Grapes, Wine And Climate Change

How much trouble does climate change mean for agriculture? Just ask the wine industry.

By Mark Hertsgaard

JOHN WILLIAMS has been making wine in California’s Napa Valley for nearly 30 years, and he farms so ecologically that his peers call him Mr. Green. But if you ask him how climate change will affect Napa’s world famous wines, he gets irritated, almost insulted. “You know, I’ve been getting that question a lot recently, and I feel we need to keep this issue in perspective,” he told me. “When I hear about global warming in the news, I hear that it’s going to melt the Arctic, inundate coastal cities, displace millions and millions of people, spread tropical diseases and bring lots of other horrible effects. Then I get calls from wine writers and all they want to know is, ‘How is the character of cabernet sauvignon going to change under global warming?’ I worry about global warming, but I worry about it at the humanity scale, not the vineyard scale.”

Williams is the founder of Frog’s Leap, one of the most ecologically minded wineries in Napa and, for that matter, the world. Electricity for the operation comes from 1,000 solar panels erected along the Merlot vines; the heating and cooling are supplied by a geothermal system that taps into the earth’s heat. The vineyards are 100 percent organic and—most radical of all, considering Napa’s dry summers—there is no irrigation.

Yet despite his environmental fervor, Williams dismisses questions about preparing Frog’s Leap for the impacts of climate change. “We have no idea what effects global warming will have on the conditions that affect Napa Valley wines, so to prepare for those changes seems to me to be whistling past the cemetery,” he says, a note of irritation in his voice. “All I know is, there are things I can do to stop, or at least slow down, global warming, and those are things I should do.”

Williams has a point about keeping things in perspective. At a time when climate change is already making it harder for people in Bangladesh to find enough drinking water, it seems callous to fret about what might happen to premium wines. But there is much more to the question of wine and climate change than the character of pinot noir. Because wine grapes are extraordinarily sensitive to temperature, the industry amounts to an early-warning system for problems that all food crops—and all industries—will confront as global warming intensifies. In vino veritas, the Romans said: In wine there is truth. The truth now is that the earth’s climate is changing much faster than the wine business, and virtually every other business on earth, is preparing for.

All crops need favorable climates, but few are as vulnerable to temperature and other extremes as wine grapes. “There is a fifteenfold difference in the price of cabernet sauvignon grapes that are grown in Napa Valley and cabernet sauvignon grapes grown in Fresno” in California’s hot Central Valley, says Kim Cahill, a consultant to the Napa Valley Vintners’ Association. “Cab grapes grown in Napa sold [in 2006] for $4,100 a ton. In Fresno the price was $260 a ton. The difference in average temperature between Napa and Fresno was 5 degrees Fahrenheit.”

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