Best Laid Plans: When an Intended Call to Action Yields Complacency

Napa Valley Vinters intented to incite action to mitigate the effects of global warming on the Napa Valley wine industry through a new research panel, but instead yielded complacency.

I would venture to bet that we have all found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being forced to make small talk with people we can hardly relate to.  I would also venture to bet that we all know how to handle this situation most effectively: talk about the weather.  However, in the small wine making region I’m from, talking about the weather is not just a filler for awkward conversation – it’s an important topic that has an immeasurable impact on the livelihoods of everyone there.

Wine making is a very particular business – even the smallest differences in the soil, the time of day the grapes are watered, where they are planted, when they are harvested, etc. have a meaningful impact on the quality of the ultimate product.  Implicit in this statement is that global warming is a complete disaster for vinters on every dimension:

  • From an operational perspective, bud break, bloom, veraison and harvest dates happen earlier, more unpredictably, and for shorter periods of time, making orchestrating the harvest much more difficult [1].  The need for more effective irrigation and ways to protect grapes from the extreme heat and sun exposure also add layers of complexity to the growing process.
  • From a product perspective, rising temperatures impact the chemistry of the grape, the salinity of the soil, and the flavor and alcohol content of the finished product.
  • From a risk perspective, variations in the weather bring variations in pests and puts pressure on supplier’s ability to provide high quality corks and oak barrels [1].

Some wine-making regions, most notably Southern Europe, are struggling to adapt to the real frictions global warming has already introduced into their businesses [2]. Other regions, such as California, are only just starting to appreciate the magnitude of these impacts.  Alarmingly for this region, a recent study estimated that if climate change continues at its current pace, there will be an 81% reduction in the usable wine-making acreage in Napa and Santa Barbara by 2040 [3].

As a result of these facts, Napa Valley Vinters (NVV), a nonprofit trade association that has nearly 500 members, has taken the initiative to quantify what the rising temperatures mean for the $50bn dollar industry and 300,000 jobs related to wine making in Napa Valley [4]. The organization recently paired with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and local vineyards to create a Climate Change Task Force.

  • The task? To build a better model for the impact of global warming on the unique microclimates in the area.
  • The goal? To incentivize local vineyards to step outside of their daily operations and work together to generate ideas for addressing the problem head on.
  • The result? Three years, 28 weather stations, and 12,000 data points later they had an answer: temperatures have increased in Napa over the last 70 years – but only by about 0.5oC-1.1oC, far lower than some of the other wine regions in the world [4].

The unintended impact of this research study was to create a sense of relief amongst owners in Napa and the belief that they have time to figure out the best way to address these issues.  This is incredibly dangerous thinking – just because Napa Valley has been a relative winner thus far doesn’t mean that they will continue to be a relative winner or that significant damage is not already occurring.  As an example pinot noir, an important varietal in the region, has an incredibly restrictive window of 14oC-16oC average daily temperature for production[1], half of which has already been eroded by the temperature gains in the recent past.

There are so many things that these vineyards can be doing, but they all take significant time.  There is a 25 year cycle for growing vines, so the decision to make material changes only comes up 4 times in a century [4]. As a nonprofit organization seeking to ensure the longevity of the wine industry in the area, NVV needs to continue aggressively pounding the table to incite action TODAY, and overcome the reaction to the outcome of this study.

Potential actions include:

  • Partnering with ClimeVineSafe, an organization in the Duoro region focusing on short term solutions to the industry’s problems [5]
  • Researching grape varieties to those that can flourish in very hot weather [5]
  • Investigating broader geographies or terraced growth
  • Considering solutions like solar powered sensors to trigger hydration
  • Identifying sugar reducing processes such as reverse osmosis [6]
  • Monitoring the nutrient content in the soil to identify and adjust to changes early on [6]

The list of options that vinters in Napa Valley can pursue are wide and plentiful – but they need to be taken on NOW and not later; the future of the wine making industry, many people’s livelihoods, and all of our Friday night dinner parties depend on it!

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[1] Becca Yeamans-Irwin. “The Effects of Climate Change on The Global Wine Industry: A Meta-Analysis for SOMM Journal” Somm Journal, June 2015. Accessed November 2016.

[2] Paul Franson. “Responding to Climate Change: Growers and wineries look for practical responses to climate change.” Wine Business Monthly, April 2008. Accessed November 2016.

[3] Diffenbaugh, N.S., White, M.A., Jones, G.V., and Ashfaq, M. 2011. Climate adaptation wedges: a case study of premium wine in the Western United States. Environmental Research Letters 6: 024024. (Western US)

[4] Napa Valley Vinters, “About Us,” “NVV Climate Exec Summary”, accessed November 2016.

[5] Paige Donner, “Winemakers Rising to Climate Challenge,” New York Times,  November 16, 2011, [], accessed November 2016.

[6] Mozell, R. Thatch, Liz. 2014. The impact of climate change on the global wine industry: Challenges & solutions. Wine Economics and Policy3(2014)81–89.


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Student comments on Best Laid Plans: When an Intended Call to Action Yields Complacency

  1. Nice take on a niche industry that will be hit hard by climate change. It seems like the hardest part for vintners is not a gradual change in temperature, but the unpredictability of temperature and drought conditions season by season. There are some interesting technological innovations that you suggest, but I wonder if they can fully counteract the drop in quality that might result from weather variations. Not to mention water shortages that are likely to increase in severity, especially in Northern California. One takeaway — start collecting now as we might be at the peak of a golden age of wine.

  2. I think you raise a great point around the timelines for investment and impact in mitigating against climate change risk. It can be difficult to commit to investment today at the levels needed to (hopefully) avoid a negative situation decades from now. It can also be difficult to directly tie some of those expensive present expenditures to concrete future outcomes — especially when, as in this case, that outcome is for things not to look all the different than they do now. While certainly short-sighted, it seems like a pretty human response for the vineyard owners to feel relief at knowing how long the timelines are and assume that somewhere in the time they’ll be able to figure out a solution. It’s easy to discount a future, potentially uncertainly definitely problem when faced with current issues that seem urgent.

    Nappa Valley Vinters also struggles in that they can provide information to the local wine making community and hope that they work together to make improvements, but they don’t actually have any leverage to force any sort of action. Unfortunately, it may take things getting worse for things to improve and for wine makers to take what NVV is saying seriously. Luckily for the wine makers, it seems that NVV now has a trove of research compiled to help them navigate the changes they’ll inevitably need to make.

  3. I find the vintners’ relief and subsequent complacency to the results of the climate change study incredibly frustrating, but also completely understandable. With all of the innumerable and ever-changing variables surrounding competition, consumers, supply chain, etc. to deal with, it’s no wonder that the vintners feel justified in de-prioritizing climate change initiatives. I think a supporting reason for their apathy is positioning of the study. By focusing on adaptations to climate change, rather than strategies to slow or prevent it, vintners have seemingly no incentive to spend valuable time and capital on mitigation strategies until their operations are actually being affected. I wonder if NVV would have more success by educating vintners on available subsidies and tax credits for renewable energy investments, thereby aligning the environmental benefit of early adoption with a financial one.

  4. Your post is alarming because of my interest in wine, but more importantly, due to the effects global warming is creating on an industry that is vital to many. From producers to consumers, the wine industry is under pressure to make quick, short-term changes that will lead to long-term implications. I agree with your thought that Napa vineyards should not take the results of the study as a sign of relief; conversely, it is a call for change to happen now. Your actions include many that place responsibility on the vineyards, but can we as consumers of this magnificent, fruitful beverage do today? It would be great to educate consumers at trade shows or local wine tastings about the impact global warming is having on the industry. For those of us who are consumers, we play a significant role in the “value-chain”, and we must push for active change in the practices that occur in Napa Valley. Although the results from the result study seemed minute, Vinters should not remain complacent because the effects of global warming may drastically change in a short period of time.

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