California’s wine country is one of the best in the world for growing grapes, but as climate change progresses, it’s also proving to be a region vulnerable to fire. California’s wildfires have damaged more than two dozen wineries and vineyards just this summer. Starting in late July 2021, 458,429 acres of land in California have burned.
Wildfires are not new to California. They’re happening more often and last longer than usual. The Glass Fire in Northern California, from 2020, was active for 23 days. It extended into California’s Sonoma County. Neighboring regions have cause for concern.
Smoke tainted wine
Since smoke particles travel, they leave “smoke taint” on nearby grapes that are still on the vine. Smoke taint can’t be seen or tasted when it’s on the grape. The ashy taste comes out during the winemaking process. Currently, there’s no evidence that smoke taint is harmful to wine drinkers.
At this point, smoke taint doesn’t travel down south, to the east, or the Midwest. It travels about 20-30 miles, So, if a vineyard is within that range, vintners need to make adjustments. Add triple digit temperatures, a drought, floods, and early frosts to the mix.
Grapes grown on the East Coast haven’t been affected by smoke taint. However, residents throughout the East Coast have complained of poor air quality. “Smoke usually thins out by the time it reaches the East Coast,” David Lawrence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, explains. “But this summer the smoke from California’s wildfires is still pretty thick.”
Vintners on the East Coast, down south, and in the Midwest have to contend with heavy rains, flooding, high temperatures, and early frosts. It’s a wonder so many vintners are optimists.
Winemakers don’t want heat
“Winemakers don’t want heat,” Keith Wallace, author, winemaker, sommelier, professor, and founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia, says. “They like sunshine. If it’s too hot, grapes stop producing. A high heat index can cause grapes to become overripe and dry out.”
According to a study in Wine Economics and Policy, even a 2-degree shift in temperature could shrink the regions of the world suitable for growing wine grapes by as much as 56 percent.
Excessive heat causes wine to have a high alcohol content and an overly sweet, almost syrupy, taste. Cold temperatures and early frosts are bad too. “If a frost comes too early in the season when buds appear on the vines, the chances of them ripening are slim,” Wallace says.
Climate change threatens the Napa Valley
Wallace is glad we replaced the term “global warming” with “climate change;” it’s more accurate. “We have extremes and those extremes are bad for the industry,” he says. “The key is to look ahead. Vintners plan 20 years out. That’s how it’s done and how it’s always been done. Unfortunately, with climate change, it’s hard to predict the weather 20 years in the future when you must plant today. If conditions continue as they have been then Napa Valley may cease to be a premier wine producing region within a decade.”
“And with rain, it’s not how much falls, it’s when,” Wallace says.” Flooding in the winter isn’t usually a problem because it’s after the harvest. Floods, however, in the growing season leaves vines waterlogged.”
“And if you ever tended a garden, you’ll be familiar with damage caused by insects, birds, mildew, fungal, and viral diseases.” Many of these pests thrive because of the humidity.
Economic impact of the wine industry
According to a study from the National Association of American Wineries, the industry totaled $219.9 billion in 2017. The report looked at all 50 states; every state produces wine. It’s not just New York, California, Oregon, and Washington. It includes places like Alaska, Florida, and Wyoming, which many of us don’t think of when we think of wine.
“The industry produces jobs, attracts tourism, generates taxes, and enhances the quality of life,” Jim Trezise, president of WineAmerica, says.
In Michigan alone, the wine industry generates more than 27,000 jobs and $5.4 billion annually. Michigan has close to 150 commercial wineries and produces 3 million gallons of wine each year.
New York States, the third largest producer of wines in the U.S., after California and Washington, generates an annual amount of $6.65 billion. New York State is slightly ahead of Oregon and produces twice the amount of wine of its nearby neighbor Pennsylvania.
A number of New York vineyards produce Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Vintners use Vitis vinifera grapes to make these wines, which are European varieties.
Depending on who you ask in the wine industry, the number of grape varieties vary from 2,500 to several thousand. All agree vineyards use about a few dozen grape varieties. Diversifying the types of grapes could mitigate some of the risk.
“We are used to big and bold flavored wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, which are grown in warmer regions,” Gregory Jones, professor and research climatologist in Environmental Studies at Linfield University, says. “We know that ripening characteristics or profiles have changed. We’ve been accumulating more sugar and producing slightly higher alcohol wines and therefore wine styles have changed.”
Climate’s impact on the taste of wine has vintners making changes. “It’s about being open to trying new varieties,” Kwaw Amos, founder of Gotham Winery, New York State’s only African American owned winery, says.
When Amos talks about the evolution of most wine lovers’ favorite varieties, Merlot, Cabernet, and Sauvignon Blanc, he becomes animated. “These grapes are extremely sensitive and it can be a battle to produce these wines. Without the right temperature, you’re not going to produce a good wine.”
To combat climate change, Gotham Winery sources its grapes from family farms in New York, California, and a few other states that fits their flavor profile. Its Finger Lakes facility on a 720-acre sustainable farm near Lake Keuka runs entirely on solar panels.
“We’re always looking ahead,” he says. “And we have to be smarter because consumers know what they like when it comes to wine. Introducing new wines means educating consumers about new varietals. Customers must open their minds to new tastes.”
Amos and other vintners are looking at sustainable options from using natural ground cover such as placing hay on the grounds around the roots to protect from pests to moving plants higher on the mountain for wines that need cooler climes.
An excellent example of vintners changing where to plant is in the Champagne region of France. Traditionally, to call a bottle “Champagne” it must come from the French region that shares its name. Vintners in this region are noticing their product is not producing bubbles, a key characteristic of Champagne. Some French wine makers are buying land in southern England to produce sparkling wine.
“We know we must be open to sustainable wine options, try new varietals, and continually educate ourselves about climate change and how we operate,” Amos says.