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The Taste of Climate Change

paul dolan

When it comes to dealing with climate change, I realize that saving wine is not at the top of most people’s agendas. Those of us who make wine, however, know that vineyards are the canaries in the coal mine. Minor shifts in temperature and weather patterns, unnoticed by most people, are already altering our wines.

Measurable change already has happened in our lifetimes. As a young winemaker, I struggled to get my wines to 12.5 percent alcohol, but today I have to work hard to keep them under 15 percent. Warmer weather is contributing to spiking alcohol levels. Drought is drying out and threatening vineyards. Warmer springs produce early bud breaks, increasing the chance that a frost will damage vines. Rain patterns increasingly are shifting from seasonal cycles to random, unexpected storms that bring rot and mold. Unpredictability is the new norm.

Winegrowers recognize that climate is an important contributor to the unique character of our wines — specific soil, elevation, exposure, heat, degree days and rainfall all have an impact. If this trend of increasing temperature continues, we and our children will most likely need to abandon our vineyards that we hold so dear and make room for other crops.

While winemakers can taste the effects of these shifting climatic conditions, it is my opinion that the wine industry should move aggressively to address the issue. Historically, we have been a group willing to challenge ourselves. The wine community has tackled many ambitious tasks, starting with leading the charge for the repeal of Prohibition. The wine industry proactively developed our own Code of Advertising Standards and Truth in Labeling Standards (written and adopted by the California Wine Institute) to give consumers a better understanding of varietals and vintages. More recently, in 2002, that institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers collaborated on the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices, the first code of sustainability written by any global industry. With each of these groundbreaking actions, this industry has said it will be held accountable to our most important stakeholder, our consumers.

Today, we face an unprecedented and urgent challenge: We are fighting for the continued viability of our homes, the vineyards we are so proud of.

Ripple effect can begin in California

California’s wine industry can lead the way by holding itself to the highest standards. With effort and vision, wineries would be carbon neutral, use 100 percent green-power, be landfill-free, eliminate use of unneeded chemicals and employ best farming practices such as organic and biodynamic methods and recycle 100 percent of their waste water for useful purposes.

Over the last five years we have seen, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Portugal and other wine regions join in the development of their own sustainability codes. Just as the California Wine community led that conversation globally, I think we now can set standards of performance for ourselves that will have the same ripple effect that voluntary code has.

Sustaining the environment is also the surest way to sustain our own businesses, particularly in these economically challenging times. At Paul Dolan Vineyards and Parducci Wine Cellars, where I am a partner and winemaker, we have made many changes to how we do business — reducing our energy consumption and managing our operations more efficiently in the process. We waste less and save more. The payback for most of our green investments has occurred within a five-year period.

Late last year, as a member of The Climate Group, an international non-govermental organization, I attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. There I realized that skepticism about climate change, something prevalent in the United States, has been replaced in other parts of the world with determination to take action. The Climate Group created a platform where premiers and governors from across the globe took a public stand to reduce their emissions beyond the stated conference goals. It was inspirational.

It is time for us, particularly the vulnerable California wine industry, to follow the world’s example. We are called to do the right thing for agriculture and our world, not just our industry. We are at a tipping point. Soon, not only the grapes will be telling us that the world has changed.

Paul Dolan, a fourth-generation winemaker, is an international authority in sustainable agriculture and author of the book “True to Our Roots: Fermenting a Business Revolution” (2003), which argues that sustainability is not only good for the earth, it is an economic advantage.