Biodynamic. What attracted people to the wine wasn’t the status but rather the quality. As long as organic and biodynamic producers focus on quality- the long-term impacts on soil diversity will pay off and their quality will not drop as the soil will not age as rapidly. More traditional practices that are not environmentally healthy will result in challenges in the future.  From a story telling perspective, it adds depth and authenticity.

 

ASI: Being an environmental leader is more than simply the products the impact of the liquid in the glass…to what extent do you apply reducing carbon footprint practices to other aspects of the business (energy, renewable resources for décor, reducing waste etc.)?

Christophe Heynen: As mentioned before, all our actions in the company, investments, choices are looked at from a both a CO2 emission perspective, but also relative to societal impact. We have solar panels and purchase green energy for the rest, we use low emission cars, we have banned the use plastic, we limit the use of air-conditioning. Our office lights are automated, and all led light. We don’t heat or cool the warehouse (but have invested in special triple-layer insulation). We purchase recycled paper, we use tap water, the décor material is all from wood, recyclable, we use eco detergents. To summarize we invest in anything that can lower our impacts. We also don’t accept samples sent to us in bubble paper, or in polystyrene foam packaging. We use ourselves bubble paper made from corn, fully recyclable and cardboard packaging. We recycle the corks, cardboard and glass bottles and we separate all our waste.

 

Jeremy Ellis: This is a hard question, because within New Zealand as most sommeliers rarely get much opportunity to have input beyond beverage. I recently did a small stint at Kingi Restaurant which is New Zealand’s first full green Hotel, and itself is very focused on green ideals. The impacts we worked and focused on including recycling paper and using that paper for dockets and the like in the restaurant. From a beverage standpoint, avoid the use of synthetic chemicals and investigate using ionization cleaning machines for glassware. But again, these can be more expensive options beyond many peoples reach (a good ionizing glass washer costs four times that of a traditional model). Other business practices include using low energy bulbs, LEDS, and natural rather than synthetic fibers within the restaurants. Also consider using low impact materials such as bamboo for disposable knives and forks, plates for takeaway.

However, these tend to be the more obvious savings. The ones sommeliers don’t tend to think about because we tend to be focused on qualitative and experience for our guests is refrigeration and lighting. As I stated earlier, in New Zealand we are lucky as the majority of our power is hydro, then wind and a small percentile of coal.  That said, ensuring self-closing doors on refrigerators in bar set ups, ensuring insulated ice wells to discourage melting, led lighting rather than traditional bulbs are important energy savers as is ensuring wasted heat is used rather than pumped out into the atmosphere. Minimize air-conditioning, although luckily because of New Zealand’s mostly moderate climate, we rarely need air-conditioning. At Kingi we had huge doors and windows that were opened when hot and use standing umbrellas to encourage shade. It needs to be a team focus. From a personal perspective the first thing I looked at Kingi was the use of disposable coffee cups- encouraging regular morning customers to bring their own. Our packaging was all recycled and all of our food scrapes went to organic composting. All our paper was recycled or alternative materials (Bamboo and potato starches noted here). The reality is most of these issues are outside a sommelier’s normal field of responsibility and require a team focus. And maybe that’s where the sommelier can have an impact. By raising the questions and encouraging staff to focus on the same issues. So the biggest impact a sommelier can have in my opinion is once again being the knowledge sharer. Question and making people think about their choices.

 

ASI: If a sommelier were to ask you how can I build a wine program that will reduce my carbon footprint. What advice would you give them to start out?

Christophe Heynen: Firstly, the production of wine produces less carbon than the production of meat or cheese, so that in a restaurant there are far more things to do in those areas. Making a choice is quite complex; when it comes to higher-end restaurant which always have a very large list of wines from everywhere – it seems normal that the sommelier, owner wants to provide the best experience for the customers and has on hand a very large number of wines (in fact, a company like Wine Spectator rewards number and diversity) – this is in contradiction with CO2 impact, but understandable from a business perspective. Also, for example, getting a bottle of Bordeaux into Belgium (about 1000 km) by truck emits more C02 (because usually shipped in smaller quantities of let’s say 50 cases of 12) than getting the bottles from say South America (usually transported in a 20 or 40’ container, in much larger quantities).

My recommendations would be to purchase better crafted wines; prefer organic and biodynamic-certified wines, and if possible lower the number of wines in your selection. Increase the volume per wine per order and go for a higher rotation (you can change the lists more often). Maybe have a set “prestige” list with a few bottles each of the rare top wines and then a small selection / not necessarily “cheap” of wines for higher. When making this list, try to work with a minimum number of suppliers, and rotate them. Try to do fewer small orders and have your suppliers do less frequent transports.

Other things can also be analyzed in your operations such as fridges, icemaking machines. Look at the things in your restaurant that consume most energy (machines). For instance, look at the temperature in your cellar, if it’s not natural, and ask yourself ‘do you really need to have it that low?’ You could even go as far as to look at the professional clothes that restaurant staff is wearing – natural or made from polyester (derived from Petrol)? Again, it’s a complex thing, there are no perfect solutions, it’s about little things.

Inquire about how the wines are made. Contact the producers and be sure to go beyond the emotional commercial elements. When visiting the producers, make your opinion. Your judgement should be about right as you understand this business. Choose to work only with reliable producers and importers. Make sure you as a restaurant pay your invoices on time, and that your suppliers do the same. Inquire about how they import, in which way this could be improved. Do they treat their staff fairly? Are they forward-looking or just looking to make a short-term profit? Source locally as much as possible or purchase from company like ours where you know that a big effort is made to reduce and compensate (with not just money) CO2 emissions.

Analyze all the things that happen in your restaurant and try to see what little things can be improved; make the first step! Compensate your CO2 when you travel (it’s not about feeling better, but it is a very small step in the right direction).

 

Jeremy Ellis: In this circumstance my thoughts would be more focused on their circumstance, but my focus would be around:

  1. Where are you sourcing your glassware?
    Can it be locally produced or sourced? Shipping is the biggest contributor to New Zealand’s carbon footprint.
    2. Look at the materials used in your bar and restaurant.
    Are the materials sourced locally? Are you emphasizing this?
    3. Recycling and energy management.
    How are you recycling the bottles sold? Discuss with your local power companie about energy saving programs. Is it practical for your location?
    4. List producers who are carbon certified.
    This gives you true transparency on the suppliers you are supporting and their carbon footprint.
    5. Recycle, recycle, recycle.
    Paper for menus etc. Paperless options like Ipads and tablets are all imported, use huge amounts of energy, are mostly non-recyclable and use minerals that are rare. New Zealand, for example, has a huge paper production industry and a lot of forests to support it. iPad or tablets for a wine list is short sighted and a gimmick. The main reason restaurants are moving this way is because of the cost of printing rather than environmental impact. An IPAD uses 20-30 aha to complete to full charge with an 8-10 hour window before being empty. This is a huge power drain. Paper production per unit depending how much and what sort you are using sits about the same but doesn’t require recharging, and is recyclable, unlike the plastic and resin on most tablets. Thrown in the lithium sourcing for the battery and the picture becomes even more clear cut. That said, look into phone apps that provide people easy access to your wine list. Make it focused on phone display not web display so people can easily read the wine lists on their phone.

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