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Leon Kaye headshot

Sunscreen on Grapes? This Crop Is the Climate Change Canary in the Coal Mine

By Leon Kaye
climate change

As anyone who’s visited any wine country, whether in Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, France or elsewhere knows, the various microclimates in these regions are crucial for the production of some of the most popular wine varietals on the market. Climate change is already affecting some of the more sensitive types of grapes worldwide. In a few years, the lucky ones will say they were only “affected,” as a warming planet could devastate many vineyards this decade.

Reality is hitting many vineyards now. This summer, fierce summer heat has been doing a number on grape growers worldwide. The crisis slamming these growers and the wider wine industry comes in the wake of a 2019 study, which analyzed grape harvests over the past seven centuries and found that global warming has accelerated over the past 30 years.

That revelation might offer some good news for future aspiring winemakers in regions like Canada, Britain, Scandinavia and the upper Midwest, but for long entrenched wine production leaders in France, Italy and Spain, the effects could be devastating. An earlier growing season, for example, also puts vineyards at higher risk of frost – as in what occurred in France and Italy earlier this year. Some regions have witnessed growers already responding: Growers in Sicily, for example, have transitioned from grapes to raising avocados.

The outlook for this industry looks bleak. If climate change risks go unchecked, more than half of the world’s wine growing regions could be lost by mid-century. That might not sound so serious if wine isn’t your indulgence of choice – but with the disappearance of those vineyards will come the loss of jobs and a body blow to local economies that are dependent on this popular niche of tourism.

The news is not all bleak: One recent study has suggested that diversifying the types of grapes grown in vineyards could mitigate some of this risk. Nevertheless, just as no one could have predicted searing summer heat in the Pacific Northwest while the U.S. Midwest was pummeled by flooding, no can predict the outlook for wine growing regions over the next several years. The bottom line is that the outlook for the industry is nothing to clink your glasses over.

When a global insurance company points out that wine grapes are among the most sensitive crops to climate change, it’s clear the concerns go far beyond someone’s favorite varietal or preferred vintner.

Meanwhile, grape growers in Napa, Sonoma and nearby areas in California have to respond to the crisis now, as they currently don’t have time to focus on what will become of their land in five, 10 or 20 years. The most desperate are turning to “water witches,” (who engage in a longtime practice known as “water divining” in Australia) to find new sources of this most precious resource. And in recent weeks, as the thermometer hit 100F and above, other grape growers sprayed sunscreen on their grapes in an effort to make sure they can make it to harvest season, as this recent New York Times story profiled.

The financial impacts are already mounting. In an area already hit hard by catastrophic wildfires, Northern California vineyards are facing another huge challenge to their livelihoods – insurance costs that are skyrocketing, that is, if they can even secure property insurance in the first place.

At first glance, it may appear to be a stretch to compare the wine industry to other segments within the global agriculture sector – that is, farmers who actually grow food crops that feed much of the world. But the crisis that grape growers worldwide have confronted the past several years presents a test case for a sector that will be tasked with feeding as many as 10 billion people by 2050. How these growers are responding now, and what happens to their land over the next several years, will offer a template for how other farmers will be forced to pivot during the coming decades.

Image credit: Nacho Domínguez Argenta/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye