April 20, 2020

How Will Climate Change Impact California Wine?

As temperatures rise, vintners plan for the future.

What does climate change mean for wine in California? Potentially, dire problems: rising temperatures that render some regions too hot for the varieties they grow; increases in vine diseases and pests; fewer cool nights leading to decreased grape quality; temperature spikes damaging grapes on the vine; and, as is very clear now, increased instances of forest fires, threatening personnel, harvests, and property.

Beth Novak Milliken, whose family owns Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery and who is the chair of the Napa Valley Vintners’ Environmental Stewardship Committee, says, “This is not just a Napa Valley issue—it is a planetary issue. All agriculture is at some risk. Note the massive flooding in the Midwest last spring or the devastating fires in Australia. There are many more examples.”

What she and winemaker Aron Weinkauf are doing about it is what forward-looking vintners around the state are doing: figuring out strategies for the future. At Spottswoode, that means increasing biodiversity to deal with higher pest pressures, for instance, by trialing and planting different rootstocks, and using technology to monitor water use more precisely. Dan Petroski, the winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards, has planted an experimental vineyard plot with alternative, more-heat-resistant grapes such as Aglianico and Touriga Nacional. “The future of agriculture here is understanding and dealing with climate change,” he says.

Large wineries are in this battle, too. Jackson Family Wines, which produces tens of millions of bottles of wine each year, conducted an energy audit and determined that using lighter glass would cut their carbon emissions footprint by 3% and save on costs at the same time. And last August, in conjunction with UC Davis and Duarte Nursery, grower Andy Beckstoffer, of Beckstoffer Vineyards, who farms more than 3,600 acres of grapes throughout Napa, Mendocino, and Lake counties, launched a potentially game-changing trial study. He planted 10 different Cabernet clones on 10 different rootstocks—3,600 vines in all—intending to measure a vast amount of data over 8 to 10 years and beyond. Beckstoffer, for one, is confident that growers and winemakers can work to help mitigate the effects of a changing climate.

“The quality of California wine has gotten to where it is through a lot of difficulties—look at phylloxera in the late ’80s—and we’ve handled them. It involves change: what vine trellises look like, how to prune, what clones to plant. But our grandchildren will be drinking Napa Valley Cabernet. No doubt about it.”


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