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Wednesday Wraparound: charity wine tastings and climate change

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Every day I get dozens of invitations to wine tastings in my email in-box, most of them for charities. (This is mainly because I have a Google alert for the word “wine.”) It’s quite amazing how the wine tasting format lends itself to fundraising. Is it because people who love wine are naturally more charitable? Or because, once they get a little boozy, they become more generous? Anyhow, the wine industry doesn’t get enough recognition in this regard.

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I’ve been looking into the intricacies of sustainable wine growing and winemaking lately, and am frankly developing an appreciation I didn’t have before. For years, I suffered from MEGO syndrome whenever discussions arose of sustainability, organic, biodynamic, etc. It’s not that I thought those practice and beliefs were bad, because I didn’t. It’s just that I didn’t see what they had to do with wine quality. I still feel that quality is not particularly connected to your vineyard and/or winery practices, but as the challenges of climate change and energy provision become more acute, it makes more and more sense for wineries to do whatever they can to be good citizens of the world.

This seems especially true here in California, where the drought is really the biggest story in quite a while. As the Desert Sun, down in Palm Springs, reported today, “Californians should brace for hotter temperatures, reduced water supplies, longer droughts and more wildfires in the future,” a prediction based on the the administration’s release of a major new report on climate change.

I personally watch the to-and-fro over this debate with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I can understand the skepticism held by some people who feel that elements in the scientific and political communities are exaggerating the threat of global warming, or at any rate over-stressing man’s contributions to it. This skepticism is heightened by the sort of freezing cold, snowy winter that much of the country east of the Rockies just endured.

On the other hand, the fact that the majority of climate scientists—up to 97 percent, according to some reports—not only believe in climate change, but “agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities,” resonates with me. I happen not to be particularly suspicious of expertise, so the fact that so many knowledgeable people, who have studied the field of climate change for years, are united in telling us something is meaningful to me. All you have to do is take a look at the snowpack in the High Sierra this year to realize that (a) it’s minimal and (b) the chickens are going to come home to roost one of these days in water-hungry California. I talk to a lot of winemakers and grapegrowers and can tell you that in many instances they are completely freaked out by the lack of water. Not everyone is in the same boat: some wineries have good reservoirs that will get them through another dry summer. But many don’t. Fortunately, we’ve gotten through this Spring (so far) without a major freeze, and with the passage of every day, it seems less likely that there will be one before summer comes in all its fullness. But then, of course, we’ll have heat waves—and wildfires—and all the other strange fruits of California summer. If there’s not enough water to deal with those things, there’ll be trouble.


More on the drought

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I know I’ve been harping on this damned drought out here in California for months, ever since it appeared (by early December) that 2013 was going to be the driest year in California’s history, with records going back to the Gold Rush.

That’s exactly how it turned out. People were hoping the rains would return in January, but now, with the month half over, that hasn’t happened, and the extended forecasts–completely dry and warm–mean we’ll now have to pin our hopes on February and March, both of which can be extraordinarily wet. February historically has been the wettest month of the rainy season, with 4.61 inches falling, on average, in San Francisco. That’s about one-fifth the seasonal total. This is why Gov. Jerry Brown has not yet declared a Drought Emergency in California, although he’s been urged to do so by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others; the Governor feels it’s a little too early to panic, and he may be right.

On the other hand, vintners, as well as farmers of all crops, are starting to panic. Or maybe “panic” is too strong a word. They’re concerned. They’re forming contingency plans. What will they do if there’s no water to fight off Spring frosts? What will they do for irrigation when the heat spells return next summer? There are no easy answers. The San Francisco Chronicle reported a few days ago that “residents in many parts of California are being asked – and sometimes ordered – to scale back their water use.” It’s not only been a dry winter, it’s been a warm one. Yes, we had an unusually chilly early December, but since then, it’s been more like May. Oakland, where I live, has set numerous high temperature records lately, including yesterday, when it was 74 degrees. Other records were set in San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Maria, where it was an unbelievable 83 degrees. The flowering trees in Oakland (magnolias, plums) are in full bloom. We’re in Day Three of a high fire danger, Red Flag warning in the East Bay and North Bay hills. This morning, the situation has grown even worse; the state now is under an Extreme Fire Danger alert, and Southern Californians are on edge, as those dreaded Santa Ana winds kick up, howling through the canyons where wildfires erupt and roar through places like Malibu and Laguna Beach. The warnings extend all the way up and into the Sierra Foothills.

I see red-breasted robins, honeybees and tiger swallowtail butterflies flying around–things you shouldn’t see in the Bay Area in deep winter. It doesn’t make sense. My T.V. weatherman last night called the weather “eerie,” a good word. He’s a trained meterorologist and he doesn’t understand what’s happening. Nobody does.

As the website, Wunderground.com, reported today, “The prospects for any significant rain or mountain snow in California over the next seven to 10 days look dismal, according to the latest computer model forecast guidance. If this type of pattern were to persist through the final week of the month, many January precipitation records could fall by the wayside.” That should cause everyone–not just Californians–deep concern.


How bad is California’s drought?

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If you live in California, you know what happened this winter and spring.

In December, it rained, and rained, and rained or, if you were in the mountains, snowed and snowed. In parts of the Sierra Nevada, December, 2012 was the second snowiest ever measured.

It was reassuring news to a state that gets most of its water from snowmelt–especially after the parched December of 2011, when the snowpack was only 14% of average.

But a funny thing happened as soon as 2012 turned into 2013. The rain stopped. Seriously stopped. January and February were the driest months ever recorded in California. March brought a little rain, but not enough to help. Last week, the government released its “drought monitor”, which declared that most of Central and Southern California is suffering from “severe” drought, while the north is experiencing moderate drought.

Moreover, the National Weather Service is predicting “Persistent” drought throughout all of California (and most of the West).

Just this past week, the California Department of Water Resources published, on their website, a drought statement that begins with this alarming statement: “It’s official. The 2013 January-May period is the driest on record (since 1920) for all regions of the Sierra.”

The arid conditions already are beginning to threaten vines. San Luis Obispo County (including Paso Robles) “face[s] spending hundreds of millions of dollars for new water sourcesleaving the area even more short of water at a time when vineyards are planting as many as 8,000 new acres of wine grapes.”

In the North Coast, Sonoma County has been under an official federal “disaster declaration for drought” since January, 2012,

Grapes being the thirsty plants they are, California growers are having to look at their options, including more efficient use of existing water sources. Those who dry farm–a minority–are on safer ground than those who depend on irrigation. California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, just two days ago, noting “how bone dry the state is so early in the summer season,” called for “[e]xpanding and improving California’s water storage capacity”; if that is not done, she predicted, “California is at risk of becoming a desert state.”

Water shortages are nothing new for California, but they seem to be happening more frequently; and with vineyard acreage expanding, water–or, more precisely, the lack of it–could emerge to be the biggest problem the wine industry faces.


That climate change report? Let’s look at the facts

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Instead of reading second- and third-hand accounts of that notorious National Academy of Sciences report on the impact of climate change on the world’s grape growing areas, let’s do something radical: look at the actual report itself, to see what it does–and doesn’t–say.

I don’t know about you, but after reading different articles about it in newspapers and magazines, and hearing about it on the tube, it seems to me that all the reporters are fastening onto the sexy prediction that coastal California will be too hot for premium winegrowing by 2050. (In reporting lingo, that’s known as a Wow! headline.)

So onto the report. Its most attention-grabbing sentence is “the impacts of climate change on viticultural suitability are substantial,” but this is, of course, a sweeping statement, and the devil is, as usual, in the details. If we grant that “25% to 73%” of suitable areas in “major wine producing regions” are in jeopardy (a big assumption), we have to ask if coastal California is among them. We have also to look at the water situation; the NAS study suggests that warmer climates may increase the need for water use (such as to combat heat stress), although it does not state categorically that climate change will bring decreased precipitation. It “may,” in “some regions,” says the report; but again, that’s pretty abstract, and can mean whatever the reader wants it to mean (which if often true of these long-range predictions).

The report does flat out say that the suitability of “the Bordeaux and Rhone valley regions [and] Tuscany” is “projected to decline.” It also predicts that “more northern regions in America” should have increased suitability (hence all those silly headlines about “Chateau Yukon Cabernet”). As for California, the part of the study that has gotten the most attention in the media here is the map, on page 2, that seems to suggest a swathe of prime coastal land, from Santa Barbara up well north of the Golden Gate and including Napa and Sonoma, will experience “decreases [in suitability] by mid-century.” But look closely at the map: I did, zooming in to 200%. From the coast to what looks like about 50 miles inland, there are alternating stripes of (from west to east), blue [indicating “novel” or increased suitability for premium grape growing], dark green and light green [both indicating “current suitability that is retained"],  then red [“current suitability that decreases by mid-century”]. So you can appreciate that defining precisely where the boundaries are between colors is important. But this is nowhere explained in the text. The map, then, with its generalized colors, is the only guide we have, and an imprecise one at that.

So what are we to make of it? The blues along the immediate coast seem to indicate that the narrow coastal strip where, say, the Russians found viticulture impossible at Fort Ross, in 1812-1813, might by 2050 be warm enough to grow Chardonnay. The greens, where suitability is retained, look like they include most of the tenderloin growing areas from the Santa Ynez Valley, up through the Central Coast and into Napa-Sonoma. The reds seem to this observer to lie from about 35 miles inland to the borders of the Great Central Valley–if you’re familiar with the Bay Area, the red zone would start on the east side of the East Bay Hills, in what is now Livermore Valley. Other red regions include the far eastern parts of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties  and, perhaps, Lake County (although Clear Lake would have a cooling effect, wouldn’t it?).

But interpreting specific conditions from a colored map is dangerous. It’s like trying to figure out if your house will fall down from a USGS earthquake shaking map. There is, in fact, no mention at all in the report of individual coastal California counties, American Viticultural Areas or general winegrowing regions. There is a single reference to Napa, but it is to housing development and its impact on wildlife preservation–an issue that is not pertinent to Napa’s suitability as a winegrowing region. And that is that: the study is remarkable for its silence about the California coast.

The authors seem to understand that much of their report is obscure. “Uncertainties in our estimates of viticulture suitability,” they write, change[,] and its conservation consequences arise from climate models, concentration pathways, wine suitability models, and estimates of water stress and habitat condition.” I’m not one of these ridiculous anti-science people, and I deplore the know-nothingness of certain parts of the American political spectrum that deny, for example, evolution, or age models of the physical universe. But I also think that research scientists get grants to conduct research, in a kind of publish-or-perish model; and the media, being what it is, is in the position of a heroin addict who knows he shouldn’t be looking for another fix, but just can’t help himself. A report, such as the one from the NAS, is hedged by all sorts of provisos and fine print warnings that it should not be considered as the gospel truth, and next thing you know, the media is reporting it as the gospel truth, lazy reporters are predicting that Napa vineyards are going to have to be relocated in Montana, and wine company executives start shopping around for land in Tasmania. No wonder that distrust of the media in America has hit an all-time high.

 

 

 


Our unusual weather: Climate change, or just random?

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If you live in California you’re wondering the same thing as everybody else: What the heck is up with this weather?

We all know that last year, 2010, was the Year Without Summer. Now, 2011 is shaping up to be a repeat. In fact, the West Coast is now in the seventh year of a below-normal temperature pattern.

Here are selected notes from my 2011 Vintage Diary:

March 22
December was very, very cold, as were the first 2 weeks or so of January. The we had three weeks of gloriously warm, record-setting dry weather. February turned cooler, but not cold, with average rainfall. Now March continues the mild temperatures, but it has been very rainy.

April 22
The last several weeks have been gloomy as hell. Lots of cool, cloudy days.

May 10
There was extensive frost damage last month.

May 14
I was in Paso Robles yerterday and was told of crop losses there from the April 8-9 freeze approaching 50% appellation-wide.

May 15
Very cold and windy today. Widely scattered showers since last night, some of them heavy.

May 16
“This will not be light.” My friend Steve Paulsen [meteorologist, Channel 2], predicting the storm blowing in today.

Monday, May 23
Continues very chilly with temps well below normal, and now–more rain 2 days from now.

Wed. May 25

Rain in the North Bay. More rain predicted for Friday. [later] Steady light to moderate rain in Oakland. Wine country must be getting drenched. Very cold, temps 15-20 degrees below normal. Cloudy. Widespread scattered showers. From Natl. Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, the 10 day forecast: “THE TROUGH FORECAST OVER THE WESTERN CONUS [continental U.S.] IS EXPECTED TO LEAD TO ENHANCED  PROBABILITIES FOR ABOVE MEDIAN PRECIPITATION FOR PARTS OF THE PACIFIC  NORTHWEST [and] NORTHERN CALIFORNIA” with below normal temperatures.

Sat. May 28
Chilly, very windy and showery. Storms to the north.
Evening: Steady rain.

Tues. May 31
Rain today throughout North coast. Half inch already has fallen. Temps 10-15 degrees below average esp. inland. “By Friday night another system. This one will be stronger, maybe widespread rain as we approach the weekend.” Steve Paulsen.

And now, this morning, the new ten day forecast calls for thundershowers this Saturday and more showers for Sunday, with temperatures next week continuing well below normal–more like January than June.

How all this is impacting the grapes, I don’t know. Some say that because Spring was so cool, budbreak was late, lessening the rain’s impact. But the threat of grapevine diseases has to be making some growers antsy. I suspect they’re breaking out the sulfur up and down the State. I wonder how long it’s going to be before the meteorological community declares that the West Coast of the United States is entering a Little Ice Age.


Had enough rain? Get ready for more

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Yesterday’s headline in the San Francisco Chronicle that Schwarzenegger is playing politics in refusing to declare an end to the drought that he officially declared two years ago didn’t surprise me. Despite “heavy snowfall [that] buried the Sierra Nevada and torrential rains [that] drenched much of California,” the Governator found plenty of reasons to allow the drought to continue — on paper, that is.

It certainly no longer exists in nature. California’s snowpack was more than 140 percent above average as of April 30, and that was already before the recent wave of storms dumped still more snow in the mountains — with more set to fall this weekend.

On Monday, about half an inch fell throughout Northern California wine country. By this time of the year, it should be dry and sunny, with temps in the 70s. But no! Lance Armstrong was in Santa Rosa, for the Amgen Tour, and the Press Democrat had him asking, “Does it always rain here?”, a question millions of the rest of us have pondered.

It wasn’t just wet in the north country. “One storm barreling ashore now and another expected to follow this weekend will bring rare, drenching May rain and cool conditions to much of California and the West Coast,” said this article on AccuWeather’s website
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Storm

May storms batter California

I got a nice little running commentary the other day on my Facebook page when I posted about “the coldest, wettest May in years.” Apparently I have a lot of winemaker friends, and they engaged each other in the comments section, describing how they’re try to control mildew and botrytis. From John Kelly: “’no rain on bloom’ from your lips to god’s ears.” The more optimistic winemakers, such as Justin Mund, down in Santa Barbara, said, “It [the rain] doesn’t really matter anyway right now unless it is going to affect bloom. It will be dry soon enough!”

But will it? My faithful Facebook friend, Peter Cargasacchi, wrote from his perch in the Santa Rita Hills, RAIN/DRIZZLE… EL NINO CONDITIONS CONTINUE ACROSS THE EQUATORIAL PACIFIC OCEAN WITH SEA SURFACE TEMPERATURE DEPARTURES OF +1.0 DEGREE C OR GREATER ACROSS PORTIONS OF THE CENTRAL PACIFIC. OCEAN SUB-SURFACE TEMPERATURE ANOMALIES ALSO REMAIN POSITIVE FROM THE SURFACE TO A DEPTH OF 75 METERS FROM NEAR 160 E EAST…

And El Nino, as we know all too painfully, pulls the storm track southward, resulting in greater precipitation in California.

It’s not just wet, it’s cold. I asked my friend, KTVU-TV meteorologist Steve Paulsen, just how cold it’s been, and he wrote: “the mean temperature at Sacramento Executive Airport so far this month is 55.5 degrees. That is 3.4 degrees below normal and the coldest mean temperature for  Sacramento since 1948.” Folks, 3.4 degrees is a HUGE temperature change. By the way, the reason they picked Sacramento, not San Francisco or some other coastal city, was because Sacto is “not influenced by the cold, onshore flow from the Pacific” and thus is a more reliable gauge of weather-related (as opposed to maritime-influenced) temperature.

Today’s Chronicle says the well-known Bay Area meteorologist, Mike Pechner, calls “the string of cold, wet weather ‘unprecedented in its strength and duration,’” and that it could “last until June.” My own take is that climate change is deranging California’s weather pattern, making it cooler; add El Nino, and you get wetter, too. What’s that you say? “Heimoff’s not a meterologist, what the hell does he know?” Well, you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

P.S. Wine Enthusiast has a really cool contest on their Facebook site. You can access information about it here, or here. Check it out.


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