Should Critics Rate Wine Based on Environmental Impact?

sustainabilityMax de Zarobe—chairman of the board of Tuscany’s Avignonesi Winery—has a bone to pick with wine critics. In an open letter to wine critics he argued that they should judge a wine based on it’s green credentials as well as how it tastes.

Today’s consumers call for actionable change to protect our Planet. They’re not afraid to take a stand, with 40% of consumers saying they would boycott a company for not being eco-conscious. Meanwhile, the critics bury their heads in the sand.

The Washington Post’s Dave McIntyre in a conversation with Zarobe pushed back in defense of critics. He writes:

And I wanted to take issue with him on the role of the critic, for while I have for years pointed out when wines I recommend are sustainable, organic or biodynamic, I don’t rate those wines exclusively. My goal is to point readers to wines that offer both high quality and value for their price. The rest is additional information that may or may not influence someone’s choice in wine.

Zarobe’s responded to McIntyre’s argument:

The critics’ duty is to explain to their audience that two wines may both be high-quality, but they have different impacts,” he said. He noted that Michelin has started giving green stars to restaurants that use organic ingredients. Wine critics, he said, should salute wineries that use lighter bottles, reduce fuel use by tractors (including spraying the vineyards less with herbicides and pesticides), and switch to solar or wind power. Avignonesi has recently opted for bottles weighing 380 grams, down from 450 grams, as part of its effort, he added.

He argued that critics should report on how wineries treat their labor as well.

These arguments are an example of a long-standing debate in philosophy, going back to Plato, about whether art should be judged according to its moral worth rather than its aesthetic qualities only. Of course, individual consumers and patrons have to make their own decisions about the degree to which they allow moral considerations to govern their appreciation of art works or wine. But the issue Zarobe raises is focused more on critics than on consumers.

Surely it worth discussing the aesthetic merits of something independently of any moral considerations one might raise. Aesthetics and morality, although related, are focused on different properties and there is something to be learned about a work by focusing only on its aesthetic properties. On the other hand, for wine critics to discuss the environmental impact of a winery’s practices is not “off-topic.” If a critic and her readers consider the question of environmental impact part of a wine’s value, there is no reason to exclude such matters from a review.

However, I have a more practical worry about Zarobe’s argument.

I know what a wine tastes like. I have it in front of me. I know little of a winery’s environmental bona fides unless they have sustainability certifications. But many wineries that engage in sound sustainability practices don’t seek out formal certifications since they are costly. The only observable feature of the wine that might provide evidence of environmental concern is the weight of their bottles. Perhaps we should ding wineries for the mammoth bottles some of them use.

Of course, I can go to a winery’s website and see what they have to say about their commitment to a healthy environment. But how do I know if it is genuine rather than greenwashing? And should I interview their vineyard workers before writing a review?

Even if critics were to put pressure on producers to make this kind of information available, we have no way of knowing whether their claims are true or not. I’m not convinced that becoming a mouthpiece for a winery’s PR department is really what critics should be doing

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