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Napa Valley Grapegrowers seeks strategies for climate resilience at ‘Ahead of the Curve’ seminar

‘Ahead of the Curve’ looked at the impacts and mitigation strategies for climate change in Napa Valley as America's iconic region faces the reality of its present and future. Dr Liz Thach MW reports.

Sheep in the vineyard, no tillage and reduced pesticides were just a few of the solutions for vineyards to mitigate climate change that were recommended at the recent ‘Ahead of the Curve seminar hosted by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. Given that the UN Climate Report 2023, released on 20th March, urges swift action to prevent the planet from surpassing the 1.5C degrees threshold of catastrophic warming, the seminar couldn‘t have come at a better time.

‘We‘ve been offering the “Ahead of the Curve” seminar to our growers since 2007,’ said Sonya DeLuca, interim executive director of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. ‘This is the second year in a row that we have focused on sustainability and climate efforts, because it is so critical to our future now,’ she added.

DeLuca referenced the extreme wildfires, droughts and atmospheric jet streams that have afflicted Napa Valley over the past five years. Given that Napa Valley currently has 17,000 hectares under vine and 1,500 grape growers, education on this topic is critical. Yet the majority of the solutions offered by the five experts who spoke during the day-long seminar at Charles Krug Winery can be applied to any global vineyard.

Sheep grazing in the vineyards at Artesa

A variety of vineyard solutions

Over the course of the day the discussion centered on solutions for vineyards to mitigate climate change, which can be distilled into seven major topics:

1) Reduce the use of non-organic pesticides, fertilisers and erosion: Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, marine geologist and co-founder of Urban Ocean Lab, described how the warming ocean temperatures are contributing to warm temperatures and heavier rains, and the role that vineyards play in this.

‘So what is the connection between Napa Valley vineyards and the ocean?’ she asked. ‘You are upstream of the ocean so everything you do impacts the ocean. Non-organic pesticides, fertilizers, and erosion goes into rivers and eventually to the ocean. This can cause algae blooms and other disruptive issues.’

She urged growers to adopt more organic practices in the vineyard, including efforts to control erosion. Many Napa Valley vineyards are already certified sustainable under the Napa Green, Fish Friendly Farming and California Sustainable Wine-growing certifications. However, fewer have applied for organic certification. Though many are using organic practices.

2) Adopt alternative forms of energy for vineyard use: Johnson also recommended that vineyard owners investigate and invest in electric vehicles. As well as solar, wind and geothermal power to operate equipment, irrigation, and other energy needs required by vineyards. ‘Climate is a challenge that has hundreds of solutions,’ she said.

3) Consider new grape varieties and cooler vineyard locations: Since regions like Bordeaux have already adopted new grape varieties to better handle climate change, Johnson urged Napa Valley to do the same. ‘I recommend that you consider different varietals that can handle climate change, as well as consider buying vineyards further north.’

Though the first solution is easier to implement, not all vineyard owners may be interested in leaving Napa Valley to find vineyards farther north. However, many of the larger Napa wineries have invested in cooler regions, including Mendocino County or the West Sonoma Coast.

4) Don‘t forget the diversity & equity side of climate change: Johnson spoke passionately about the need for vineyard owners to consider the impact of climate change on workers. ‘Climate change is impacting farmworker housing and communities,’ she said. ‘Most of the workers have to live in low-lying areas where their houses are flooding. Also, they have to drive further because they can‘t afford to live in Napa Valley.’

She recommended that vineyards consider hiring workers year-round and putting them on a salary. Getting buses or other methods to help workers get to work was another solution to assist in reducing carbon emissions.

Victor Moreno, an audience member with a vineyard management company, reflected the importance of Johnson’s comments. Renteria is the second largest vineyard management firm in Napa Valley with 80 full-time employees and 400 seasonal workers.

‘We can‘t find enough workers,’ said Moreno, ‘and some of them have to commute as far as Yuba City (two hours from Napa) every day. Plus wages are going up, so we are looking for more ways to automate. We have just purchased ten self-driving tractors.’

5) Irrigation sensors, misters, sunshades and row orientation: Moreno and his colleague, Nicolas Mar, a vineyard development coordinator, also reported that efforts to protect the grapes from harsh sun and drought have become more important in the past few years.

‘We‘ve been installing misters and irrigation sensors to deal with the drought,’ said Mar. ‘And some sunshades to protect the vines. Also, row orientation is very important now for new vineyards.’ While in the past this wasn‘t a big consideration, but now making sure the grape clusters don‘t face west towards the hot afternoon sun is essential.

6) Adopt methods to store CO2 in the soil (carbon sequestration): Vanessa Suarez, Senior Policy Advisor with Carbon180.org, an organisation that works with policymakers, scientists and business owners to design policy focused on carbon removal and sequestration, provided some very clear strategies.

‘Even if we stopped emitting CO2 tomorrow,’ she warned. ‘There is still a 50% chance we will hit the 1.5C degree threshold. Therefore, the solution is not only to reduce CO2 emissions, but to also remove it from the atmosphere. We don‘t just need to hit net zero emissions; we need to hit net negative. Therefore, we can capitalize on agricultural soil carbon storage.’

Suarez described the major methods that vineyards could use for carbon sequestration:

  • Leave the soil alone by reducing or eliminating tillage
  • Keep the soil covered by using cover crops or growing other vegetables between the vine rows (a practice that was quite common before the 1900s)
  • Add healthy materials to the soil such as compost
  • Maintain the living roots by planting perennial crops and don‘t till the roots up
  • Promote biodiversity in the soil by bringing sheep, goats, chickens and other beneficial animals to the vineyard. Also plant trees along the side of the vineyards to provide wind protection and reduce erosion

7) Communicate the story of your climate change efforts: Jamie Goode, author and wine expert with the Wine Anorak global wine journal, addressed the audience from London via Zoom. Goode encouraged vineyard and winery owners to tell a clear personal story to consumers about the efforts Napa Valley is making to address climate change. This is important because some consumers are skeptical about ‘green-washing,’ and would prefer to hear individual stories on issues and progress made.

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