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Global Warming and our Future?

by David on July 5, 2007

For those of us who lie awake worrying that Yountville may become the next Fresno due to global warming there’s good news (I think). Recently the Napa Valley Grapegrowers got together for a conference called “The Future of Napa Valley: Beyond Hang Time.” They spent some time on the potential effects of global warming and of course talked about the ever-present hangtime issue itself.

When you read that more and more people are planting wine grapes in England due to climate change, you can seriously start to wonder about the future of a region that already errs on the warm side. However, as with most things in life, generalizations don’t always work. Like winegrowing itself, it’s site specific.

So here’s the not-so-scary-sounding forecast from those who are in a better position to know than most:

Number one, the soils ain’t gonna change for the next 100 to 1000 years unless there’s a whopper of an intervention by the Gods or man since, as Dr. Deborah Elliot-Fisk of UC Davis pointed out, “The soils in Napa Valley are 100,000 years old.” She predicts the soils will be stable, except for possibly decreased soil moisture due to warmer temperatures. Sounds like more drought-resistant rootstock is in our future and smart, strategically-timed irrigation practices will be essential so we don’t run through our water supply.

Number two falls in the “people are funny” category and produced my favorite quote from the session. Regarding temperature change and perceived quirky weather patterns, Dr. Rick Snyder of UC Davis said: “All my life people have been saying the weather is unusual.” Yup. I’ve heard a number of people blame this year’s low rainfall on climate change, totally forgetting that we had nearly double our normal rainfall in 2006.

But he foresees climate change, as does Dr. Elliot-Fisk. She predicts that the warmer temperatures in the upper Napa Valley may shift south a little not necessarily meaning hotter hots, but making a bigger percentage of the valley warmer. Good-bye to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and bubbly?? She says the mountaintops will either stay the same or cool slightly due to increased fog. It may be that the state of California overall will be warmer by about 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2055 to 2075, with 15 more days of temperatures over 90 degrees. But with our marine influence and Dr. Elliot-Fisk’s predicted increase in fog, the California model won’t necessarily be the Napa Valley reality.

Dr. Snyder summarized the results of a study on Napa Valley weather patterns between 1917 and 2006 and came to the conclusion that “From a grower’s standpoint, the weather has actually improved in Napa.” It shows an increase in the average low temperatures for January and also an increase in average high temperatures at harvest time. But the study shows less risk of extreme rainfall or extreme high or low temperatures today than we had prior to 1988. Living here, it’s hard to believe, but he said there’s been less flooding recently than in the past. Dr. Snyder added that “It’s the extremes that hurt you, not averages”.

The dueling Drs. seem to think that these are manageable changes as long as our viticultural practices shift along with the change.

professional wine grape pickers

Of course, these are projections and none of it is certain. But it’s easier to sleep at night, cooled by the evening fog, minus the nightmares about Yountville’s future as the next raisin capital of the world. More on the hangtime issue to come.

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