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The Wine Exchange

Allen R. Balik, The Wine Exchange: Climate change revisited

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Sept. 11, 2021 series
  • Updated
Napa Valley

Wildfires and droughts, effects of climate change, are impacting the wine industry in Napa Valley and around the world. 

With devastating evidence mounting each day, we can no longer accept the climate deniers’ claims that we’re just living through “natural climate cycles.”

Last month, the U.N. Weather Agency reported, “Weather disasters are striking the world four to five times more often and causing seven times more damage than in the 1970s. In the 1970s the world averaged about 711 weather disasters per year but from 2000 to 2009 that was up to 3,536 [about 10 per day]. In the 2010s that dropped to 3,165 [per year].”

The impact of climate change at these staggering levels results in a bleak outlook for virtually every part of the world’s agricultural and industrial complex, including the international wine community. Unfortunately, while many are looking for solutions, most industrialized countries (including the U.S. and China) are slow to implement them on a meaningful scale.

Since I addressed the subject last year, much has changed (some positive but mostly negative), yet far too much remains the same. And not a day goes by without seeing more frightening developments reported by the general news media and wine press.

As I said in my Aug. 21, 2020 column (“Viticulture combats a new normal”), “Climate change is a progressive, complex, multifaceted phenomenon with inconsistent patterns from one area to another that casts a dark shadow over vineyards worldwide.”

In addition to rising temperatures, severe droughts (viticulture’s greatest challenges) and resulting horrific fires, we are experiencing violent hurricanes and the tornados they spawn, punishing storm surges, intense frosts and destructive blizzards, along with an increased incidence of pest and disease pressures across agriculture.

My intention is not to debate the cause or existence of climate change as it’s clear the international scientific community has been quite diligent through countless detailed studies in establishing the facts. Rather, I am exploring events in the wine industry occurring over the past year.

The industry is currently pursuing a two-pronged path. One is how to “cope” with changing climatic conditions in the vineyard through the development of new farming strategies and irrigation protocols, as well as experimenting with different grape varieties, clones and rootstocks that are more adaptable to drier and warmer conditions.

The other is how to “combat” the causes of climate change by reducing carbon footprints in various ways from winery to table, such as the recycling of water and energy to bottle weight for manufacturing and shipping conservation.

The last several years have proven disastrous for winegrowing regions both here and abroad. We have been served with dire warnings on the immediate need for short-term solutions coupled with an urgent necessity for long-term disaster mitigation strategies.

Recent events have brought these forces to the forefront with killer frosts in France, overwhelming floods in Western Germany, rain-induced landslides in Italy and raging wildfires provoked by extreme drought conditions in Southern Europe, Oregon and California along with Ida’s lethal path from New Orleans to New England.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently reported that July was the hottest month in the 142 years of record-keeping in the U.S. The same was true of worldwide temperatures and is followed closely by 2016, 2019 and 2020. Is there a trend here?

Warmer temperatures shorten the growing season and hasten harvest times as sugars rapidly rise and acids quickly fall, while flavor and aromatic phenolics may not have a chance to fully develop as they would in a proper ripening cycle.

Aside from experimenting with alternate varieties that are more adaptable to changing conditions, vintners from Europe and elsewhere are (when possible) transitioning their growing sites to higher elevations and cooler regions that afford longer hang-times and phenolic maturation.

Examples can be found in Spain where some northern Mediterranean-based producers are looking to the higher elevations and rocky volcanic soils of the Catalan region or in Chile where the move is to the far cooler areas of the south.

Also, there is a significant transition in Argentina to regions further up the Andean slopes from the lower areas for a greater diurnal shift in daytime to evening temperatures.

Last week, I attended a webinar on the “Future of Drinking/Regions Reimagined” presented by Australian Wine CONNECT. The objective of the seminar was to introduce the Americas to Australia’s lesser known growing areas and the range of varieties (primarily European) now being planted.

Much of the discussion involved marketing and production strategies, but throughout the presentation, the basis for exploring these lesser-known varieties and growing areas was also linked to climate change.

This quest was labeled by the panelists as “Varieties appropriate to Australia” and aimed at achieving an historical perspective applied to current conditions.

Many of the varieties (both enticing whites and lively reds in a country better known for burly Shiraz and ultra-rich Cabernet) emanate from Italy such as Fiano (Compania), Nero d’Avola (Sicily), Vermentino (Sardinia and Tuscany), Montepulciano (Abruzzo), Pecorino (Le Marche) and others. In addition to Italy, additional alternate varieties such as Arinto (a brightly spirited white from Portugal) have different Old World heritages.


According to an Aug. 31 NBC Bay Area on-line post, Ray Hannigan of Green and Red Vineyards in St. Helena is trying something new in the vineyard. Hannigan is following Australian experiments by spraying leaves at the fruit line with a kaolin-based clay compound that acts as a “sunscreen” to protect the leaves and consequently the berries from excess heat and exposure. The fear is that, “should the leaves dry out and wither the grape clusters will follow.”

Warren Winiarski is Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars founder and winemaker and now proprietor of Arcadia Vineyards in Coombsville. He has received many honors throughout his iconic career and was the producer/winemaker of the legendary 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon that won the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting.

As Winiarski was planning to develop his first vineyard in the late 1960s, he became a devoted follower of UC Davis professors Maynard Amerine and A.J. Winkler and their “California Wine Grapes: Composition and Quality of their Musts and Wines Bulletin 794” published in 1963. It became the seminal reference on vine selection in relation to the amount of heat each area receives during the growing season based on “degree days.”

The resulting “Winkler” scale was established on climatic conditions from the 1940s and 1950s. But now, due to current circumstances and with Winiarski’s consultation and generous financial support, the scale is being reevaluated under the leadership of Beth Forrestel, an assistant professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis. Winiarski and Forrestel believe the change is necessary to better guide growers on preferential varietal choices for planting based on a revised heat index.

While so much is being done in the vineyard to cope with climate change, other well-intentioned efforts are also taking place in the winery and through the supply chain to “combat” the causes. Adrian Bridge, CEO of Taylor’s Port and the Fladgate Partnership, is growing his “Porto Protocol” message and expanding membership (including several Napa Valley vintners) from around the world to make specific changes designed to reduce greenhouse gases and their carbon footprints.

Napa Green Winery believes, “Making exceptional wine requires stewardship and attention to detail.” They continue to grow their membership base by focusing on increased energy and water efficiency, as well as preventing waste through recycling, composting and incorporating environmentally-oriented purchasing programs.

The overall goal is to reduce the carbon footprint at every step, along with caring for employees and the community through encouragement and sustainability. And last month, Jackson Family Wines committed to slashing its carbon footprint in half by 2030 across their extensive portfolio.

The ultimate battle against the effects of climate change in all facets of our lives must be fought on multiple fronts as there is no easy one-size-fits-all solution. Clearly, what worked before does not work now.

Giovani Gaja of Italy’s famed Gaja wine family added his perspective in the August 10 posting of James Suckling’s Weekly Tasting: “Adaptation is all about survival – you have to adapt and change and don’t be afraid to change.”

Warren Winiarski discusses climate change and the Winkler Index. Video courtesy of UC Davis

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an e-mail to me at

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.

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