As you invariably quaff at least one glass of wine or bubbly this holiday season (and try to keep from disagreeing with old friends or family members about the causes of climate change), you might not realize there's a real connection between the two. According to a November 2011 article in the New York Times by Paige Donner, wine yields, flavor and even the types of grapes grown will be affected by the coming-soon changes in climate (some in positive ways, others negative, depending on the type of grape). It's such a complex and interesting topic that she decided to make a film about it. I was curious about this aspect of climate change and how Donner got involved with the issue, so I asked her about the film and the topic in an interview below.
MNN: What led you to explore the connection between wine and climate change?
Paige Donner: Well, first let me say, I love wine. And as a California native, I absolutely love learning about wine and the wine regions of the world.
So, when I returned to France (where I'd lived/worked in the early '90s) and began more seriously to indulge my passion for studying about wine, I couldn't entirely shed my training as an environmental journalist. That's to say that as I continued on this life-long journey to learn about wine, I couldn't help but be curious about the trend towards organic wines and sustainable vineyard cultivation because environmental reporting was just what I'd done for so long professionally and it's, on some level, a sort of lens through which I view the world. It was simply a matter of time before the subject of wine and climate change grabbed my attention.
That time came when I attended VinExpo in Bordeaux in the summer of 2011. VinExpo is one of the biggest wine expos in the world and people from all corners of the globe gather to talk about, show off and market their wines. There are also on the program schedule a number of informative conferences and roundtables that take place onsite congruent with VinExpo. One of these roundtables I attended was put on by the Napa Valley Vintner's Association and their topic was wine and the environment.
I sat down to listen in at the roundtable expecting the conversation to be mostly about sustainable agricultural techniques, wineries' environmental policies, biodynamic vineyard practices and a good dose of organic wine talk. But what I got was an earful about how predictions of climate change and its impact on the Napa Valley region are met with skepticism by some, an eventuality by others and a response of "we just really don't want to talk about it" by many. Most of the reaction I heard that day was directed towards a USA Today article that had published back in '05 or '06 which the speakers (from Napa Valley on this roundtable) claimed had based their conclusions on faulty science and data gathering. Well, of course, as a reporter, I sniffed a story in that right away.
And I think a bit of luck factored into the equation, too. My assigning editor at the International Herald Tribune is a green guy at heart, so when I was pitching him stories later that summer, he helped me to refine the angle of this article and to really zero in on what the issues are. Timing played a role as well because one of the most prominent leading scientists on this subject, Dr. Greg Jones, was just coming out with his latest book examining the impacts of climate change on wine-growing regions and he agreed to allow me to have a look at his book in galley form — so I was privy to cutting-edge information. That's a perk that comes with doing an article for the IHT, the global edition of the NY Times and a coup that I might not have gotten on my own as a wine enthusiast and problogger.
Your original article hit a nerve, and now you are developing the concept into a film. What will the film explore that the article didn't?
Even since last year, November 2011, when my article published, there have been new reports released with ever more striking information. Notably a report released last month (November '12) by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, the consulting giant, that claims we are "Too Late For 2oC." That means, according to their study, we (meaning the human race) have now gone beyond the point where we can mitigate climate change and keep it to a "manageable" 2oC [2 degrees Celsius increase in temperatures caused by global warming]. Predictions now are citing 6oC which is 11oF, a number that even last year when Dr. Jones published his book, was thought by some members of this vast wine and scientific climate change community to be somewhat on the high end if not even a bit exaggerated.
Also, wine and vineyard cultivation is a way of life. Usually we are talking about generations upon generations of people/families from wine-producing regions who have cultivated the land. The land and their vines are as much a part of them as the air they breathe. I feel that the human element of this equation can be more effectively communicated on film and with images. When we talk about a potential scenario of climate change unalterably impacting wine regions, we are talking about climate change unalterably impacting a way of life that has been practiced for centuries in certain regions around the globe.
Additionally, there are people in the wine world who are thinking ahead and acting proactively. I would like to take a much more in-depth look at what they are doing to "hedge their bets" if you will against a day when it could be possible that the regions where they are today growing the best grapes, might no longer be optimal. Those actions include hybrid vine breeding for a more weather-resistant varietal to planting at altitudes and in regions that 50 years ago would have been unsuitable.
Why is film a good way to explore this issue?
It really all comes down to the human element. Wine is more than just fermented grape juice in a bottle. It is people's hearts and souls that they pour into cultivating vineyards and wine grapes, generation after generation.
And the sheer beauty of the wine regions of the world; a picture is worth a thousand words. If that is true then it must be doubly so for the world's wine regions.
It's also important to note that one of the main points of the documentary when examining the claims made by the latest scientific studies about the rise in average global temperatures is that if wine regions and vineyards are adversely affected by climate fluctuation, so will be our other agricultural crops.
That's to say, when our vineyards start suffering severely due to climate change we'd better have a plan of action for global food security because grapes and vineyards are an agricultural crop. Yes, they are a closely tended and expensive agricultural crop, some call wine grapes the "haute couture" of agriculture. But they are a food crop nonetheless, so if they become impacted by global climate fluctuation and what are considered its effects — sea-level rise, extreme weather patterns — then it follows that our other food crops will be, too.
Hence wine is what opens the window onto this issue. But global food security is really what's at the heart of it.
How does climate change affect terroir?
Climate change is predicted to impact different regional zones in differing ways. We've all seen those alarming time-lapse photos of the melting polar ice caps ... that's an extreme visual of how a particular region is impacted by global climate change.
Terroir is everything when it comes to a wine's identity. It's why Champagne can only come from Champagne. Why Port can only come from the Douro. One of the very interesting components of this discussion about wine and climate change is that if certain regions of the world see a significant increase in their average temperature in the next 50-100 years, it will mean a re-calibrating of some of these delicate environments that now produce optimal vineyards — such as Napa. For some this will be a welcome change, for others, well, they're not so sure. What I mean is that there is a lot of tongue-in-cheek commenting about vineyards not just existing but eventually thriving in places like Southern England, for example, long thought to be too cold and wet for vineyard planting. And there is some serious investment being done quietly but steadily in vineyards in China as another example.
Humans seem to always be able to adapt, however. And yes, I am by nature an optimist. Though when reading through some of these scientific climate change predictions, one can't help but find some of the predicted scenarios compelling.
What's your favorite kind of wine?
That is SUCH a difficult question! I've tasted some great wines, but there are quite a number I haven't tried yet. Like a Romanée-Conti, Pontet-Canet,
Donner's final advice for wine lovers? "Anyone who appreciates wine owes it to themselves to, at least once in their lifetime, make a pilgrimage to their favorite wine region. No matter where it is in the world, go and breathe the air, meet the people, walk on the earth and through the vineyards where the wine that gives you so much pleasure, so many shared joyful memories, is cultivated. It's an experience unparalleled and, to me, it's one of the highlights of human existence."
Related post on MNN: What exactly is a green wine? [Infographic]