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The wine industry must quickly and dramatically change the way it does business if it hopes to survive the impacts of global warming.

That was the stark message delivered last week by a Spanish wine expert who has studied the challenges climate change is already posing to winemakers in his country.

"If business continues as usual, in 50 years who is going to give a damn about wine? That's not going to be our biggest problem," Pancho Campo, founder of the Wine Academy of Spain, told about 100 people who attended a seminar in Sonoma on climate change.

The event at Gloria Ferrer Winery was billed as the first U.S. conference focusing on the impacts global warming will likely have on the wine industry.

Several studies have predicted that some of the world's most prized grape-growing regions could eventually become unsuitable for growing fine wine grapes if global temperatures continue to rise.

But last week's event was unique because it detailed not only how winemakers may be able to adapt to climate change, but also how they can minimize their own emissions today and help avoid the worst-case scenarios of global catastrophe.

"It's not about 2050. It's about today," said Paul Dolan, co-owner of Mendocino Wine Co. in Ukiah and a leader in the industry's sustainability movement. "We have to arrest the carbon emissions going into the atmosphere in the next five years."

Global temperatures have increased 1 degree, on average, since the Industrial Revolution. The increase is responsible for droughts, glaciers' melting, sea levels' ris-ing and many species' going extinct, Dolan said.

Some scientists believe the global changes under way may be manageable if emissions -- particularly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels -- can be reduced soon.

"But with one more degree, all bets are off," Dolan said.

Those sorts of stark predictions troubled many attendees, who included major players in the North Coast's wine industry as well as rank-and-file professionals who care about the direction of their industry.

"It just really flabbergasted me and scared the you-know-what out of me," said Shirley Buchignani, tasting room manager of Pedroncelli Winery in the Dry Creek Valley.

Buchignani said she has lived in Sonoma County for more than 60 years and the climate changes she has witnessed during that time period are undeniable. More heat spikes and fewer spring frosts in the vineyards are just two examples.

"I talk about it to everyone now," Buchignani said. "I'm going to do my little part, but I can't afford to buy a Prius."

Temperature changes are already influencing the way people manage their vineyards in Sonoma County. Santa Rosa's Paradise Ridge Winery, for example, protects its grapes from heat spikes by pruning the vines so they have a thicker canopy of leaves, winemaker Dan Barwick said.

He plans to find ways to make the winery more energy efficient, including exploring the installation of solar panels.

"I think it's important that everyone in the wine industry understands the carbon footprint that results from their production of wine and understands what they can do to minimize that," Barwick said.

There is no shortage of information and support in the wine industry about how to reduce energy use, reduce waste and promote environmentally friendly farming practices. Since 2001 the industry has published a workbook that helps California wineries assess and improve the sustainability of their operations.

Suggestions range from installation of solar panels and smart reuse of water to simple things like replacing inefficient pumps and cooling equipment with newer, more efficient models.

And yet a sense pervaded the seminar that all the wine industry's efforts to reduce its own emissions will be for naught if other industries don't follow suit. A new coal-burning power plant comes online every week in China, Dolan noted.

"This may be your country, but that sky is connected to my sky," Campo said.

The sky over the Penedes grape-growing region south of Barcelona has in recent years been significantly warmer than the historical average, Campo said.

This has caused bud break to happen earlier in the spring, accelerated the ripening process of the grapes, and triggered harvest to occur an average of 13 days earlier than normal, Campo said.

Such shortening of the growing season can cause major problems for winemakers.

Grapes that ripen quickly sometimes leave a "green" or "astringent" taste in the wine because the seeds did not have time to fully mature, Campo said.

Higher temperatures also tend to give grapes a higher sugar content, which can lead to higher-alcohol wines. In Europe, this could pose particular problems for wine regions whose laws cap alcohol content, Campo said.

The impact on Sonoma County growers is an open question.

The conventional wisdom locally is that Sonoma's proximity to the coast should keep higher temperatures somewhat in check.

"We are in a better position to adjust to climate change than a region that doesn't have the Pacific Ocean on their coast," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Wine Grape Commission.

Further inland in Napa, where maritime cooling has less of an effect and average temperatures are higher, grape growers have serious concerns but are not panicking, said Jim Verhey, managing director of Silverado Wine Growers, one of the valley's largest grape growers.

Growers are already dealing with weather extremes, Verhey said. Cover crops, canopy management and better timing of irrigation are all techniques growers can use to help their vines through heat spikes.

More studies are needed, however, to figure out which techniques work best and what changes California wineries are likely to face. Consensus has been reached, however, on what's causing the problem.

"If you are a grape grower and you do not believe these extremes are created by our presence and the fact that we are releasing way too much greenhouse gases, you are asleep. Sound asleep," Verhey said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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