Uncorked | Chris Sherman, Times staff writer

Changing climate worries winemakers

Even small shifts in environmental factors are concerns for winemakers. Weather was a problem this year for vineyards in California’s Dry Creek Valley in the Sonoma region, where scientists say it is getting warmer.

Associated Press

Even small shifts in environmental factors are concerns for winemakers. Weather was a problem this year for vineyards in California’s Dry Creek Valley in the Sonoma region, where scientists say it is getting warmer.

The weather this year has been maddening for the gang at Dry Creek Vineyards and their neighbors in northern Sonoma County.

Less rain and snow meant less water in the reservoirs. When a late frost struck in March, not everyone had water to protect their vines. Then came a hot, dry summer when even more water was needed. Then there were wildfires: Would the ash and dust in the air muddy the grapes?

A perfect storm that won't end? Add dire fears for the climate and Dry Creek's Bill Smart is worried.

"Our winemaker says that if it continues for 30 years, we won't have wine in Dry Creek at all and they'll be growing cabernet in Oregon," he says.

The devil's in the details

Wine is an ideal poster crop for the global warming campaign. The American industry is centered in eco-anxious California; and vineyards are the most familiar farming to sophisticated consumers.

And no other farming fusses over weather with obsessive detail. Vineyard journals and monastery ledgers have logged each year's weather for years of vintages. Today, professors and researchers map and classify every acre, and digital monitors record temperatures row by row and hour by hour.

Climate has been a key part, with geology and tradition, of the terroir that gave wine regions identity and taste over thousands of years.

Within wine-growing regions, there are warm and cool climates. Temperatures get cooler in higher latitudes and also lower where maritime breezes and fog cool down coasts and valleys linked to them. (Overnight temps matter too: Daytime sun builds sugar and cool nights keep acids high.)

After a summer of West Coast seminars on ecology and climate change, growers in the poshest parts of Northern California woke up to a real scare headline last week, "Is Mendocino the new Napa?"

The contention of scientists is that Napa and Sonoma are getting hotter, too hot, because of urban concentration in San Francisco. An accompanying thesis asserted Hopland and Ukiah in the heart of Mendocino County, once much hotter, were cooling off.

Although that puts the fear of global warming into Napa, it also reveals the possible upside of change. If the Mendocino badlands, once hotter than Napa, are cooler then they can grow classier grapes.

The big fear, however, is that as the vineyards warm, the hottest will become too hot, syrahs will move into cab country, cabernet into pinot zone and pinots into once-too-cold areas. Maybe as cool as England, as Bonny Doon prophet Randall Grahm has fantasized? Perhaps not, but a pinot conference in Oregon drew more planters from cool Germany.

An ecological approach

The view from Iron Horse Vineyards, the sparkling specialist in the cool and fog of Green Valley in Sonoma, is also mixed. "As farmers, we naturally watch the weather religiously and can't help but look for signs of long-range change in everything — the wind, the Spanish moss, when the strawberries ripen," Joy Sterling says. But this year, the sun doesn't break the fog until 10 a.m. and they have yet to pick the pinot of 2008.

Sterling and her family have always considered themselves stewards of the land, and now she has become an activist. The winery and vineyards use more recycled water, mulch, cover crops and lighter glass bottles. This year's Earth Day party had wine, Gravenstein apples and a solar-powered reggae band.

She calls these small steps "precision farming'' and "sustainable fun,'' and maybe a way to cope with whatever lies ahead.

Chris Sherman can be reached at csherman@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8585.

Changing climate worries winemakers 08/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 12, 2008 3:35pm]

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