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California winemakers believe climate change is impacting their industry

Posted at 4:08 PM, Oct 25, 2019

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Cali. – It’s harvest time on California’s Central Coast and winemaker Jean-Pierre Wolff has seen a big drop in production since last year.

“This year, the harvest is below average,” he said. “Some of my older vines did suffer from salt toxicity and have been steadily declining.”

Wolff owns and operates the award-winning Wolff Vineyards. He says climate change is affecting his grapes and that he has the records to prove it.

“Absolutely, I have my lab book where I describe extensively the harvest and the sugar levels of the grapes,” he said. “So, definitely I see these changes.”

Wolff says the changes are linked to extreme weather like longer droughts, hotter summers and milder winters.

“I’ve been farming here for 20 years,” he said. “Years ago, I didn’t have to worry about sunburns on my grapes, now I do.”

Less rain means more reliance on irrigation, which Wolff says is cutting into his and other wineries’ bottom lines.

“If you take the Central Coast, which is defined from the Bay Area to Ventura County, 86% of the water use is from ground water extraction,” he said. “So clearly, that’s not sustainable if we have to offset.”

At nearby California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo, they have a growing viticulture program.

Cal Poly professor Federico Casassa, Ph.D. says climate change is altering wine agriculture across the world.

“Heatwaves are extremely pervasive not just in California but in Australia, in South America, and increasingly in Europe as well,” he said.

Despite the impact, Casassa says climate change doesn’t mean doomsday for the wine industry.

“My point is global warming and climate change are a reality,” he said. “But the effect that we see on grapes is not only due to global warming, it’s due to the fact that we grow better grapes."

Now, Casassa is teaching better and more sustainable practices to viticulture students saying sustainability is not a destination but rather a journey.

"Climate change is here and global warming is part of climate change,” he said. “But we are going to adapt.”

Adapting, just like Wolff is doing.

“I’m sort of here trying to beat the clock so to speak,” he said.

To help protect his harvest, Wolff is now replanting a big portion of his vineyard and watering them with a new type of subsurface irrigation.

“Instead of irrigating above ground through this drip line I connect with a little spaghetti hose and this pipe goes 3 feet below ground to the root zone,” he said.

And while he might not be able to change the climate, Wolff does plan on changing his practices.