Climate Change in Your Glass

Published September 11, 2014

About 15 years ago, Harry Pederson-Nedry attended the International Cool Climate Symposium in Australia and came home with a sense of foreboding. He had spent an entire day learning about a phenomenon called climate change, a little-discussed topic among grape growers back then.

“Most people were not really taking it seriously until the day was over, and we all shook our heads and said it was going to be something dramatic,” recalled Pederson-Nedry, owner of Chehalem, a winery with vineyards in the Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which is known for its pinot noir.

The drama would unfold slowly, of course, but Pederson-Nedry and other growers would be watching closely. They have spent the past several years monitoring temperatures at their vineyards, tracking big rains and freezes that show up at unexpected times during the growing season and other signs that help them figure out how to change their farming practices to adapt to the changing climate.

Fall is a particularly busy time for growers and vintners in places like Napa, as workers pick grapes and truck them to the wineries for crushing. So it’s also a good time to look at some of the strategies that growers and winemakers are embracing, or at least considering, to work with their changing environment. It’s a topic that consumers should care about, too, because they are not only contributing to making wine drinking more popular than ever, but also will play a crucial role in whether winegrowers’ adaptation strategies will succeed — even if growers can plant new varietals and implement new techniques, there’s no guarantees consumers will want to purchase a cabernet sauvignon that tastes different from what they’re used to or take a chance on a varietal they’ve never heard of.

The United States is the largest wine market worldwide, with $36.3 billion of wine shipments (retail value) from domestic and foreign producers in 2013, according to the Wine Institute. California wines accounted for 57 percent of that total. The state also is the largest wine exporter in the country. In 2013, 90 percent of U.S. wine exports, which reached $1.55 billion in revenues (a 16.4 percent increase from 2012), came from the Golden State.