The quality of wine is dependent upon the soil, temperature, and moisture level of the vineyard where the grapes are grown. Wine grapes are known to be highly sensitive to changing climatic conditions, though the various types of grapes have different requirements along those dimensions. The variation in climatic conditions from region to region is what enables us to experience a wide range in the types of wines produced around the world.  While these global differences are an asset to our wine selection set, we are now seeing both positive and negative implications of global climate change by region as rising temperatures have either enhanced or hindered grape growth.
In some of the cooler wine regions of the world, global climate change has resulted in earlier harvests and warmer temperatures without any drought conditions. Fortunately, in these regions these early harvests are associated with higher quality wine. In California, however, rising temperatures have unfortunately coincided with drought conditions, thus creating challenges to produce quality grapes. If temperatures continue to rise in joint with drought conditions, wineries in California will need to continue to increase their consumption of water to produce crops, or find other alternatives.
Farm production and food processing, including wine production, represent 80% of California water used for business and home. However, farm production and food processing generate only about 2% of California’s gross state product. As drought conditions expect to continue with global climate change, California must think about its allocation of water to each of its agricultural products. Exhibit 1 highlights the diversity of the agricultural contributions California makes to the rest of the US, and the prevalence of those crops being grown in areas most affected by drought.
One California winery, E. & J. Gallo, has had a long history of sustainability and that tradition has served it well in adapting to rising temperatures and drought. Since the 1980s, Gallo has required an acre of open space for every acre of vineyard planted to preserve watershed and wildlife habitats. More recently, Gallo has partnered with IBM to use big data to develop a more efficient irrigation system. Gallo has been collecting satellite data on its vineyards, and IBM created an irrigation system that translates that data into customized irrigation levels for small sections of vines. The initial trial of this new system resulted in a 26% improvement of crop yield and 25% reduction in water use.
E. & J. Gallo has undoubtedly made great strides in their efforts to conserve water in the production of their wines, but, as global climate change continues, they and other California wineries may face more drastic alternatives to sustain their wine production. The first of these solutions is to change the grape varieties grown in the California vineyards. As temperatures rise, grapes that thrive in warmer climates, such as malbecs, become more appropriate alternatives to the traditional cabernet sauvignon grapes. This option is a dramatic shift, as the California wines have become widely known for their unique flavors. Another alternative is to shift the vineyards to cooler regions, either in the mountains or closer to the coast to capture cooler air for the grapes to grow.
Each of these alternatives are not necessarily ideal, but if rising temperatures and drought persists, the California wine industry may not be able to maintain its status quo without significantly increasing its water consumption. In the face of global climate change, should California’s scarce water resources be used to irrigate vineyards?
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