‘We have to lead the charge’: North Bay winemakers take on climate change
Thriving on the upper slopes of a 10-acre vineyard a few miles northwest of Sebastopol are row upon row of hardy Mencia grapevines, from the Spanish region of Galicia.
What are they doing there?
The short answer: While visiting the Iberian Peninsula some years ago, Andy Smith sampled some wine made from those grapes, and he liked it.
Smith, who is winemaker and partner at DuMOL Winery, also noted that Mencia did well “in a maritime climate, with coastal influence, in sandy soils” — similar to conditions in many of his company’s Sonoma County vineyards.
“So I thought, let’s do a little experimentation,” he recalls.
DuMOL specializes in pinot noirs and chardonnays from vineyards in the fog-shrouded Green Valley — roughly the triangle formed by Sebastopol, Forestville and Occidental. Consistently cool, relative to the rest of the region, winemakers there haven’t been as affected as others by drought and extreme heat.
Even so, Smith’s Iberian grape experiment can be seen as part of a broader movement now afoot in the wine industry — a ferment of ideas, if you will — to adapt to, and get ahead of, climate change.
Those ideas include creative ways to capture rainwater, then use that water more efficiently. Some fall under the awning of “regenerative farming” — practices that enrich soil, allowing it to retain more water and store more carbon dioxide.
Tactics range from the obvious — choosing grapes better suited to higher temperatures — to the esoteric, as when Roederer Estate winemaker and vice president of production Arnaud Weyrich gets rolling on how best to mitigate pesky “ice nucleating bacteria” that increase frost risk during bud break.
‘We will find ways around this’
Growers intent on getting to the root of the problem can choose drought resistant rootstock. In recent, parched years in Sonoma County, the 110 Richter rootstock has been a popular option, says Daisy Robledo of Grape Land Vineyard Management. That rootstock, known for its “strong vigor,” is a go-to for growers who opt for dry-farming: the practice of planting un-irrigated vines whose roots then range deep into the ground in search of water.
Robledo’s husband, Marcelo, a kind of plant surgeon, is a third-generation bud grafter, expert at transforming a rootstock that previously produced chardonnay, for instance, into one that will yield pinot noir.
In the teeth of severe drought two years ago, he told the Press Democrat that climate change had prompted at least half his clients to switch to new grape varieties.
These and other “tools in the toolbox,” says Smith, are helping North Coast winemakers adapt to the increasingly frequent “extreme climatic events” visited upon the region in recent years.
For one thing, he pointed out, they’ve had plenty of practice over the last 15 years, dealing with drought, floods and wildfires. That experience, coupled with the resources, research and technical ability to be found in Sonoma and Napa counties — “We’re sort of world-leading,” Smith said — gave him confidence “we will find ways around this.”
Leading the charge
“We’ve had cold springs before, but I don’t remember one as cold as this,” said Phil Coturri, the pioneering viticulturalist and organic farmer who is CEO of Enterprise Vineyard Management and co-owner of Winery Sixteen 600.
He’d just descended from Cavedale Road, which rises some 1,800 feet over Glen Ellen. At that elevation, he noted, the forest floor was “littered with broken branches” from snows earlier this year.
The climate has been changing “for millions of years,” he said. “But this accelerated climate change is a reality.
“We have to adapt. And as farmers, we have to lead the charge.”
Coturri no longer installs vineyards without a dual irrigated system — “sometimes even three.” The more advanced systems allow for adjustments, giving farmers the ability to direct water to “weaker areas, so you don’t have to water the whole vineyard.”
The third line is for “misters” which help cool crops during heat spikes. Where those aren’t available, Coturri has used “sun screen” — a natural clay solution sprayed on the leaves, providing protection for the grapes underneath.
Like others, he and his crews are “raising the fruit zone” — growing the grapes farther from the ground, which refracts the sun’s heat upward, and can burn lower-hanging fruit.
While Coturri still sees “old time vineyards” planted with both cabernet and chardonnay, “I wouldn’t do that now.”
“There’s nothing like having an old vine, but you’ve got to keep it alive, and you keep it alive by having the soil that’s alive, using cover crops, and really thinking about how you can conserve water.”