California Wine Regions and Climate Change: What Can Be Done?

climate change impact
From Conservation International’s report
Regions in red indicate current wine regions less suitable for wine grapes by 2050

Conservation International’s recent report on the influence of climate change on wine regions contained some disturbing implications for California’s quality grape-growing regions. But the response was as interesting as the actual report.

The report claimed that, according to their climate models, Yellowstone will be prime grape-growing territory in 2050 and the accompanying maps seem to show that a large chunk of California’s best wine regions, including Napa and Sonoma, will become less suitable for wine grapes as temperatures warm.

The map is less than precise and the report doesn’t explicitly mention Napa or Sonoma. But it should give wine producers in California pause. All that Napa vineyard property that sells for $200,000 per acre could be worth little in the time it takes to age a good Cab.

And it’s not as if they can easily pick up and move. Given the serious upfront investment required to start and operate a winery, and the time it takes to develop a vineyard and a market for your wine, the prospect of it becoming too warm to grow quality wine grapes must be frightening to wine producers. Wineries must focus on the long term simply because, for most of their business models, there is no short-term path to profit. But the long-term looks grim.

I haven’t read much from wine producers about their strategy for confronting climate change, aside from this innocuous statement from the Napa Valley Vintners Association. But wine writers were out in force with vastly divergent recommendations based on the report..

Steve Heimoff of the Wine Enthusiast put his head in the sand choosing to focus on what the report didn’t say:

But interpreting specific conditions from a colored map is dangerous. It’s like trying to figure out if your house will fall down from a USGS earthquake shaking map. There is, in fact, no mention at all in the report of individual coastal California counties, American Viticultural Areas or general winegrowing regions.

All true, but I’m not sure I’d risk millions of dollars on that thin reed.

Blake Gray was in panic mode. Surprised by the muted response to the report, he argued in his comment thread:

You mention exactly what they could be doing but aren’t: ripping up the Cabernet to plant Zinfandel or Nielluccio or something more heat-loving.

Is there that much demand for Zinfandel? Imagine the marketing budget to promote Nielluccio, a Corsican variety used to make rosé.

Wine business banker and blogger Rob McMillan decided to shoot the messenger. He complained first, rightly, about inaccurate press coverage of the report. But then dismissed the report because the scientists were “environmentalists”. Note to Mr. McMillan: Most biologists are environmentalists. They have a front row seat to the damage done by our heedless ways. And by the way, bankers also have an ideology as we learn from reading the daily economic news.

What the wine writers agree on is the sensation-driven media account that misleadingly suggested the report was focused on California wine country. That media summaries of science is usually misleading goes without saying. But “look over here” is never a persuasive argument when there is an elephant in your living room.

The reason for all this hand wringing is that there are really no good options for grape growers. Although there is plenty of evidence that climate change is occurring, how that change will influence particular regions is dependent on so many local variables that developing reliable models of impact at this point is impossible. Given the expense of replacing successful varieties with warm-weather varieties or picking up and moving there isn’t much they can do but hope for the best.

Although as a matter of public policy our inaction on climate change is criminal, for individual wineries, the best strategy may be to wait and see. Watchful waiting for producers and wine writers may be the best strategy.


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