It’s Time to Whine about the Future of Wine
How should the wine industry in Napa Valley respond to climate change?
Declining matsutake mushroom harvests due to climate change might not be of much concern to you, but when global warming starts coming for your wine, carpooling and solar panels suddenly don’t sound so bad.
-Justin Rohrlich, Vice News 
One of the major challenges facing the wine industry today is climate change. Wine grapes are notoriously finicky: differences of only one or two degrees can influence what varietals can be successfully grown in a particular location. Even different sides of the same hill are sometimes not suitable for growing the same varietal.
The Napa Valley Vinters Association (NVVA) is a nonprofit organization based in St. Helena, California whose mission is to “To promote, protect and enhance the Napa Valley appellation” . The NVVA covers numerous topics relevant to wine growers in Napa Valley, climate related issues included.
Current Steps Taken by The NVVA
The NVVA website breaks out climate related topics into two categories. The first category, “Environmental Issues”, covers how wineries in Napa Valley are doing their part to be green: “Vintners and growers are proactively working to address climate change through a variety of methods, including participation in Napa Green”, an environmental certification program for vineyards . A quick visit to the webpages of Napa wineries confirms this. For example, Robert Mondavi Winery’s website includes a “Sustainability & Community” page where it boasts that, “in 1998 [Mondavi] became the first winery to receive an ‘Innovator’ award from California’s Environmental Protection Agency” .
The second climate-related category on the NVVA website, “Climate Change”, opens with the line, “Since 2006, media outlets around the world have been saying that the global wine industry is doomed… While the news is titillating and makes for dramatic headlines that Napa’s famed wine industry is doomed, the headlines belie the fact that there is a lot that is unknown about climate change as it affects the wine industry and particularly Napa Valley” . While this seemingly flippant attitude distressed your author (as she sipped a glass of Napa wine), the NVVA did create a Climate Study Task Force in early 2011 which concluded that while Napa Valley has warmed slightly, it’s not as bad as some other studies claim. It also noted that Napa Valley is extremely unique in that it shares traits of both coastal and interior climates, so blanket studies of global warming and even warming in California do not necessarily reflect reality there . The NVVA concluded that farmers simply must adapt, as they always have for nearly two centuries.
Assessment of NVVA Actions to Date
While your author does not even for a moment question the inherent genius of Napa Valley winegrowers and their ability to produce and adapt, this is a new and serious challenge. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “Outcomes from this episode of climate change will differ from those of previous episodes in part because of interactions with environmental changes that humans have already caused – outcomes will be a cumulative effect” . In addition, as Kimberly Cahill pointed out in her Stanford University dissertation, “This starts to move outside a range where past experience is a good guide for what to do in the vineyard. Given that the average lifetime of a vine is at least 20 years in California, this means that vines in the ground now and those planted in the future will be experiencing new climate regimes that could affect their growth and quality” .
Given that the NVVA estimated in 2012 that the wine industry has a $13.3 billion impact on Napa County, creates 46,000 full time jobs there, and generates about $1.3 billion in state, local and federal taxes (not to mention an overall US economic impact of $50 billion), the current NVVA attitude that the wineries will adapt does not seem commensurate to the potential gravity of the situation . However, while it seems clear that there is room for the NVVA to make a positive impact by helping wineries to adapt to climate change, the fierce independence of growers will make this difficult: “Growers tend to respond to vineyard stresses individually rather than collectively, except in the case of severe and new pests and diseases” .
Addition Steps Worth Consideration
In order to live up to its goal of protecting the Napa Valley appellation, there are three steps the NVVA should take to help address the challenge of climate change. First, given the unique climate of Napa Valley, the NVVA should continue to independently monitor changes to stay as up to date as possible. Second, they should encourage growers to share key learnings and information on how changing climate has affected them. Third, given the region’s economic significance, the NVVA should work with the government of California to discuss the possibility of state funding directed towards helping growers develop solutions to problems they encounter related to climate change.
 30 October 2016. [Online]. Available: https://napavintners.com/about/.
 2 November 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.robertmondaviwinery.com/Sustainable-Farming.
 D. Cayan et al., “Climate and Phenology in Napa Valley: A Compilation and Analysis of Historical Data,” 2011.
 L. &. T. Reid & Lisle, “Cumulative Effects and Climate Change,” U.S. Forest Service.
 K. N. Cahill, “Global Change in Local Places: Climate Change and the Future of the Wine Industry in Somona and Napa, California,” Stanford University, 2008.
 J. Rohrlich, “Climate Change Deniers Had Better Stop Drinking Wine,” 15 July 2014. [Online]. Available: https://news.vice.com/article/climate-change-deniers-had-better-stop-drinking-wine.
Student comments on It’s Time to Whine about the Future of Wine
I wonder if Indigo Ag / others in the ag tech space will come up with a product for grapevines… regardless, another important action for the NVVA is to work with scientists to do soil / vine testing, as well as climate scientists as they continue to downscale climate models and get (somewhat) more robust predictions over smaller geographies, like Napa.
Interestingly, wineries in upstate New York think they’ll benefit from climate change. Perhaps low-cost land buying to be done in tomorrow’s best wine-growing microclimates?
From what I understand from visiting Napa, the community is also having trouble addressing the increased tourism in the area. Ironically, the same climate that creates great wine has also attracted a significant amount of traffic that accelerates the impact of climate change. Do you think there are opportunities for the NVVA to pass regulation to help preserve the delicate environment that is so conducive for grape growing? In addition to Rob’s suggestions above, could they somehow add a non-obstructive public transportation to reduce the sheer number of cars emitting greenhouse gases in the region? Will innovations in seed/microbiomes become a more important aspect of ensuring grape growth? Maybe even flavor?
Grape growing is already so limited to certain regions of the world, which gives wine its unique tastes… I wonder if tasters all over the world could taste the shift due to global warming. Jokes aside, wine growing is a very interesting sector where innovation can happen for the betterment of many other applications, as there’s a lot of enthusiasts and money circulating in the business. I wonder if NVVA and other wine growers are interested in investing in technologies to control temperatures at scale, or new ways of growing grapes in terms of land use (vertical growing?) and location.
Although I believe that the NVVA is aiming in the right direction, I am not certain they feel the real pressure about the effects that climate change can have on this industry. The importance of research and further understanding of the effects of climate change could be key in making decisions of actions that could be taken today to mitigate future challenges. Considering Philip’s and Levi’s comments, couldn’t the NVVA take advantage of that “enthusiasm” and growth in tourism to generate more awareness and fund further research? Stress tests in different geographies around the globe could provide good parallels to the temperatures Napa could have in the future, and hence could help in defining possible actions to be taken.
I agree with TPA’s comment about whether people in this industry actually feel the real pressure that climate change can have on them.
You mentioned that the fierce independence of growers will make it difficult for NVVA to make a positive impact by helping them. If they don’t feel real pressure they might not react to this help.Thus, I am wondering whether the NVAA could set some incentives in order to make the different growers take the measures the NVAA is proposing. Maybe offer free resources to help them towards this change? Or make the government subsidize these changes?
Such a fun post, Nicole! Thanks for being relevant AND informative — it was a great read.
I am still a bit confused by the actually implications of climate change on the wine industry. One thought: California is currently in a big drought, and when I was in Napa/Sonoma/Wine Country this summer, I noticed the just how dry the region was. From what I heard, this has had a HUGE impact on grape farming (is that what it’s called?) and thus, a huge impact on wine production. I think it would have been great if you dove a bit deeper into the specific implications of climate change on wine country. (To Cristina’s question — yes, I think the wine industry is really feeling the pressure, but there is little incentive to do anything given the global free rider problem.)
One particular solution NVVA could work on is water scarcity. During droughts (which I’m assuming are increasing in frequency due to climate change), how can NVVA help vintners and growers use water more efficiently? Are there new technologies (such a various forms of irrigation) that improves water efficiency and increase crop yield?
Water scarcity is just one way climate change may be impacting vintners and growers. I’m curious if there are other ways that climate change is impacting the industry, too. Yikes!
Thank you for writing such an engaging post Nicole – what a fun read 🙂
While I agree that information sharing and data monitoring are critical for staying on top of climate changes as they progress, they are still quite reactive. I would consider other solutions as well that are more proactive and allow the NVVA to prevent / mitigate further impact climate change has on the wine business. +1 to Levi and Becca’s points about innovation and water – are there growing techniques that NVVA can investigate that are more resilient to water scarcity and climate variation? Can they invest in marketing to push new blends and varieties that they predict will flourish given future weather patterns?
Nicole, I am no sommelier, but I have watched a documentary or two. As I understand it, somewhat arid conditions can produce high quality wine, as the plant is more efficient at converting resources to the fruit as opposed to the leaves. Further, wine regions vary in their temperature ranges, with some cool regions producing some stellar vintages (e.g. New Zealand or Germany). Is it possible that climate shifts will create new winners in the wine industry, and that major players today need only to diversify their land holdings?