How Wine Country is Adapting to Climate Change

Smoke hangs amongst charred trees on the hillside behind a vineyard in Napa Valley, California on September 28, 2020.  (Samuel Corum/AFP via Getty Images)

In September of 2015, Cecilia Enriquez sold the Petaluma estate of her family's winery, Enriquez Estate Winery, in order to purchase a new property in the Russian River Valley. The following year, they were "rocking and rolling" in their new vineyard, but by the beginning of 2017, record-breaking rains had hit the Bay Area and caused destructive flooding.

Thankfully, the winery was elevated enough to not be affected. Then October brought historic fires that damaged at least 27 wineries across Sonoma and Napa counties. With her winery located right off of River Road, Enriquez says, the fire came close, crossing Highway 101 just south of the River Road exit, toward Coffey Park.

Since 2017, fires are becoming more frequent—and destructive. In 2020, when the August Complex Fire became the largest fire in California history, Enriquez had to manage evacuations and power outages.

"You get so used to them that you already have things ready to go," Enriquez says. "It becomes part of your normal everyday life."

Like Enriquez, the California wine industry at large has struggled with the effects of climate change: drought, earlier and earlier harvests, floods and fires. But beyond structural damage, possibly the biggest impact that vintners and wineries have had to deal with is smoke taint.

Grapes wither on the vine as smoke from the Glass Fire fills the sky at a vineyard near Calistoga on Sept. 30.
Grapes wither on the vine as smoke from the Glass Fire fills the sky at a vineyard near Calistoga on Sept. 30. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Reversing the Effects of Smoke

Smoke taint occurs when grapes are exposed to wildfire smoke, which can result in an overwhelming quality to the wine, often described as "campfire," "burnt" or "medicinal." With the extent of the fires in 2020, many wineries had to decide what to do with fruit that was tainted. And, since 2017, wineries like Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma County have experimented with technologies that both test for the presence of smoke taint and work to reverse it.

"There are efforts to mitigate climate change and there's just kind of adaptation," says Towle Merritt, the vice president of operations and general manager at Gundlach Bundschu, who has plenty firsthand experience with smoke taint. In 2017, multiple Gundlach Bundschu properties had fire on-site. Going into this year, the winery wasn't looking to take in any grapes after October.

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But because of new technology, the winery decided to take in some late-season grapes that had been affected by smoke. The process uses the sanitizing agent known as ozone, which Merritt had used fairly regularly in to reduce microorganisms in barrels. The inorganic molecule has also been used in produce transport to increase food safety and in hotel rooms to remove tobacco smoke odor. There were claims, Merritt says, that ozone could eliminate 50-90% of smoke's volatile compounds in grapes by permeating the cell wall.

"It actually fixed the issue than hid the issue," says Merritt. "[Ozone] atomizes the volatile compounds. We like the prospect of actually trying to mitigate the root problem."

Enriquez decided to go with a different method by using Bioclear or Clear Up BIO, which binds to the smoke taint in the grape juice and stays at the bottom of the barrel when it's racked. She treated all grapes that came in this year with it as a precautionary measure, even though smoke wasn't noticeably present. "We've had very clean wine thus far," says Enriquez. "But that's not to say it's not going to show up later in life." (In 2014, for example, some ash briefly fell around the estate in Petaluma; the grapes remained clean in fermenting and bottling, but a couple of months later, Enriquez noticed a little bit of smoke. "Not overpowering, but you could definitely taste that there was smoke in there compared to previous vintages.")

Forty percent of Segassia Vineyard's vines were damaged after wildfires raged through Napa Valley in 2017.
Forty percent of Segassia Vineyard's vines were damaged after wildfires raged through Napa Valley in 2017. (Andrew Cates)

'Mother Nature Does Not Have a Schedule'

Not all wineries can afford to use smoke technologies. Some have chosen to work with smoke-tainted grapes and ferment with them, or else sell them wholesale to other wineries. Meanwhile, others with crop insurance often decide to forgo making wine from smoke-tainted grapes.

Ultimately, "Mother Nature does not have a schedule," says winemaker Erica Stancliff of Trombetta Family Wines. "Mother Nature does what Mother Nature wants, and we are along for the ride." Stancliff's adjustments include pruning later in the winter to delay bud break and to mitigate the risk of frost early in the spring; she's also been proactive with watering and irrigation, and in moving more toward dry farming.

"I think 2017 was sort of a wake-up call," says Merritt. "But really a wake-up call in the sense that there is just not enough research out there that you can speak to with any sort of absolute."

For Napa winemaker Dan Petroski, a longtime advocate for talking about climate change in the wine industry, it's hard to pinpoint climate change as the sole cause for fires and other major disasters. "It's a cumulative effect over time that is causing all this to happen," he says. A big factor in the LNU Lightning fires, which were caused by lightning strikes during hot, dry weather that ended up burning more than 363,000 acres, was human expansion, he says.

"We're just going to keep continuously expanding and growing and thinking that we are indestructible," Petroski says. "We've built houses in places that shouldn't be there, and put telephone poles with electric wires in places that shouldn't have been there, that weren't there 100 years ago."

Petroski is the winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards, which just celebrated its 125 anniversary this year as a family winegrowing estate. In the late 2000s, he was a part of the climate task force in Napa Valley which issued a detailed report on climate change's future effects. Petroski started becoming vocal about climate change, he says, because generational wineries like Larkmead want to continue their legacies 10, 20, and 30 years from now.

In order for Napa Valley to survive and thrive, Petroski says there needs to be a shift in how wineries think of the region as a destination. People come for the experience, even if it's during the winter months, he says, and not necessarily for the valley's famous varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon. In other words, it's about rethinking and adapting to the continuously changing landscape.

"They come to absorb the sunshine and the good time," Petroski says, optimistically. "It's going to continue to get better."

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