Vine Wise

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Climate Change

Columnist: Richard L. Thomas
December, 2014 Issue

Richard L. Thomas
All articles by columnist

A study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences discovered that, by the year 2050, 73 percent of Australian land currently in vines will become unsuitable due to temperature.

Recently, I read (with a great deal of interest) about winemakers from the world-famous Barossa Valley in Australia relocating to Tasmania to make their world-famous Shiraz because of global warming. Whether you’re a believer or not, and whether you think climate change is due to man or Mother Nature, it seems the facts are saying things are warming up around the world and weather patterns are becoming more extreme.
God still smiles down on our beautiful North Coast without any major upheavals locally—unless you call our pain-in-the-butt wind a major issue rather than just an inconvenience. We’ve escaped most of the more painful bullets being shot at the world around us. (This doesn’t include the real bullets and bombs that are being shot around the world by the religious zealots, power-hungry leaders and other idiots raising havoc. Those are political issues I try not to touch because some clown will get offended—not that I care, but my editor and loyal backer does.)
Back to Australia. Tasmania is on the southern coastline of Australia and, being that far south, is very cool—or at least has been. Dr. Richard Smart first started seeing Tasmania as a possible home for world class Sauvignon Blanc, similar to New Zealand. Prior to this, Tasmania wasn’t much of a wine area, with only a few acres of Pinot Noir, some Reisling and a few scattered other blocks, but nothing of any consequence. Meanwhile, Barossa Valley has been making world-class Shiraz (Australian for Syrah) for nearly a century. It’s where I fell in love with it while on sabbatical leave in 1987 and figured that if they could do it, why couldn’t we? Today, why we can’t duplicate that wonderful product is still a mystery to me. Is it clone, soil, climate, winemaker attitude, growing practices or some mystery we haven’t solved?
A study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences discovered that, by the year 2050, 73 percent of Australian land currently in vines will become unsuitable due to temperature. It’s a pretty broad statement, but it also says two other things. One, that it will be slow in coming and, two, we have a chance to learn and change. With GMO (that taboo word for those who want to go back and live in caves), there’s probably no reason we can’t develop newer varieties that will thrive under the purportedly new conditions coming. And who says growers aren’t adaptable? It only took me 20+ years to teach them about drip irrigation, non-till farming, trellising and mechanical harvesting. I’ll agree that getting growers to change practices is much like trying to teaching old (stubborn) dogs new tricks—but it can be done with dollar signs used like carrots on a stick.
Since our current drought didn’t give us 25 years of warning, we’re a little behind the eight ball in learning what to do. Fallow grounds don’t earn much income, so let’s hope it isn’t the early warning of climate change already here.
So the moral of the Australian story is that, if it’s getting too hot, move closer to Antarctica. In our case, maybe the extreme North Coast might be the answer or even farther north to Oregon or coastal Washington. Are the local wineries (such as Kendall-Jackson) already doing that trying to tell us something? Maybe they’ll do Pinot Noir now, but will secretly plant Cabernet, Shiraz and other varieties. Could they be smarter than the rest of us, or do they just have money burning holes in their pockets? Gee, maybe even the western Russian River Valley and the Petaluma Gap might one day be famous for Cabernet. Will Pinot drinkers have to be satisfied with wines from British Columbia and Canada?
I’ll admit I probably won’t be around to see if all of this takes place, but it will be fun to watch from above—or below (wherever I shall be and, yes, I know what many of you think already). Could a couple of big volcanos (like the one a couple of years ago) speed this process up so I might see it first-hand? It was said that last volcano emitted more CO2 than 50 years of man screwing up.
A good friend and researcher at the Barossa Valley Viticulture Research Station, Michael McCarthy, says growers are already adapting as the changes happen, “and people need not take the risk and jump ship simply because of what’s described as cycles of weather.”
Thus the final question: Are California wineries buying in Oregon jumping ship, being smart, wanting a chunk of the Pinot market, or do they simply have the money and want all their bases covered? I think I’ll stay in Healdsburg and just cuss the daily wind. I’ve learned not to leave any umbrellas up when not in use and to watch them with a careful eye when they are. If that’s the early extent of our global warming, I suppose I can live with it. Your homework: Glaetzer Tasmanian Shiraz. Happy sipping!


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