Thursday, April 11, 2013

California wine industry ignores dire climate change warnings

Areas in red are projected to be unsuitable for wine grapes by 2050
Earlier this week the National Academy of Sciences published a major peer-reviewed climate change study with a handy color-coded map. And the future of California looks red hot by 2050, with most of Napa Valley unsuitable for premium grape growing.

I saw this on the TV news in the morning. There are wire-service stories from other states about it: people in Montana are excited about being the next Bordeaux. So I went to Wine, my go-to for wine news, expecting to see lots of California industry reactions.

I saw Steve Heimoff, who I don't believe to be a Tea Party guy, essentially denying that global warming in California is happening. And other than that, nothing.

Granted, global warming doesn't sound so terrifying after northern California had back-to-back cool years in 2010 and 2011. But still, with land prices at well over $200,000 an acre, you'd think people would be more worried. What's Napa Valley land going to be worth if the grapes aren't suitable for premium wines? Why isn't this a big deal?

Take a look at that map of the northern West Coast. Red areas are ones where wine grapes are grown now that are not projected to be suitable by 2050. Green areas are suitable now, and should stay suitable. Blue areas are currently too cold for wine grapes, but are expected to be suitable by 2050. So the overall picture for the West Coast is pretty good, especially for Oregon. Washington could face disruption but unlike California, it should gain a lot more vineyard land than it loses.

But that picture for California is unequivocally bad. So why aren't more people concerned?

Some of it, surprising from a state that arguably leads the world in agricultural technology, is flat-out denial of the projection, as espoused by Heimoff. Maybe the interior of California will get warmer, but that will just bring in more fog. Maybe that's true. I'm certainly not a scientist, I can't run a global-warming model.

You know who is, and can? The 9 authors of this National Academy of Sciences study.

So denying that Napa Valley is going to be too warm for viticulture, it's denying science. Now, this may be right: phrenology was once a science. And global warming projections are based on complex models that don't all agree. Still, this puts the California wine establishment in an unusual position philosophically.

I wasn't going to blog about this because I was busy trying to finish some articles for other publications, and figured by the time I got to it, there would be something published about how California's wine industry plans to deal with the issue.

If anyone knows of such plans, I'd like to hear them. In the meantime, in the words of Chicken Little, may I just say ... nah, why bother, just pass the Cabernet.

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Larry Brooks said...

I think that wine folks like most of their fellow citizens are in some sort of denial about climate change. A willful ignorance might be the best description - sadly aided and abetted by a significant and vocal minority of our political establishment.

LisaDins said...

While this is certainly sobering, without owning a machine that controls the weather, what are they actually supposed to do about it? Plus many of them won't even be alive in 40 years, so am guessing it will be their kids problem. Climate change models are just that. It could happen earlier, it could happen later, it might not happen at all. I can't imagine they'll be ripping up their prime cabernet to plant grapes that like it hot anytime soon. All anyone can really do is wait and see. Adapt as it become necessary. Not a lot of options.

W. Blake Gray said...

Lisa: 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. And you're right, I can't imagine it either.

Something else they could be doing, and maybe quietly are: Selling, especially vineyard land, and maybe wineries as well.

Anonymous said...


First off I'm not a global warming denier by any stretch. There is a warming trend globally, of that there is no doubt.

That said, respected scientists that are actually instrumenting microclimates ( ) dispute that there is local warming in Napa, as one example. This may be due to San Pablo Bay, or some other not-well-understood variable.

Additionally, the negative effects of global warming on specific regions with respect to grapes will come not from higher average temperatures, but from *more extreme temperature events*. And all evidence points toward, in Napa at least, that extreme events are becoming less frequent since 1970. Strangely enough, higher average temps will be felt at night, which will allow for less hang time because physiological ripeness will continue after the sun goes down.

Running a model that is based on a series assumptions which account for planet scale feedbacks will almost certainly break down in the face of confounding regional factors. And all climate scientists acknowledge this.

The shrug you are picking up on is because to be perfectly honest, things have scarcely ever been better for grape growing in terms of the climate in CA.

W. Blake Gray said...

Josh: Forgive me if I'm mistaking you with someone else, and if I am I'll just remove this comment and your response, but ...

aren't you the guy who, last October, argued with me on Twitter that Nate Silver's presidential prediction wasn't credible?

Anonymous said...

That's me. But what in the world does that have to do with global warming and grape growing?

jo6pac said...

Yes, global warming is going to become a big problem if isn’t already in some parts of the world. One of the near term problems could be fracking destroying clean water supplies for vineyards and wineries alike. This is being played out in Calif. courts right now.

Mauricio said...

I will graft over or sell it then...wait, wait, my son will.....!!!

You propose to sell or replant to get ready for 2040? how about all you brilliant minds tell us what to do to stop it from happening?

No so smart?

I will sell and buy or graft when it happens...until then, it sounds a lot like 12/12/12 to me.

PS: I farm organic and recycle as much as I can. Do you?

Man About Wine said...

Hey, how bout training new strains or clones of our current version of grapes,or, heaven forbid, using gmo to alter ripening speeds?????

Just because. And if u fear fracking, I wonder if u support nuclear power to replace burning carbons. And where does your electricity come from? And where, o where, did the sun come from??? The cosmos is a little bigger than anti-growth egalitalarian posturing. And more interesting to ponder. Where did all this mass and dna come from?

Unknown said...

These models have terrible records of predicting the future of the climate. Why should we give them credence when they haven’t shown any reliability in the past? Plus, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the five-year mean temperature of the earth has remained flat for ten years. ( So, the earth has not been warming for roughly 15 years. By the way, in Minnesota we had 10 inches of snow last night, breaking a 100-year record for the month of April. The low tomorrow morning is forecasted to be 16!

Pam Strayer said...

This whole issue over climate change and wine grape growing is pretty bizarre - the real issue is not whether we will have wine but whether we will be able to grow certain high paying varietals that are the fashion in our time.

There hasn't been a stable history in Napa Valley of any varietal being in fashion for more than 5 decades.

Until the 1970s, all of Napa's grapes were dry farmed and until 1945 or thereabouts, they were all organically farmed.

We may just see climate-appropriate varietals - like Sicilian ones (check out Chiarito Vineyards, in Ukiah, for instance). Or maybe someone will start to grow a lot of good, reasonably priced Grenache.

Man About Wine said...

But Pam, your comment doesn't fit the world view of those who want the govt. to do something, who feel good by insisting that the govt. do something. And the govt. takes away your rights and freedom at every turn.

Blake, your comment/reply to Lisa, you think there is some quiet underground movement to sell off vineyards in Napa? For every seller in a transaction, there is a buyer. And buyers today have the same info available to them as the sellers do. Andy we are not seeing prices drop, based on climate change, or any other reason, are we? Coppola paid over $300K / acre for the last parcels to re-establish Inglenook, eh? Who is selling because of climate???

Man About Wine said...

And here is an example of govt. Taken from Thursday's 4/25 Capital Press article on proposed changes to Oregon winery law. " The bill caps the amount of revenue a winery can generate from activities and incidentals at 25 percent of on-site wine sales. And it stipulates that wineries can pair food with wine but are not allowed to offer menu options and otherwise function as a cafe. "

A cap of 25%? How does that work in real life? You stop selling incidentals midday at an event? Ah, the everpresent free market meets the everpresent intrusion of busy-bodies.

The article is in today daily news feed from Wine biz . com

W. Blake Gray said...

Man: The law seems perfectly easy to enforce to me -- which is not a comment on whether or not I would vote for it. It's Oregon, and they're entitled to try to preserve their culture through law.

You're either a winery or a restaurant, or a gift shop. If you're both, you should get a license to be both. How do you cap sales of incidentals if you need to? Pretty easy: Hide them behind the counter. If you've got a giant display that can't easily be moved and you're not selling enough wine to cover that, then you have the wrong license.

This is comment drift, btw.