How to slow the impact of climate change on California’s wine industry

California’s climate has always been one with extremes. Cool mornings regularly give way to sizzling afternoons during the summer growing season. This is a weather challenge that farmers here have adapted to. However, with climate change comes the risk of intensifying long-term extremes. Things like longer droughts, more intense heat waves, and more erratic rain patterns in the winter. All of these things will make the future of agriculture less predictable, especially for those who grow wine grapes. Michael Baldinelli and his family have owned Baldinelli Vineyards in Amador County for 50 years. He said he’s noticed these changes in weather patterns and it affects how decisions are made about the upcoming crop. “You’re reacting rather than preparing. You can’t say ‘oh, well, we did that last year’.” Baldinelli said. This uncertainty adds a lot of stress to an already risky industry. This is because grapes are particularly sensitive to things like temperature and sun exposure. Both affect the quality of the wine produced. Climate change is projected to increase the average temperature in the Sierra foothills by as much as 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit this century. This warming, combined with increased drought, could scald grapes grown using traditional methods. Recent research from UC Davis has found that the type of trellis—the structure used to support the vines—may be a key factor in the success of future grape harvests. Cliff Yu was one of the lead scientists for the UC Davis study in the Napa region. The traditional lattice “vertical firing position” increases the risk of overheating and burning, he said. “Because this trellis system is a very open environment, it has a better chance for sunlight to penetrate the canopy and warm the fruit,” Yu said. The same research found that choosing a different type of trellis that allows the vines’ leaves to form an arch over the fruit can provide significant protection. Baldinelli happens to be using this recommended setup for quite some time. He said he made the switch because the method can also increase the chance of a larger crop yield. Yu said that while the trellis types were tested in Napa, the potential benefits could be seen almost anywhere wine grapes are grown. “Their vineyards could be sustainable for many years to come. We can grow grapes, the same crop, for many, many generations,” Yu said. While this change has some long-term promise, the initial cost to farmers can be quite high. Replacing all the support points in a vineyard could run tens of thousands of dollars for even a relatively small operation, and once the change is made, it takes years to train the new vines to adhere to the support structure. Either way, the science shows that some adaptation will be needed throughout California’s wine industry to protect the region’s wine quality from the effects of climate change.

California’s climate has always been one with extremes. Cool mornings regularly give way to sizzling afternoons during the summer growing season. This is a weather challenge that farmers here have adapted to.

However, with climate change comes the risk of intensifying long-term extremes. Things like longer droughts, more intense heat waves, and more erratic rain patterns in the winter. All of these things will make the future of agriculture less predictable, especially for those who grow wine grapes.

Michael Baldinelli and his family have owned Baldinelli Vineyards in Amador County for 50 years. He said he has noticed these changes in weather patterns and it affects how decisions are made about the upcoming crop.

“It’s more about reacting than preparing. You can’t say ‘oh, well, we did it last year,'” Baldinelli said.

This uncertainty adds a lot of stress to an already risky industry. This is because grapes are particularly sensitive to things like temperature and sun exposure. Both affect the quality of the wine produced.

Climate change is projected to increase the average temperature in the Sierra foothills by as much as 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit this century. This warming, combined with increased drought, could scald grapes grown using traditional methods.

Recent research from UC Davis has found that the type of trellis—the structure used to support the vines—may be a key factor in the success of future grape harvests.

Cliff Yu was one of the scientists leading the UC Davis study in the Napa region. The traditional lattice “vertical firing position” increases the risk of overheating and sunburn, he said.

“Because this trellis system is a very open environment, it has a better chance for sunlight to penetrate the canopy and warm the fruit,” Yu said.

The same research found that choosing a different type of trellis, one that allows the vine leaves to form a crown over the fruit, can provide significant protection.

Baldinelli happens to be using this recommended setup for quite some time. He said he switched because the method can also increase the chance of a larger crop yield.

Yu said that while trellis types have been tested in Napa, the potential benefits can be seen almost anywhere grapes are grown.

“Their vineyards could be sustainable for many years to come. We can grow grapes, the same crop, for many, many generations,” Yu said.

While this change has some long-term promise, the initial cost to farmers can be quite high. Replacing all the support posts in a vineyard could cost tens of thousands of dollars for even a relatively small operation, and once the change is made, it takes years for the new vines to be trained to follow the support structure.

Either way, the science shows that some adaptation will be needed throughout California’s wine industry to protect the region’s wine quality from the effects of climate change.

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