In a survey conducted by the Harris Poll in December 2019, American adults said climate change was the number one issue facing society. At the time, business and government leaders were making high profile and meaningful commitments to lower greenhouse gases. The news cycle included regular coverage of climate change and its devastating impacts.
Since then, our global collective consciousness has shifted abruptly as we face the devastating health and economic costs of COVID–19 and the pernicious consequences of deeply-rooted racial injustice. Yet climate change continues unabated and no one knows this more than the wine industry. All winegrowers faces the immediate consequences of climate change. They realize that their continued success depends on rethinking their business models in the face of climate-related events that represent a clear and present danger, not a future risk. What steps must the wine industry take to adapt?
Many scientists concur that climate change is completely “locked in,” i.e., it isn’t going away; the choice now is how we respond and adapt to its certain threat. For some industries this may come as shocking news. But in the wine industry, climate change disruptions have been unavoidable for many years already. Growers and winemakers see commitments to climate action as a critical strategic priority – even as they deal with the pandemic. Under the circumstances, resilience requires adaptation.
COVID19 is not the only threat to the industry. How can the wine industry respond?
Many scientists concur that climate change is completely “locked in” i.e. it isn’t going away; the choice now is how we respond and adapt to its certain threat. For some industries this may come as shocking news. But in the wine industry, climate change disruptions have been unavoidable for many years already. Growers and winemakers see commitments to climate action as a critical strategic priority – even as they deal with the pandemic. In this case, resilience requires adaptation.
Responses are varied. Some growers are switching to different, more climate-resistant grapes, where regional regulations permit, or relocating vineyards to cooler climates.
Some Napa winemakers are planting experimental plots of grapes, such as Aglianico and Tempranillo, which may be more resilient to a hotter climate.
Others are implementing new growing practices, believing a change in farming—not variety—could solve the problem.
Experimentation and trials are taking place in Napa, California’s Central Coast and Piedmont in Italy to facilitate the biological mechanisms that reactivate the unique microbiome of the vine. These trials are designed to make the grapevine root systems more robust and resilient to diverse conditions, using products that are environmentally sustainable as well. They work by restoring the soil’s microbiological fertility, without inoculating external microorganisms. By stimulating microbes already present in the soil, the product helps nutrients to become more available to the root system, lowering the temperature of the root system, thereby strengthening it and resulting in a healthier plant above ground, despite rising temperatures.
Still others are collaborating through the International Wineries for Climate Action, led by Familia Torres in Spain and Jackson Family Wines in Sonoma, to uncover more science-based solutions to reduce carbon emissions across the industry and to become more resilient.
Several wineries have applied to join this initiative and make commitments to reduce their carbon footprint, including:
--Yealands (New Zealand)
--Silver Oak (US)
--Alma Carraqvejas (Spain)
--VSPT Wine Group (Chile)
The threats of climate change affect the industry in many ways: drought, floods, late-season cold snaps, heat spikes at harvest, and—sadly—recurring wildfires.
Steps wineries are taking to adapt to fires in west coast wine regions of the US include:
--Create an emergency business continuity plan
--Apply specific farming techniques:
Rootstock (drought tolerant) and variety selection
Irrigation management (monitoring, deficit irrigation) for water conservation
Canopy management to protect grapes from heat waves
Cover crop- improve soil organic matter and moisture holding capacity
Create defensible space- Maintenance of fire breaks
Maintain equipment to help defend property; water trucks, earth movers
Private fire brigades, portable generators
Data storage in the cloud
Prohibit vineyard development in steep, forested oak woodland
Data collection and information sharing within the industry
Research and education
Every aspect of the business is being scrutinized for steps to adapt and to reduce the industry’s contribution to a warming climate. Even packaging is changing to become more sustainable. (Alert to wine lovers: You are likely to see much more “wine on tap,” boxed wines and wine in cans—even for top-end wines.) Moreover, winegrowers are working across the industry to advocate for systemic change.
A new initiative that we’ll all hear more about in the future is Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). Farmers in other agricultural sectors are exploring this, and Tablas Creek of Paso Robles in California is the first winery to be certifies under this new program. ROC is very appealing because it is comprehensive, inclusive and goes beyond organic and biodynamic with a focus on soil health, animal welfare and social fairness. Critical aspects of ROC are also commitments to fight climate change and reduce the use of scarce resources such as water and non-renewable energy. Also unlike organic and biodynamic certifications, ROC ensures that farmworkers – whether employees or subcontracted – are treated fairly, paid a living wage, understand their rights and work in clean and safe conditions.