As climate change hits home across Napa Valley, what is being done today to protect tomorrow’s vintages?
Here in California, coastal fog, cool nights and mornings, and warmth by day have traditionally helped yield award-winning varietals, most notably Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. But few crops are as sensitive to the elements as wine grapes, and perhaps none quite as lovely when it comes to their ability to harness the sun, the soil, and the season. Going forward, the effects of rising temperatures and earlier harvests will certainly be felt on the vine. “Grapes will be overripe in their sugar accumulation while still underripe in their flavor development,” Esther Mobley reported in her recent San Francisco Chronicle story ominously headlined, “The end of Cabernet in Napa Valley?”
Winegrowers are no shrinking violets, and several have been taking action, notably Napa Valley Vintners, whose LEED-certified office is in St. Helena. “Whether it’s our first-of-its-kind wine-region climate study or Napa Green, we will continue to be leaders at the forefront of encouraging initiatives,” says Associate Director of Industry Relations Michelle Novi of the organization’s environmental stewardship. The study Novi refers to is a 2011 report by climate scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, led by Dr. Dan Cayan. The report was issued at the behest of NVV’s Climate Study Task Force and analyzed some 12,000 data points gathered from Napa Valley to measure the region’s temperature changes over recent decades. “We are now in the process of a comprehensive Climate Study update, analyzing how the last six years compare with our existing understanding of Napa-specific climate patterns,” Novi says. “The updated research is being peer reviewed and will be released in 2020.” Meanwhile, Napa Green is a comprehensive, third party-certified sustainability program whereby winery participants monitor energy, water, and waste in order to conserve resources and reduce carbon footprints. “Today, 75% of eligible NVV member wineries are participating in the program, with our goal to reach 100% by the end of 2020,” Novi says. This advocacy and long-term commitment extends beyond the region as well, with NVV recently joining the Porto Protocol. Indeed, the June decision makes NVV the first North American wine trade association to join the initiative uniting the global wine industry in taking action in the face of a climate crisis.
Back on a local level, winemakers who have worked this land and yielded its harvests year after year are particularly invested in mitigating the effects. Take Beth Novak Milliken, President and CEO of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery, also in St. Helena and which has been farming organically since 1985, is currently working toward LEED and B-Corp certifications, has been invited to join International Wineries for Climate Change, and is also a signatory of the Porto Protocol. “Though each vintage has always been different, illustrative of its own unique qualities, the truth is that we are experiencing greater extremes in our weather each year,” Milliken writes in response to my queries. “Be it significant droughts, drenching rains from atmospheric rivers, extreme heat events, warmer winters, screaming Diablo winds in the fall, or raging fires that have reshaped our understanding of forest fires, we are having to respond to unique, never-before-seen weather events on an almost annual basis. We are addressing these challenges through investments in our business—among them shade cloth for our vines, new sorting equipment that allows us to process our grapes better and faster than we could prior (and that require less water to clean), and backup generators in the case of power outages. This is just the start, as we are committed to investing even deeper into caring for our land and for our planet, and responding to the changing climate landscape.”
Still, “just the start” is extensive when you consider that those LEED, B-Corp, and IWCA certification requirements will lead to improvements in energy and water efficiency, decreased waste stream, and possibly lighter bottles as glass production leaves its own carbon footprint. “Beyond this, we are planting experimental blocks with varietals that we feel have the potential to provide balance and synergy as blending components for our Cabernet Sauvignon as the weather gets hotter, dryer, and more extreme,” Milliken continues. “Working with these will allow us to strategically plan our future replanting. And we are actively seeking land in cooler areas so as to allow us to look at where Cabernet Sauvignon will thrive in the future—25 to 100 years from now.”