In May, Grain de Sail, an 80-foot steel-hulled schooner, arrived in Brooklyn Marina with a French flag flying against its white sails and its hull packed with 18,000 bottles of organic and biodynamic wine.
Shepherded by a four-person crew through stormy seas, the wine had traveled for 25 days across the Atlantic from Brittany, France, in a temperature-controlled cellar on board, to be distributed across New York. Each bottle proudly bore a sticker: “Shipped by cargo sailboat.”
Grain de Sail Wines is the world’s only commercial exporter of wine by sail freight. Their €2-million, custom-built merchant vessel exports wine from France into New York, and then heads south to the Dominican Republic to load up on cocoa and coffee for the return journey. Each three-month voyage uses just 150 liters of diesel fuel, while traditional cargo ships can burn upward of 200 tons per day.
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Unlike some other sail freight ventures, which amount to curios or gimmicks intended to raise awareness of the viable alternatives to traditional cargo freight, Grain de Sail has proven financially viable; they reported €10 million in revenue in 2022 and continue to grow. They are in the process of adding a second much larger vessel, which will more than double their operations.
“It’s not an experiment,” says Jacques Barreau, who founded the company with his twin brother Olivier. “We want to show it’s possible to bring in high volumes in a sustainable way. If a company’s not profitable, it’s not sustainable.”
The brothers have a background in renewable energy, and after developing maritime expertise while constructing offshore wind turbines, they wanted to turn their attention to reducing the carbon footprint of the maritime transportation industry. Around 80 percent of global trade is transported across oceans on cargo vessels powered by fossil fuels, which accounts for around three percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. When it comes to the beverage industry, transport (by all modes) accounts for roughly four to five percent of the total carbon footprint of wines, according to a 2012 report from the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER).
“When you want to reduce the carbon footprint of maritime transportation, the best way to do it is to put sails on the mast,” says Barreau. “It was done centuries ago; it’s a retro-innovation, as we say at the company.” Rather than add wind technology to a cargo ship, like many freight companies are doing in order to reduce their carbon footprint, Grain de Sail can operate with virtually zero emissions; even the navigational equipment is powered with solar panels.
The initial project, which launched in 2010, aimed to import organic cocoa and coffee beans from Central America and the Caribbean to France for production of chocolate and coffee in a factory in Brittany and distribution locally, but they realized the hull would be empty on the outbound journey, which was the genesis of Grain de Sail Wines. The idea was to fill the hull with a uniquely French product in order to “not waste any part of the journey,” says Matthieu Riou, the company’s wines and spirits director.
The 80-foot, aluminum, double-rigged boat was designed to maximize space in the hull to accommodate as many pallets as possible—1,500 cases per trip—and is insulated with foam to keep the wines between 15 and 18 degrees Celsius throughout the trip without the need for refrigeration. It set out on its first transatlantic crossing in 2020.
The Three Pillars of Sustainable Development
When selecting the wines, Riou tends to work with winemakers that align with the company’s values. “I love to work with the new wave of winemakers,” says Riou. “Winemakers taking over the family vineyard and bringing a little modernity, still working in a traditional way, but bringing some new ideas.”
In short, these are winemakers who are open to the proposal of radically reimagining their transportation. This includes: Mark and Martial Angeli of La Ferme de la Sansonnière in the Anjou region of the Loire Valley, biodynamic since its inception in 1990; Jean-Frédéric and Morgane Bistagne of Domaine des Maravilhas in the Rhône Valley, organic since 1992 and biodynamic since 2004; and Robert Eden of Château Maris in Languedoc, the first B Corp-certified winery in Europe.
Grain de Sail offers producers a reduction in carbon emissions of between 90 and 97 percent, as well as other pollutants like nox, sox, maritime noise, and cargo spillage. The company’s values extend beyond the environment; Barreau founded the company on “three pillars of sustainable development,” including: environmental, economic, and social. For example, the sailors are all on long-term contracts—a rarity in the industry—and no one earns more than two or three times the lowest paid employee.
“We had been researching eco-friendly, low-carbon ways of transporting our wines to the U.S. for some time,” says Eden. “When Grain de Sail came into existence, we immediately contacted them and requested to work with them.” Château Maris was amongst the first producers to sign up for the then-untested venture in 2020. “We have always done things ahead of the curve. In order for change to happen, one must be willing to take risks and test new possibilities,” adds Eden.
Ensuring Profitability—and Scalability
Currently, Grain de Sail predominately works with producers by buying the wines directly and then handling all aspects of the importation, distribution, and sales in the U.S. When the second boat is complete, however, their cargo will increase to 180,000 bottles across two hulls, crossing four times a year, and they will act as a more traditional freight company.
“The cost per day of transportation is cheaper and the boat will go faster, due to the shape of the hull, so we’ll generate more efficient cruising speed,” says Barreau. “These two factors will reduce the final cost for shipping, and that’s why it’s possible to use it as a classical transportation system.”
Shipping with Grain de Sail currently has a 26-day lead time to make the crossing and clear New Jersey customs, and it’s three to four times more expensive than shipping with a conventional cargo ship. Riou is careful to find wines generally not otherwise available in New York; that way the price point increase on the final product due to the extra expense of sail freight isn’t jarring for the buyer. The bigger ship will be only twice as expensive as conventional cargo and have a lead time of just 18 days. For some producers—and consumers—that price tag is worth it.
“It is currently more expensive to ship via sailboat, but this is partly due to economies of scale,” says Eden. “They are building a larger boat, and this should help reduce the cost. As for inefficiencies, we have shipped twice with them and it has been very professional and the wine actually is distributed to our customers faster than when shipped via a traditional transatlantic cargo boat, as the smaller sailboats are not delayed as long in the harbor for shipping, unloading, and customs.”
Right now, Château Maris ships around 10 percent of their product to the U.S. with Grain de Sail, but “no later than 2023, we would like to be shipping all our sales to the U.S. via sailboat, if not before,” says Eden.
The plan, according to Barreau, is to keep growing the company, adding more boats, with the final goal to develop several locations around the Atlantic, potentially establishing a similar operation between the West Coast and Asia. “It’s fully scalable,” says Barreau. He admits, however, it would be hard to replicate their business model without the chocolate and coffee production which right now comprises 90 percent of their profits.
“It’s not easy, but there’s an emergency today with the planet,” says Barreau. “We have to do something now. And if we show the right example, I hope some other company will do the same.”
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Tyler Wetherall is the senior editor for SevenFifty Daily and the Beverage Media Group publications. Her drinks journalism has appeared in publications including Punch, The Guardian, Condé Nast Traveler, Thrillist, and The Spirits Business, which awarded her the Alan Lodge Young International Drinks Writer of the Year. Tyler is also the author of No Way Home: A Memoir of Life on the Run. Follow her on Instagram at @tylerwrites.