By Karl Klooster • Staff Writer • 

Time to face the music

Conservation InternationalAll of central California is expected to be unsuitable for winegrapes by 2050, and areas at higher elevations will become suitable. Oregon will have to graft or replant to different varieties on a case-by-case basis.
Conservation International
All of central California is expected to be unsuitable for winegrapes by 2050, and areas at higher elevations will become suitable. Oregon will have to graft or replant to different varieties on a case-by-case basis.

Hitting home for the wine industry, the first study to analyze impacts of climate change on wine production was just published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” And the key finding is that “climate change will dramatically impact many of the most famous wine-producing regions in the world today.”

The study, conducted by Conservation International, goes on to say, “The current areas suitable for wine grape growing will shrink by more than 70 percent in certain parts of the world by mid-century.”

Mid-century? 2050? That may sound far off in the future, but it’s only 37 years away. I doubt if I’ll be around then, but the odds are good that two-thirds of Americans now alive will.

The learned men and women who did the research don’t want to create panic or cry gloom and doom. By providing advance warning, they are making it possible for the industry to plan ahead. That is, if it heeds their words and begins to take action now.

Another study, this one of “American attitudes,” indicates the number of Americans taking global warming seriously has actually declined. Only about 60 percent of adults think it poses a meaningful threat.

It won’t be that bad, they say. We’ll adjust. What can we do about it, anyway?

A peculiar and perhaps fatally flawed human trait is to avoid admitting the reality of seemingly overwhelming problems, much less try to do anything about them.

It’s true. Mother Nature is one mighty tough mother. You can’t succeed by calling her bluff or going head to head with her.

But you can outsmart her.

Remember, this won’t happen tomorrow, next month or even next year. If we determine suitable places to grow grapes farther north or south, or at higher elevations, we can perhaps cope a bit better.

The report says that climate change “will create new areas suitable to wine production.” It says they may appear in unusual places, and that exploiting them may “put pressure on the critical natural ecosystems that support species and human well-being.”

 Yes, some of those places may lie within protected or precarious ecosystems. But there will no doubt be other places just as good. By starting now, we will succeed in identifying them sooner.

Organizations like Conservation International have the capability to do just that. All they need is broader support from a concerned and caring public, determined to put pressure on politicians.

“The world is our laboratory,” said a spokesperson for the D.C.-based nonprofit. “It’s where we conduct research and find solutions. Our scientists are in the field every day, monitoring environmental threats and taking action where it’s needed most and will do the most good.”

He continued: “Science is the cornerstone of everything we do. It helps pinpoint places with critical natural capital so we can identify where every dollar spent will have the maximum impact.

“Using cutting-edge capabilities, we assess today’s most critical environmental challenges, from the economics of healthy sustainable societies to site-based monitoring of biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

Obviously, the consequences of global warming will affect every crop, not just winegrapes. But due to their finicky nature, winegrapes have always served as a bellwether.

As the study noted, “Winegrapes are particularly sensitive to climate. Findings are symbolic, then, for what will happen with other agricultural commodities.”

It’s none too soon to be considering options. Adaptation strategies to minimize the impact on terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems are needed now.

As for winegrapes, dry farming is widely practiced in Oregon, which means no watering. However, if average temperatures continue to rise and average rainfall continues to decline, as predicted, there will be no choice. It will be water or die.

Addressing that issue, Lee Hannah, the study’s co-author and senior scientist for climate change biology at the Moore Center fore Ecosystem Science and Economics, said, “Consumer awareness and industry and conservation actions are all needed to help keep high-quality wine flowing without unintended consequences from nature.”

Maki Ikegami, with the Bren School of the University of California at Santa Barbara, said, “Vineyards are already expanding into the predicted suitable areas rapidly. Conservation measures in those areas must be taken immediately.”

The dilemma is obvious. How can the owner of a small winery, who has all of his and or her capital tied up in land, buildings, equipment and vines, adjust?

Tending one vineyard while starting up another many miles away sounds like way too much to undertake successfully.

However, climate change is relentless. It’s probably unstoppable.

So, sooner or later, everyone who grows winegrapes, and makes wine from them, will have to change in order to cope.

No doubt much of that formidable task will fall to another generation of wine industry professionals. But if the current one starts taking steps now to moderate the intensity of that transition, everyone will benefit.

Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 503-687-1227.

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