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The Napa Valley Vintners Take on Climate Change

by Monty and Sara Preiser

Preisers’ Reserve: It looks as if the 2005 vintage is going to be a superb one for Napa Valley Cabs. And when you have an excellent vintage to go along with a top of the line winemaker and a winery with resources – look out. The 2005 Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon ($54), allows all of us to respect economic conditions without sacrificing even a bit of quality. It is easy to identify the layers of the wine – spices and caramel on the nose lead into red cherries and currants, which flow into a chocolate finish. Tannins are well integrated. When you sip this beauty, try to pick out the 4% Petit Verdot that adds body, and notice as well Craig Williams’ use of both French and American oak. The Insignia may be Phelps’ calling card, but you can feel good leaving with a bottle of the 05 Cab.

The Napa Valley Vintners Take on Climate Change

The Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) is a non-profit trade association comprised of over 325 Napa Valley wineries (as with all trade associations, membership is voluntary so there are wineries in the Valley that, for one reason or another, choose not to join). Over the years we have watched the NVV as it has evolved into an entity that not only raises an incredible amount of money for worthy purposes through various events, but has expanded its scope to identify, study, and hopefully rectify problems facing the industry.

If you live outside of Napa you might think that the newspapers, news magazines (as opposed to wine guides), governmental agencies, and/or local journalists would have long ago run to take the laboring oar in an effort to maintain and aid the industry that galvanizes the county and allows it to operate at a high level. Alas, this is not so. The reality is that the government spends far too much time creating inane rules and regulations that slow the industry’s progress, all the while earmarking far too few resources to effectively help growth and prosperity. Journalists, for the most part, limit their stories to puff pieces about everything industry related so that they do not risk drawing the ire of anyone important. Such ire could lead to a loss of a writer’s free invitations to a myriad of social and tasting events. And the editorial staffs of the newspapers and magazines are rarely, if ever, involved with a first person story of note that does anything but offer praise (deserved or not) for a local business. Well, a revenue stream is important, we suppose.

So Napa Valley has long needed columnists, publications, or other groups with the guts to identify the bad as well as the good. Fortunately there have been, and are, a few organizations that can write the truth because of their size and/or lack of fear of retaliation. For example, some people criticize the Wine Spectator for its wine rating system, but without this publication there are numerous problems within the industry and certain wineries that would never have seen the light of day – and they needed to be exposed. Strong columnists like Alan Goldfarb, Dan Berger, and Eric Asimov seem to write without fear.

Thus, it is most gratifying to see the Napa Valley Vintners tackle the tough issues facing the wine industry. The coming century will feature the necessity of finding industry related answers to climate change, increasing competition from a world that seems to be able to produce wines at a lower cost, the “green” revolution, lesser resources due to more consumption, a poor economy, and a host of other issues that probably haven’t even been given a name.

Recently, the NVV held a meeting of more than 100 vintners that focused on the group's ongoing Climate Study Task Force. A top-notch panel of climate experts assembled to speak about this global problem and its local impact.

Chris Howell, winemaker and general manager of Cain Vineyard, is a leader on the Task Force. “Today, climate change and its potentially significant impact on our business is our greatest challenge.” He continued by observing that the wine industry has overcome challenges such as Prohibition, pests and diseases (like Phylloxera), land-use battles, and challenging economic times. He optimistically offered, “We can educate ourselves about the situation and still take action that can have a positive effect. When you’re a farmer you have to be optimistic, you’re planting a vineyard for (not just) a generation, (but) 20, 50, or 100 years. It’s not like Wall Street -- we need to be grounded in reality and need think about how to adapt.”

"I am happy to see the leadership the Napa Valley Vintners have shown on this topic," stated panelist Dr. Chris Fields, who holds many titles including founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, Professor of Biology and Environmental Earth Systems Science at Stanford University, and most recently co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. Fields highlighted the global, broad stroke view of what has been occurring with Earth's temperatures, specifically the impacts that have occurred since the Industrial Revolution. He noted that the IPCC has very strict criteria for drawing conclusions about climate research. All members from this vast global coalition must all agree that the conclusions put forth are sound, and they all agree that the greatly accelerated volume of CO2 in the atmosphere, as well as the rate of global warming, are caused by man-made activities.

Dan Cayan, renowned climate researcher from Scripps Institution of Oceanographic Science at UC San Diego, has partnered with Kimberly Nicholas-Cahill of Stanford University to study the climate specifically in Napa Valley. In doing this, they will use statistical data from a variety of climate indicators throughout the Western U.S. and, most importantly, specific data to the Napa Valley appellation. Working with vintners and growers from Napa Valley, they are attempting to piece together a history of what has occurred there from hand-written ledgers so that bud break, bloom, fruit set, veraison, and harvest data are correlated with weather statistics, including precipitation, frost, temperatures, and such to create a model.

Cayan provided examples of the effects of increased carbon in the environment, noting that "CO2 has a lifespan of about 100 years, so what we are creating in the atmosphere affects our future generations." He also noted that carbon-emitting activities like burning fossil fuels are largely mitigatable. To date, said Cayan, the rise in temperatures is subtle and can be noticed generally in winter nighttime temperatures. "What we see happening across the Western U.S. to date is an earlier spring over the past several decades."

Nicholas-Cahill, a viticulturist herself with vineyards in the Napa area, looks more specifically at vines and vineyard development in her research. She said, "Fruit yields are very affected by climate and climate change. Future year yields are dictated by the carbohydrate reserves the vine stores, which is why some growers irrigate post-harvest." As are their colleagues, Cayan/Nicholas-Cahill are amassing hand-written field ledgers from winegrowers so the information can be input into databases.

Steve Cliff, manager for the Climate Change Planning Department of the State of California's Air Resources Board, rounded out the panel by talking about AB32 – the state’s mandate to return to 1990 carbon levels by 2020. He noted that fermentation from winery production facilities was not a regulated carbon emission, and that the carbon emissions targeted are those caused by burning fossil fuel. He noted that, astonishingly, California is the number two carbon emitter in the world, due to transportation fuel burning, behind only the U.S. as a whole. He told the audience that with new technology and fuel efficiency that the return to 1990 levels in California is very achievable.

Chris Howell (of Cain V) summed it up. “We don’t know of any other appellation that is working on this issue in this way. Though studies show skyrocketing carbon levels world-wide since the Industrial Revolution, to date only winter overnight temperatures have risen slightly in Napa Valley. Our goal is to know what is weather, and what is climate change. As the warmest years on record have provided the coolest growing seasons in Napa Valley, there is a lot we don’t know. In 2008 we don’t have to question the quality of these wines, but we have a responsibility to our industry and to the economy to do all that we can to learn what might be ahead, determine what’s mitigatable and, what adaptations need to be made to climate challenges. We will do a better job of adapting if we know what to expect.”

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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