The searing heat and wildfires that have swept across French vineyards in recent weeks portend another bitter cost of climate change: your fine wine is at stake.
Your glass of wine may depend on this California winery
The long-term outlook for the global wine industry is bleak: Temperatures in all of Australia’s wine regions, which export nearly $3 billion a year, are expected to rise 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. Scientists predicted that by 2050, much of Europe, including central Italy and southern France, could become unsuitable for grape production, and California grape yields could drop by 70%.
Unless producers find ways to adapt. At least one major California-based winery has begun to implement aggressive strategies, from which embattled European producers – as well as investors and aficionados – should now draw hope and guidance.
Jackson Family Wines grows approximately 10,000 acres of grapes, primarily in California and Oregon, for brands such as Kendall Jackson and La Crema. Over the past three years, fires, drought, hot winters and late frosts have compromised production across large swaths of the company’s vineyards and damaged tens of millions of buildings and processing facilities. .
For more than a decade, the company has been working on climate resilience strategies that it knows will be essential to its survival. “The idea that it’s more expensive to fight climate change than to ignore the problem and let it build up – that just can’t be calculated,” said Katie Jackson, who leads development efforts sustainability of the company, when I spoke to him this week.
The climatic constraints on grape growers are both obvious and subtle: wine grapes, like coffee beans and other so-called “golden loop” crops, require very specific conditions to thrive. Heat can cause grapes to burn and ripen too soon, inhibiting flavor and aroma development. Higher temperatures decrease the acidity of the wine and increase the alcohol content. The vines lose their leaves in the event of drought, which stunts the fruit. And if wildfires don’t burn the vines themselves, a crop can still be destroyed by the “smell of smoke,” which embeds smoke particles in the fruit, rendering it unusable. Warmer temperatures also attract more pests, including mice, voles, gophers and starlings.
Jackson’s team develops age-old solutions and uses new technology-driven methods to deal with them. They plan to practice traditional, regenerative agriculture on all 10,000 acres by 2030: stocking the vineyards with owls and hawks to help control pests, planting cover crops such as rye and barley between rows of vines and overload the soil with compost made from waste material, including grape skins, which helps the soil retain moisture and sequester carbon dioxide.
They have also incorporated information technology, drawing data from satellites and drones to monitor drought and pest impacts with the aim of improving irrigation and preventing epidemics. They are piloting sensor technologies that measure soil moisture at different depths and probes that monitor sap flow in their vineyards — further efforts to protect their operations from drought as water scarcity intensifies.
The company has spent decades developing water reservoirs on its vineyards and recently created a groundwater recharge program to reduce its reliance on local rivers and aquifers for irrigation. It now sanitizes its fermentation tanks with ultraviolet light instead of water, saving millions of gallons a year. To protect against frost damage, he has installed solar-powered weather stations with sensors that determine if temperatures are dropping too low, as well as wind turbines that automatically circulate hot air to protect fruit.
Jackson’s winemaking team is working with scientists to develop new methods to remove the smell of smoke from crops exposed to fires during grape processing. The viticulture team is exploring new varieties that are more tolerant to heat and drought, and replanting their vineyards with new rootstocks that go deeper into the ground, drawing more groundwater and requiring less irrigation.
Certainly not every winery will be able to do all of this in the years to come – the vineyards I recently visited in the French region of Bordeaux, for example, were only a fraction of the size of the Jackson Family. Wines, with much smaller research and development budgets. But all wineries will have to adapt – and agriculture ministers in each wine-producing country will have to help fund both traditional and technological solutions to support the transition. Investors and consumers must be prepared to pay more as wineries adapt to harsher conditions and many expand into colder, more temperate growing regions.
Jackson Family Wines, for its part, has increasingly moved its land holdings north, acquiring land in Oregon and Washington, while operating farms internationally in Australia, Europe and South Africa. South. Owning land in different geographical areas has become essential to risk management. So when the production of one vineyard is disrupted, others continue to operate. Small local and regional wineries will be inherently more vulnerable and will require more regular support from government and investors.
Alongside adaptation, Katie Jackson is primarily focused on decarbonizing her family’s operations, with the goal of being carbon neutral by 2030 without buying offsets. Already, the company derives around a third of its energy from on-site solar power and it has made its bottles lighter through more efficient use of glass, the production of which accounts for a fifth of its climate emissions. Regenerative agriculture, with cover crops and silvopastures (integrating trees and livestock) and storing more carbon in the soil, will do much of the work to become carbon negative by 2050.
“Coping strategies are important but also fundamentally limited,” Jackson told me. No amount of drones, hawks or carbon sensors in the ground will matter if climate change continues unabated: “We have no future without mitigation.”
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Help cities around the world prepare for extreme heat: editorial
Enjoy your rosé to beat the heat…while you can: Andrea Felsted
The burning question for California’s wine country: Francis Wilkinson
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering agriculture and climate. She’s a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University and author of “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”
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