PASCO, Wash. – Greg Jones, one of the wine world’s most-sought-after climatologists, personalized his speech Thursday morning in the heart of Washington wine country with a note of concern about the frost warnings back home in Southern Oregon.
“Today and tomorrow is probably the riskiest frost period for all of the West Coast wine industry in California, Washington and Oregon,” Jones told members of the Northwest Scientific Association. “This year’s crop is about a month early, depending upon the location, and at least in my family’s vineyard down in Oregon, it dropped to 33 degrees last night. That puts the entire crop at risk.”
Jones, a professor at Southern Oregon University in Ashland who has specialized in climate research involving the world’s major wine-growing regions, served as the keynote speaker for the Northwest Scientific Association’s 86th annual meeting.
“Wine production is a climatically sensitive endeavor,” he said. “There are narrow zones typically for most varieties, and as such this industry has a lot of weather and climate risk. But any specialty crop has more weather and climate risk compared to broadacre crops.
“I’ve been studying this for 25 years, and we have some pretty good information, but we still need to learn more,” he continued. “Why are there varieties that do so well in Piedmont of Italy — Nebbiolo or Barbera — or Sangiovese in Tuscany, that often do not do very well anywhere else?”
Wine researcher Jones tailors speech to scientific community
Jones has earned a reputation among vineyard managers and winemakers within the Oregon wine industry and beyond, but here he stood inside the student union building of Columbia Basin College in Pasco, tailoring his speech to this wide-ranging group of professional and amateur scientists throughout the Pacific Northwest. He travels the world on behalf of research, and he has more than 400 PowerPoint-type versions of his speeches.
“Regional scientific associations are extremely important for us as scientists, especially as our students are coming through and needing to engage our organizations,” Jones said.
Program chairwoman Janelle Downs, a plant ecologist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory operated by Battelle, chuckled with a sense of pride after Jones — arguably the world’s leading research climatologist — addressed her group in the Byron Gjerde Center.
“We thought that getting him here was a big deal,” she said with a smile. “And I’m hoping that he’ll be able to make some contacts while he’s here, too.”
Immediately after delivering his presentation titled Climate, Grapes, & Wine: Structure, Suitability, & Sustainability In A Changing Climate, Jones darted into a small meeting room where scientists and economists from China, Iran and Washington State University shared research on climate and integrated management involving natural and agricultural systems. Each presenter focused on irrigation, an especially fluid topic with most portions of the Pacific Northwest facing serious drought issues.
“We wanted this to be a multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary meeting because our group tends to focus on natural systems — not agri-ecosystems and managed systems — when looking at the effects of climate change,” said Downs, who manages the Ecological Monitoring and Compliance project for the Department of Energy’s 580-square-mile Hanford site. “And because this is a big wine region, we really wanted to have people who work in that arena — especially when we’re looking at past, present and future climate.”
West Coast faces deep drought, record warmth
While residents and businesses on the East Coast continue to deal with record amounts of snow, much of the West Coast faces a growing season of deepening drought and record-warm temperatures.
“What does the future look like?” Jones said. “You have to look at analogs for different places. For example, today, the Walla Walla Valley has some sweet spots for Syrah, Merlot and some other varieties, but if it warms by 2 to 3 degrees during the growing season, and we have a reduction in water, I think water is going to be the bigger challenge. The varieties will still be suitable for a couple of degrees of change.”
Jones, whose research led his father, Earl Jones, to plant the Spanish grape variety Tempranillo in Roseburg, Ore., in 1995 and create Abacela Winery, provided a scientific and worldwide overview of how climate change is expected to alter the wine industry.
“If you look at the changing geography of the wine map, there’s no wine region showing up for China or India because they haven’t been defined yet,” Jones said, “but they are two of the fastest growing countries in the world today in terms of planted acreage and production. They will be big players coming online. The challenge in China really is mostly that they don’t have a culture of drinking wine, but I think they will become one of the biggest players in the wine scene in the next 10 to 15 years.”
Climate change influences global wine production
There are other places around the world that are not thought of in terms of wine production, but that is changing, too.
“We can also look at a whole series of tropical regions,” he said. “There’s a lot of really good wine being made in Baja California, Vietnam, Thailand and parts of South America — Venezuela, Columbia, Peru. And in the São Francisco Valley of Brazil, they grow grapes at 6 degrees latitude and manage to get the grapes to go through a two-harvest cycle in a year, then blend both harvests together to make wine.”
On the other hand, climate change is creating success on new frontiers.
“There’s also a whole series of places I call ‘fringe areas,’ where wine grapes are being planted today and they didn’t exist 50 years ago. Tasmania, the Lake District of Chile, England, Scandinavia, Nova Scotia, expansion in Ontario and, of course, into the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia.”
Jones also talked about winemaking pioneers, dating to the Roman times.
“It’s all about people going right to the edge of where it was too cold to plant,” Jones said. “That’s where some varieties of grapes do their magic. They produce some of their best wines right in this margin.”
The changes in climate have a significant impact in phenology.
“The numbers that I’ve seen globally is there’s a five- to 10-day response per one Celsius of warming,” Jones said. “This is holding across varieties. Going from bloom to veraison and veraison to harvest is now much shorter, as much as two weeks in many cases.”
Research needed in areas in role of C02, genetics
Higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide also are playing role in plant physiology, Jones said.
“Leaves tend to be bigger. Internodes tend to be bigger. Plants tend to be bigger overall,” he said. “But nobody’s ever done any research to say that if you grow vines in a higher C02 environment, what does it do the wine?”
Jones, who grew up in the Bay Area town of Novato, Calif., polled the audience to learn how many knew of the grape-growing concept referred to as “hangtime.”
“The Napa Valley has a long growing season today, much longer than they did quite a few years ago,” Jones said. “As a farmer, you are out there watching your fruit and it’s getting ripe, but it may not have all the sugar you want — or you taste all that sugar, but the flavors, aromas and other things you are looking for are not there.
“The reason they are not there is because it’s mismatched with the climate,” Jones continued. “If the climate was ideal in any given year or location, those things will all come together at the same time. Hangtime means I’m waiting for that mismatch to come together, but if you wait too long, you end up getting high sugar and low acid. What happens in a really warm climate is alcohol levels tend to go up, and people have a tendency to remove alcohol through reverse osmosis and spinning cone technologies. I’ve heard that as much as 60 percent of California wine today is de-alcoholized because of this issue.”
Removal of alcohol has become a big business along the West Coast, but there’s a large potential for genetic research in the global wine industry, too, Jones said.
“For example in Greece, there are some varieties — Xinomavro and Assyrtiko — that grow in extremely hot climates yet they still retain acid,” Jones said. “So what genetic characteristics produce this and can we bring that back to some of the other varieties that we grow in other places?”
NOTES: Research indicates that temperatures in parts of the world’s wine-growing regions could increase by 2-8 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050. … The past year, United States weather was described as “mixed bag” by Jones. “In the East, it was the 34th warmest year on record, but here in the West — No. 1.” … Jones pointed out that Anarctica recently recorded its highest-ever temperature of 65 degree Fahrenheit. … Southern Oregon University is in the running to play host to the Northwest Scientific Association annual meeting in the next few years. It recently has been held in Missoula, Mont., Portland, Ore., Boise, Idaho., Centralia, Wash., and Seattle.