Good Libations: Climate Complications for California Winemaking



In our cultural lexicon, wines from California are often thought to be limited to oaky, buttery Chardonnay or heavy, jammy Cabernet Sauvignon. Though wines made in these styles are certainly still being produced in the region, the popularity of the contemporary natural wine movement has allowed for the wines coming out of California to be unique reflections of the region’s land and history. As California winemakers confront the challenges of the planet’s rapidly changing climate, producing delicious wines sustainably is everyone’s top priority.

While large conventional winemaking operations rely on artificial flavors and additives to create a homogenized product in-bottle, smaller natural winemakers aim to capture the terroir of their growing environment. Because they are producing wines that are intended to reflect the character of the land and atmosphere of a given growing season, natural winemakers are inherently adaptable to and at the mercy of the impacts of climate change. 

Challenge 1: Drought

Agriculturally speaking, Vitis vinifera (the grape species used in wine production) is not a highly water intensive crop and, in most winegrowing regions, thrives on rainfall alone. Traditional winemaking wisdom is that the most lush fruit is produced when vines are hydrated just enough to allow sufficient photosynthesis to ripen grapes, but are not watered so little that the crop suffers water stress. This is a delicate balance that farmers negotiate every growing season.

California’s thriving wine economy was built on the ability to control crop irrigation, which allowed larger producers to reliably deliver consistent products to the consumer and also became a common practice for smaller producers.  Before the 1970s, using irrigation in viticulture was unheard of. But as the region’s wine production started to boom in the 1980s, many vineyards became reliant on irrigation to consistently produce high grape yields from their vines. The WWF estimates that 496 gallons of water are required to produce one gallon of California wine.

The drought that vineyards in California have been navigating for several years has made cultivating healthy vines quite a challenge for conventional and natural winemakers alike. According to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s most up-to-date edition of The World Atlas of Wine, “Growers who once unquestioningly regarded irrigation as the norm are examining ways of using less water, or even dry farming.”

The practice of dry farming simply refers to the vineyard using no supplemental irrigation on their crops. Measures can be taken to prepare soils to maximize their ability to capture rainfall and direct that rainfall to the root systems of the plants. Many contemporary natural winemakers in California already prefer the practice of dry farming as allowing the vines to develop with minimal human intervention is a large part of the natural wine ethos and is thought to preserve the grape’s ability to capture a distinctive terroir.

Challenge 2: Sun and Smoke

Cultivating a thriving crop of Vitis vinifera requires attention to both the plant’s water intake and sun exposure. While sunlight has an important role to play in the process of photosynthesis, high temperatures and prolonged exposure to UV radiation from the sun can cause grapes to roast and burn on the vines. The plant reacts to this environment by producing grapes with thicker skins, which will have an impact on the final palate of any wine made where fermentation takes place while the juices are in contact with the skins — this includes reds, rosés, and orange wines that are made when the juice from white grapes is fermented in contact with the skins. Some conventional winemakers, like Aaron Whitlack of Red & Green Vineyards, have tried to protect their delicate-skinned grapes by spraying the vines with sunscreen.

Another new climate factor that West Coast winemakers must consider is the impact of smoke from wildfires. Since 2008, winemakers in Napa Valley have had to deal with the complications of smoke taint present in their wines. The skins of grapes are highly sensitive to their environment and smoke from even distant fires can penetrate into the grape. Currently, there is no way for winemakers to shield their vines from the smoke that lingers in the air from wildfires, and smoke taint is undeniably a fault that renders a crop difficult for a winemaker to salvage.

Challenge 3: Shifting Seasons

Since the 1940s, the winemaking industry has referred to the Winkler Index, a global temperature map constructed by UC Davis Professors A.J. Winkler and Maynard Amerine, to understand what grapes thrive in what areas of the world as well as what the ideal harvest cycles for these grapes typically looks like. As our climate changes, these standards no longer accurately reflect the reality of the winemaking world.

Warren Winiarski, environmentalist and winemaker legendary for producing the winning Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon of the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, advocates for more research to update our understanding of how winegrowing conditions have evolved, especially in California. 

“Because we are in a period of climate change, we need more refined and comprehensive ways of measuring the effect of heat on plant physiology and grape maturity,” Winiarski says. “The development of new methods of measurement would be extraordinarily helpful. With better knowledge of changes in the compositional elements in the grapes in the vineyard, we’ll have better guidance on how to respond in the winery and create the wines we want to make.”

A recent example of how this has impacted California vineyards is the delayed release of Forlorn Hope’s “Queen of the Sierra” amber and rosé wines — a release that natural wine fans have looked forward to since winemaker Matthew Rorick first brought the “Queen of the Sierra” series to the market in 2005. Reflecting on the many ecological hurdles the winery cleared over the past year, Rorick says, “2022 has been a real kick in the ding dong.” Because Forlorn Hope does not jumpstart fermentation by artificially introducing yeasts or manually adjusting the temperature in the maceration process, they encountered several months of delay before being able to bottle their amber and rosé wines.

While exercising patience is one way to adapt to a changing winemaking climate, another way to adapt to these shifting growing seasons is to experiment with winemaking practices that are atypical for California. For example winemaker Xavier Arnaudin of Union Sacré focuses on producing wines that are typically characteristic of Alsace. While picking up a bottle of California Gewürtztraminer may seem counterintuitive, breaking down the borders of the wine world allows for winemakers to more deftly react to a rapidly changing climate.

Ultimately, even though many California vineyards have long been reliant on irrigation, the region’s history of sustainable agriculture and the modern success of the natural wine movement demonstrates the adaptability of California winemaking. While the wines we see coming out of California today may look, smell, and taste entirely different from the wines that exploded out of the region in the ’80s, they are engaging and inviting nevertheless.

Julia Cooper’s Good Libation: 2020 Forlorn Hope “Gargamay” Co-Ferment

I love a good underdog story as much as I love a fresh and funky wine — Forlorn Hope’s “Gargamay” is both of those things. A “co-ferment” refers to a wine where, rather than blending the juices after fermentation, two different grape varietals are left to ferment together. In this case, “Gargamay” is a portmanteau of the red grape Gamay (typically grown in France’s Loire Valley) and the white grape Garganega (an indigenous grape of Italy). Here’s how Matthew Rorick, winemaker at Forlorn Hope, describes how this unusual blend came to be:

“The 2020 Gargamay is a tragicomedy from [our vineyard’s] Bloque Triste — the block that just can’t catch a break. We introduced Gamay to the ranch in 2017, and it got nailed with frost when the new buds were barely out. No worries, next year, right? Except that in 2018 a gang of rogue deer broke into the block in the spring and ate every bit of new growth they could get their teeth on. Almost half of the plants in the block died as a result of this one-two punch, so we re-planted new rootstock and scored some fresh budwood from UC Davis. Much to our delight, many of the new clones from Davis showed amazingly strong growth in 2019 and we were pretty stoked — until we discovered that the vines growing with vim and vigor were a nursery mistake, and actually Garganega. I mean, can’t this block of Gamay catch a break? Yeah, nah. So keeping lemons to lemonade and all that, in 2020 we just picked the whole block together and co-fermented the Gamay and Garganega… And that’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the Gargamay.”

Additionally, when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint of your personal wine consumption, shopping domestically is always a great choice. Domestic wines not only travel shorter distances than wines being imported to the United States from overseas, but because the product is not encountering any tariffs at the border, a greater percentage of the bottle’s price goes directly to the vintners and vignerons.

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Julia Cooper
Julia Cooper
Julia Cooper is a columnist for Bluedot Living with a passion for environmentally conscious food and beverages. While completing her master's degree in Writing & Publishing at Emerson College, Julia curates the natural wine and craft beer program for Black Sheep Market in Cambridge, Mass. Julia's cat Sofia is retired from her eight years as the bodega cat for a fine wine store on Boston's Newbury Street.

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