Farming Gone Haywire

It’s the end of October. Daylight is waning, the temperature is descending and Daylight Saving Time ends on Sunday. (Not to mention the presidential election two days later.) Change is upon us.

But these normal cycles of life seem not so normal anymore.

If you read grape and wine industry media regularly, you’ll notice a growing drumbeat of coverage on climate change. Stories appear weekly, if not daily, with increasingly dire headlines. For example, just this week, these items dropped into my inbox:

  • On October 23, The Guardian wrote, “Can California’s top wine region survive the era of megafire?” Karen Ross, the secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, who was formerly president of NGRA member-organization, the California Association of Winegrape Growers, is quoted saying the effects of the climate crisis have descended on the region sooner than anticipated. “‘We have always talked about these kinds of impacts as the future–but the future is now,’ she says, adding that growers are relying on research and science to navigate new obstacles.”
  • On the same day, the Washington Post published a story titled, “Climate change has affected 2020 wine harvests around the globe. Growers are concerned.” The Post story quotes NGRA Board member Emily Pelton, a director at the Virginia Wine Board and winemaker at Veritas Vineyards and Winery: “‘It’s been a strange year for growing grapes. We’ve had everything from frost to drought to cold to heat,’ she says, with rapid weather changes challenging vine and vintner. ‘We’ve had a lot of things thrown at us this year. It’s a unique vintage for us.'”
  • There’s also an invitation for the UC Davis “Savor” lecture series where, on November 10, scientist Dr. Beth Forrestel, an NGRA Research Committee member, will join a wine writer and winemaker to discuss “California’s Vanishing Chardonnay.” Citing “the need to diversify to newly developed, more resilient varieties,” the event description says, “Climate change is making it increasingly difficult to grow grape varieties like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, which some experts fear may eventually go extinct.”

Whether you believe in climate change or agree with scientists’ assessments of the causes of the increasing extremes of heat, cold, drought, flood, wildfire, and the related changes in insect migrations and the diseases they vector, it’s clear that where and how grapes are grown is changing. The growing season starts earlier, ends later. Frosts come sooner, are more intense. Heatwaves linger. This year more than ever, it’s farming, gone haywire. In fact, those who do subscribe to the idea of a warming world might identify with the words of reporter Dave McIntyre, who wrote the Post story referenced above: “It’s as though 2020 was the year climate change decided we weren’t listening, and it needed to throw a massive hissy fit to get our attention.”

In a year of unpredictability, the disruption of the natural ebb and flow of things seems especially distressing. How ever the rest of the year unfolds (table grape growers will be harvesting through December!), most would agree it will be a relief to put the 2020 growing season behind us. The good news is, every year brings another chance to do it all again, hopefully better…and with fewer of the extra challenges 2020 brought with it.