HOT IN HERE! Does climate change threaten the Oregon wine industry?
With the average temperature climbing each year and rain patterns becoming more difficult to predict, Oregon winemakers are facing a significant challenge in the form of climate change. But like many of the other obstacles the industry faces – a labor shortage, international trade disputes or otherwise – it is making a concerted effort to adapt.
If the warming trend brought on by climate change continues, the average temperature during growing season will be between 0.6 and 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in two decades. The number of "degree days" – which takes the difference each day between the average temperature and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, adds them all up in a given year and compiles a total number – is higher than ever this year.
The statistics are concerning, but there is optimism in the industry.
Jessica Mozeico, co-founder and winemaker at Et Fille Wines, said there are multiple ways that Oregon wine is being impacted by climate change. On the ground at her company's various vineyards, she is already seeing changes in the conditions for harvest and growing seasons. The time for harvest changes every year, some areas are becoming unsuitable for growth and new opportunities are beginning to present themselves.
In the long-term, Et Fille and other companies will have to consider what varietals to grow in a warmer and more unpredictable climate, while also moving some of their growth to higher elevations where it's cooler. Mozeico is embracing those changes.
"I see it as an evolution," Mozeico said. "You know, I don't see it as a doomsday scenario for our industry. It is a threat that needs to be mitigated, but I also see it as an opportunity to think about elevation, think of our varietals, think about our wine-making styles."
Mozeico's positive outlook represents a general feeling around the state, where some growers say they are actually benefiting in the short-term from climate change because the product ripens more reliably in slightly warmer temperatures. While the past five years have been the warmest growing seasons on record for Oregon winemakers, an increased temperature hasn't stymied the industry's growth.
Winemakers in warmer areas are adapting by moving their plants to higher elevations, harvesting and growing at slightly different times, changing the way they produce certain varietals and looking for ways to be more sustainable.
All of this is an effort to keep the industry chugging along. Wine in Oregon has a $3.35 billion statewide economic impact, according to a 2017 study by Oregon State University.
Greg Jones, director of the Evenstad Center for Wine Education at Linfield College in McMinnville, is one of the leading experts in the world on climate change and its impact on viticulture. He said farmers have been making adaptations in their agricultural practices for decades and while the threat of climate change is real and not to be ignored, he is confident that local wine producers will make necessary changes.
"Oregon's wine industry is not going away," Jones said. "I think the common thought sometimes is that climates are going to change and there's going to be no more wine in Oregon or wherever. That's not the point. I think the point is that climates are going to change and we have to adapt to them."
While climate change has the potential to limit or eliminate wine production from hotter regions like parts of France and South America, Oregon winemakers have a cooler baseline to start on as temperatures rise. This doesn't portend a wine shortage, but it does potentially signal a slight shift in the types of wine produced in the Beaver State. That is likely to force winemakers to change their practices to meet existing demand rather than abandon certain varietals altogether.
Oregon is known worldwide for its pinot noir. An OSU study found that just over 62 percent of the grapes grown here are pinot noir, followed by pinot gris at just under 13 percent. Those statistics are unlikely to shift significantly, Jones said, so long as climate catastrophe doesn't strike in 50 to 75 years.
Jones said that pinot noir is here to stay, but only if action is taken by humans to mitigate escalating climate change.
Harry Peterson-Nedry, co-founder of Chehalem Wines and owner of RR Wines, agrees. He said the elegance and finesse of Oregon pinot noir comes from the unique, cool climate of the Northwest and if the climate continues to change for the warmer or does so at an even faster rate than the past few years, the practice of winemaking will have to change accordingly.
"The Willamette Valley isn't a region that bakes the heck out of things and gives you big, forward, unidimensional wines," Peterson-Nedry said. "Because we are in a cooler climate than most, we are a canary in the coal mine, so to speak. We see things earlier as far as climate is concerned."
That advantage allows Oregon winemakers more time to adapt than other, more drought-stricken areas of the world. Northern California and the Napa Valley in particular are experiencing more drastic effects, while Oregon is just looking to maintain its production of complex pinot noir without any major changes.
Warmer years, Peterson-Nedry said, mean higher sugar content in the grapes produced, and sugar is converted into alcohol during the winemaking process. Higher alcohol content is something producers of pinot typically want to avoid, so as not to change the "elegant" flavors of their vintages.
"One of our jobs is to moderate the amount of sugar we allow in the wine," Peterson-Nedry said. "We have to get it physiologically ripe without letting the sugars go through the roof. You don't want 27 percent sugar when the ideal, finesse, elegant pinot noir is done at 23 or 24."
Looking back, moving forward
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Richard Sommer began to grow wine in Oregon's Umpqua Valley and unknowingly catalyzed a multibillion-dollar industry now recognized globally. At the time, Sommer was just turning his hobby into a business and research opportunity. He became one of the founding fathers of Oregon wine, Jones said.
The adaptation of Oregon winemakers to the climate dates back to Sommer's work. He was always seeking ideal conditions to grow wine, particularly pinot noir, and he was among those to discover the magic of the Willamette Valley for winemakers while he and many of his cohorts overcame some of Oregon's natural challenges.
"If you back up into that period of time, I really have to give those early pioneers – people who have planted at that point in time – a lot of kudos," Jones said. "They came to grow grapes in a region that they thought had a lot of potential, but the climates were really a challenge. They met that challenge and it turned into the industry we have today."
Sommer's innovations and practices set a precedent that other Oregon winemakers have followed and built upon. Mozeico and Peterson-Nedry are both making changes to their practices as the climate warms, anticipating how they can continue the legacy of Oregon wine with a resilience they share with their cohorts in the industry.
Strategies for tackling challenges like climate change, Jones said, are shared among winemakers on a global scale and a local level. He pointed to a recent study conducted in the deserts of Israel, where grapes are being grown under extremely hot conditions, as a prime example of an industry that is always planning ahead.
"If you look at our ramping up climate, we could say that some places in the south of France could be like that Israeli desert in the next 15, 20, 30 years," Jones said. "The idea that we're trying to study this and trying to understand is really important because we can find ways to help growers adapt their vineyard to these new conditions."
People in agriculture, Jones said, are generally willing to share strategies to help out their neighbors. Whether they're located in France, Israel or Newberg, everyone seems – in his view – to have the collective's interest at heart.
That is encouraging, Jones said, when you consider the negative impacts climate change could have on the wine produced in Oregon and elsewhere. If local winemakers collaborate to maintain Oregon's standing as a global leader in pinot noir, among other varietals, it will continue to last for generations as an economic powerhouse and a signature flavor of the region.
"There's a saying in the industry, 'everybody wants everybody to succeed,'" Jones said. "They may not necessarily want them to make as good a wine as they do, but everybody wants everybody else to succeed. And so therefore there's an awful lot of sharing if somebody figures out how to deal with a given pest or given disease pressure, or maybe a water stress issue or something bigger like climate change.
"The industry shares that stuff all the time. There's not a lot of secrets that are out there and I think that's one of the best things about the wine industry is it's very collaborative."
Ryan Clarke is a reporter for the Newberg Graphic, a Portland Tribune sister paper.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.