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A drink with… Michelle Bouffard

Tasting Climate Change is a conference series exploring solutions to adapt and mitigate climate change in wine, from the vineyard to the glass. Founder Michelle Bouffard talks to Clive Pursehouse ahead of the next conference in Nova Scotia April 22-23.

Michelle Bouffard is the founder of Tasting Climate Change, a series of conferences exploring solutions to adapt and mitigate climate change, from the vineyard to the glass. It is meant for all wine professionals and covers all aspects of wine production as well as marketing and communication. Conferences also look at how the wines themselves are evolving in a rapidly changing climate. Through these conferences, Bouffard brings experts on resilient viticulture and climate change to wine regions throughout the world, so that local wine producers can benefit from their expertise. The next edition of Tasting Climate Change takes place in Nova Scotia. 

‘When it comes to climate change, I have decided, I cannot be a pessimist. If I allow that to happen, I am left with nothing. So I see it instead as a new reality, a part of life that we all must deal with.’

‘I moved to Vancouver to finish my Bachelor’s in classical trumpet, because the best trumpet teacher in North America is there. Then when I got there, I was studying, but it was also the first time in my life that I didn’t earn money as a musician. I didn’t have the networks that I had in Quebec where I performed regularly.’

‘So, I had to improvise. I started to work in restaurants and I just pretty much fell in love with wine. I was talking about it all the time. I started to think, well I love to play, but for a trumpet player in an orchestra, there aren’t that many opportunities. There are only three in each major city… So, one thing led to another. I registered for WSET Level 1, just for fun in 1999. It took off from there.’

‘I did my WSET diploma, then Michaela Morris and I had a business together in Vancouver for 13 years. We managed large cellars and consulted for collectors and investors. We also put on educational wine events for regions visiting from around the world. After those 13 years, I felt I had finished a chapter and came back to Quebec. I had this internal feeling that I needed to do other things – and it ties back to climate change.’

‘Back in 2005, which is the year I finished my diploma, you had to pick a topic of choice for your final paper. I had just watched the documentary An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore. So I decided to do my paper on climate change. But the thing is, there was nothing on it. It was very difficult to find any information.’

‘Using Google, I happened upon Dr Gregory Jones. He is really well known today, but at the time, he was still very much getting started. He was one of the few who had done this kind of research and he would literally record stuff on CDs and send them to me in Vancouver, so I could listen to some of the conference presentations he had done.’

‘I was just getting started in the wine industry and I was also studying and just starting a business. But I thought: one day, when I have more knowledge and more connections, I want to do something about this, because it’s going to be the most important thing.’

‘When I moved back to Montreal, I thought: this is the right time to do something [on climate change]. I was more experienced, with the right connections in wine. So, I did my first conference in 2017. In Montreal, I wasn’t sure whether the industry was prepared for it. So I only did half a day, but I had some really good speakers, and it was sold out. I had 300 people.’

‘I reached out to the trade and said: “What would you like if I were to do another edition?” They all said: “We want more, longer, content.” So I did [another conference] in 2019 and it was set to run every two years (before COVID) – 2021 was virtual. It’s just been me up to this point, doing everything: sponsors, speakers, logistics and moderating the panels. But I’m hiring someone for the next conference.’

‘My goal is to move the conference each time so that it can also benefit wine producers and growers in a particular region. I’ve found, when I do something like in Montreal, outside experts will come to help the local producers and growers, and as the conference moves it will benefit more people.’

‘The wine industry is rapidly becoming aware – and proactive. It has changed quickly. When I first started it was a little shocking. I was trying to pull my first conference together and looking for sponsorships to put on the event. I won’t name specific regions, but there were wine regions that I was contacting; asking if they wanted to participate as sponsors or be a part of some panels. They actually did not want to be part of it, because they did not want the region to be associated with climate change – even though they were often the ones suffering the most from it.’

‘The biggest misconception is that things are just getting warmer. The way the human brain works, we like things to be black and white; it’s easier. We like to say that some wine regions will disappear and others will emerge. But it’s not that simple.’

‘For example, if you’re talking about Quebec, vintage 2021 was one of the best vintages for Quebec’s wine regions. The 2021 Pinot Noirs are delicious! It’s fresh, juicy, crunchy. But the next vintage, 2022, is maybe the worst vintage they ever had to deal with.’

‘Now, in Quebec, we often have frost occurring in June and September. There are more mildew issues – and these are new mildews. Growers have never seen them before. This is very challenging despite the fact that we are having longer growing seasons. 2022 was particularly challenging.’

‘In the two-day format of the conference, the first day will be… more general topics that touch people anywhere in the world – whether it’s communication, packaging, water conservation, that sort of thing. Then the next day, we’ll have more regionally specific topics. They may touch on more than one region, but will be particularly helpful for the host region. So, for example, in a region on the west coast of the Americas, we’ll have experts addressing the issues of smoke taint and wildfire mitigation.’

‘I want this to be an event that brings people together all across the industry. Really from the vineyard to the glass. I was realising that you could get a bunch of producers, sommeliers, or wine journalists talking to each other, but the industry is fragmented. So they are focused on the same issues, and unaware sometimes of others.’

‘Take bottle weight. Producers in some appellations may not realise that this is an issue in the industry. Then importers talk about the added weight and cost to ship the wines. We then get to the cost of that unnecessary weight on the environment.’

‘The part of the conversation that we all must remember is that climate change is chaotic, and it’s here to stay. However, we all have the power to do something.’

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