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Shipping Wine the Old Way Gains Favor

Why some producers are sending their bottles by sailing ship

Maria Gallucci By November 17, 2021
Grain de Sail cargo sailboat
Grain de Sail cargo sailboat. Photo by Francois Le Naoures.

The Dietrich family makes its biodynamic wine in the rolling hills of Alsace, France, not far from where the Rhine River forms the border with Germany. Organic grapevines unfurl over 46 acres of chemical-free fields, with worms and compost nourishing the soil instead. The wine is fermented on grape skins kept in a cellar made from 220,000 pounds of straw. Delicate white clusters of the vineyard’s namesake “achillée,” or yarrow, blossom throughout the property, attracting pollinators.

Yet perhaps the most surprising aspect of Domaine Achillée’s wines is not how they’re produced. It’s how they’re shipped.

The Dietrichs export their crisp Riesling, sparkling Crémant, and funky plum wine on the wind-powered Grain de Sail. The 72-foot-long vessel is a sleek, modern take on a centuries-old concept. With an aluminum hull and seven sails, the schooner ferries French wine across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.

In mid-November, Grain de Sail will depart from the northwestern peninsula of Brittany, carrying some 10,000 bottles in its hold. Among them will be 720 bottles from Achillée and its new natural wine brand Pépin.

crew members loading wine on the Grain de Sail at Saint Malot

Loading wine on the Grain de Sail at Saint Malot. Photo by François Le Naoures.

“The way we work is impacting the planet less and less, and the way we send the wine should be the same,” says Pierre Dietrich, who runs the family vineyard with his brother Jean.

A growing trend

Sailors across Europe, the Americas, and Pacific Islands are using wind-blown vessels to move everything from chocolate, coffee, and cardamom to medical supplies and nonperishable foods, with the aim of curbing carbon emissions from hauling goods by sea. Ships based in Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, and New York state also carry wine, though Grain de Sail is the first vessel built specifically for the task. In 2023, the ship’s French owners plan to build a second floating wine cellar that’s more than double the size of their New York-bound schooner.

This tiny fleet is a sharp contrast to the oil-guzzling container ships that carry most of the world’s wine exports, which totaled some 2.8 billion gallons in 2020. Giant freighters store bottles of wine in 20-foot-long steel boxes, or haul the liquid directly in large plastic flexitanks that resemble enormous pillows. With thousands of ships moving trillions of dollars’ worth of cargo every year, the global shipping industry accounts for nearly 3% of total greenhouse gas emissions — and rising.

Dietrich says he first learned of Grain de Sail’s wine-shipping venture a few years ago, at a wine fair in the south of France. 

Matthieu Riou, the U.S. wines and spirits director for Grain de Sail, was there scouting for organic wines to carry on the still-to-be-completed vessel. For several months a year, Riou travels throughout France meeting with producers, then sits down with sommeliers to taste wines and pick which bottles to bring on board. He says the selection reflects France’s new wave of winemakers, who are focused on sustainability and don’t yet have a presence in New York’s restaurants or wine shops.

“I like people buying the wine to have something more,” Riou says. “The winemakers and the wines are all good quality, but there’s also a good story.”

Customers seem willing to pay extra for that novelty. Shipping wine on Grain de Sail adds about $3.50 to the cost of every bottle, which typically retail for between $25 to $30. By contrast, shipping wine on a huge container ship that carries thousands of cases only adds about 12 cents per bottle, according to Riou.

After the wine fair, the Dietrichs agreed to ship their bottles on Grain de Sail’s maiden voyage in November 2020, and again last May. 

Customers seem willing to pay extra for that novelty. Shipping wine on Grain de Sail adds about $3.50 to the cost of every bottle, which typically retail for between $25 to $30. By contrast, shipping wine on a huge container ship that carries thousands of cases only adds about 12 cents per bottle, according to Riou.

Long journey

The trans-Atlantic journey of an Achillée bottle begins in Scherwiller, a small village on the 100-mile Alsace Wine Route. The Dietrich family has farmed there for centuries and in recent decades established an organic vineyard, selling the grapes to a local cooperative. In 2016, when Pierre and Jean took over the family business, the Dietrichs began making their own wine.

Before each voyage, the brothers put bottles from the straw cellar onto trucks bound for Saint-Malo, a port city in Brittany. At the water’s edge awaits Grain de Sail.

Earlier this month, yellow cranes began lowering pallets of shrink-wrapped boxes into the vessel’s cavernous cargo hold. Handlers ensure the pallets are evenly distributed on either side, and inflatable doughnut cushions serve as buffers between the pallets, which are held tightly by thick nylon straps. As on a cargo plane, the ropes connect to hooks bolted to the walls and floor, keeping boxes from shifting — even during 32-foot sea swells, says François Le Naourès, one of the ship’s four crew members.

On the first trip to New York, the ship encountered unusually rough weather during the 27-day trip. Even so, only one bottle has broken over the last two voyages, Le Naourès says.

Just as key to reducing rocking and rolling is maintaining a cool temperature: roughly 64 to 66 degrees Fahrenheit. Inspired by fishing boats, Grain de Sail has about a foot of foam insulation in its hull. The crew can run a small air-conditioning unit if temperatures climb too high, though since it uses diesel they try to avoid it. 

After weeks of hoisting sails, fishing, listening to podcasts, and stargazing, Le Naourès says it feels inexplicable to encounter the soaring skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. Cruising past container ships and oil tankers, Grain de Sail makes its way to a private Brooklyn marina at the mouth of the East River. Once on land, the wine tastes best if left to rest for four weeks, Riou says.

Karin Holm Torres, who owns the boutique store Corkscrew Wines, says Riou invited her to climb aboard Grain de Sail last May when the ship was docked for several weeks. Corkscrew primarily carries family- and female-produced wines by small vendors, and the shop participates in a reusable wine bottle program called Good Goods

“When I came across Grain de Sail, I just loved everything they were about,” Torres recalls. “I wanted to showcase a bottle that wasn’t a big black stain on the carbon footprint.” She decided to carry some of the ship’s Champagne, an orange wine from Alsace, and a Cabernet Franc. From this next voyage, she’ll be looking for robust reds and more Champagne for the holidays.

loading dock for the Grain de Sail at Saint Malot

Loading dock for the Grain de Sail at Saint Malot. Photo by François Le Naoures.

Next leg of the journey

Grain de Sail won’t head straight back to France after it unloads the wine in mid-December. First, the sailors will fill the cargo hold with donated medical supplies and bring those to the Dominican Republic — the third stop on its regular route. There, the crew will load up bags and boxes of Caribbean coffee and cacao, finally sailing back to Saint-Malo early next year.

Dietrich says he hopes that, eventually, this sustainable way of shipping goods will become more than a niche. “It should be normal to send all the wines around the world by sailboat,” he says. “And it will be.”

wines entering the Grain de Sail at Saint Malot

Packaged wines entering the Grain de Sail at Saint Malot. Photo by François Le Naoures.

4 low carbon wines to try:

Please note: In the spirit of curbing carbon emissions, Grain de Sail’s wines are only distributed within 300 miles of New York City. If you live in the area or plan to visit, Corkscrew Wines can ship cases across New York state and to Washington, D.C. French restaurant OCabanon can deliver cases within N.Y.C.

From Corkscrew Wines

bottle of Domaine Achillée Scherwiller Alsace Riesling 2018

Domaine Achillée Scherwiller Alsace Riesling 2018

This biodynamic Riesling by Pierre and Jean Dietrich was grown on 55-year-old vines in the gravelly soil of Scherwiller. Vines are maintained by soft pruning methods that involve making small cuts to the fruiting arms. The yellow- and pink-tinted Riesling tastes of tangerine and spices with an intense citrus smell.

bottle of Domaine de Bichery La Source Champagne 2017

Domaine de Bichery La Source Champagne 2017

This organic Champagne comes from the vineyard of Raphaël and Hannah Piconnet in the southern Côte des Bar region. Grown in limestone-flecked soil, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes were hand-picked from a single harvest and left to spontaneously ferment using the indigenous yeasts found on the grapes. This dry, vibrant Champagne shows notes of ripe yellow fruit and toasted nuts.

From OCabanon

bottle of Château Lafitte Jurançon Sec White 2018

Château Lafitte Jurançon Sec White 2018

Winemaker Antoine Arraou produced this dry, biodynamic Jurançon in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, in southwest France. Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng grapes grow on a 12-acre vineyard outside the château — a 14th-century manor house — and were left to ferment in barrels for 45 days. The resulting wine is lemon-yellow in color and smells of white fruits, fresh bread, and smoke.

bottle of Grain de Sail Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2018

Grain de Sail Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2018

Grain de Sail owners partnered with organic winemaker Arnaud Boué in Burgundy to sell wine under the shipping company’s label. These Pinot Noir grapes were left to spontaneously ferment in vats, then aged for 12 months in old barrels. Armel Joly, co-owner of OCabanon, says this light, versatile wine tastes of red fruits and is delicious on its own, or paired with any meal.