Roasted, Roasted, and No Longer Insured: Climate Change Is Striking Wine

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ST. HELENA, California — Last September, a wildfire burned down one of Dario Sattui’s Napa Valley wineries, destroying millions of dollars of property and equipment, as well as 9,000 cases of wine.

November brought a second disaster: Mr. Sattui noticed that the precious cabernet grapes that had survived the fire had been destroyed by the smoke. 2020 would not be vintage.

A terribly dry winter led to a third disaster: In the spring, the reservoir in another of Mr. Sattui’s vineyards was completely empty, meaning there was little water to irrigate the new crop.

Finally, in March, a fourth blow came: Mr. Sattui’s insurers said they would no longer protect the burning winery. No other company will either. In the insurance space, the winery will go bare into this year’s burning season, which experts predict will be particularly severe.

“We were shot in every way we could,” said Mr. Sattui. “We can’t go on like this.”

In Napa Valley, the lush heart of America’s top wine industry, climate change spells disaster. Not from the outside: Little St. On the main road through the town of Helena, tourists still flock to the wineries with elegantly appointed tasting rooms. At Goose & Gander, where the lamb chops are $63, the table queue is still rolling on the pavement.

But step away from the main road and the vineyards that made this valley famous – where once the perfect mix of soil, temperature patterns and precipitation – are now surrounded by burnt landscapes, dwindling water supplies and increasingly tense winemakers. for things to get worse.

Desperation is forcing some growers to spray sunscreen on the vines to prevent scorching, while others irrigate with treated wastewater from toilets and sinks because the reservoirs are dry.

Their fate matters even for those who cannot distinguish a malbec from a merlot. Napa boasts some of the most expensive farmland in the country, selling for up to $1 million per acre; a ton of grapes comes in two to four times more than anywhere else in California. If there’s any corner of American agriculture that has both the tools and incentives to tackle climate change, it’s here.

But so far, the experience of the winemakers here shows the limits of adapting to a warming planet.

If temperature and drought trends worsen, “we’re likely to lose our business,” said Cyril Chappellet, president of Chappellet Winery, which has been in operation for over half a century. “We’re all out of business.”

Stu Smith’s winery, St. It’s at the end of a two-lane road that comes out of Spring Mountain west of Helena. The ride requires some concentration: the 2020 Glass Fire burned the wooden posts holding the railings that now stood like strips thrown over the edge of the cliff.

After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 1971, Mr. Smith bought 165 acres here. He named his winery Smith Madrone after the orange-red hardwoods with waxy leaves that surround the vineyards he planted. For nearly three decades, these vineyards—14 acres of cabernet, seven acres of chardonnay and riesling, as well as a smattering of cabernet francs, merlot, and petit verdot—were unaffected by wildfires.

Then in 2008 smoke from nearby fires reached his grapes for the first time. The harvest continued as usual. Months later, after the wine had aged but before it was bottled, Mr. Smith’s brother Charlie realized something was wrong. “He said, ‘I don’t like the taste of red,'” Stu Smith said.

At first, Mr. Smith resisted the idea that anything was wrong, but eventually brought the wine to a lab in Sonoma County, which determined that the smoke had entered the rind of the grapes to affect the flavor.

What winemakers call a “smoke stain” now threatens Napa’s wine industry.

“The problem with fires is that they are not near us,” said Mr. Smith. Smoke from distant fires can spread long distances, and a grower has no way of preventing it.

Smoke is mainly a threat to reds, which have rinds that give wine their color. (In contrast, the skins of white grapes and residues of smoke are removed with them.) Reds should also stay on the vine longer, usually until October, exposing them more to fires that usually peak in early fall.

Winemakers can switch from red grapes to white, but this solution conflicts with market demands. White grapes from Napa typically sell for an average of $2,750 per ton. By contrast, reds average $5,000 per ton in the valley and more for cabernet sauvignon. There is a saying in Napa: cabernet is king.

The damage in 2008 turned out to be a harbinger of a much worse future. Mist from the Glass Fire filled the valley; so many winemakers tried to test their grapes for smoke staining that the turnaround time at the nearest lab was two months, compared to every three days.

The losses are staggering. In 2019, growers in the county sold $829 million worth of red grapes. In 2020, that figure dropped to $384 million.

Among the injured was Mr. Smith, whose entire crop was affected. Now, the fire’s most visible legacy is the trees: the flames burned not only the madrons that gave Mr. Smith’s winery its name, but also Douglas firs, bronze oaks, and laurels.

Trees burned in forest fires do not die immediately; some linger for years. One afternoon in June, Mr. Smith surveyed the damage in his forest and stopped at a madrone he particularly liked, but whose luck was not good. “He’s dead,” said Mr. Smith. “He just doesn’t know yet.”

Across the valley, Aaron Whitlatch, head of winery at Green & Red Vineyards, climbed a powder-coloured jeep up the mountain to show him what the heat was doing to the grapes.

Mr. Whitlatch, after passing steep turns, reached a series of vines that grew petite sirah vines covered with a thin layer of white.

A week ago the temperature had exceeded 100 degrees and staff had sprayed sunscreen on the vines.

“It keeps them from burning,” said Mr Whitlatch.

The strategy had not worked perfectly. He pointed to the bunch of grapes at the very top of the summit, which was exposed to the sun during the hottest hours of the day. Some of the berries had turned black and shriveled – effectively becoming absurdly costly raisins.

“The temperature of this cluster has probably reached 120,” said Mr Whitlatch. “We were burned.”

As the days get hotter and the sun more dangerous in Napa, winemakers are trying to adapt. Mr Whitlatch said a more expensive option than sunscreen is to cover the vines with a shade cloth. Another even more costly tactic is to replant rows of ivy parallel to the sun during the hottest hours of the day so that it captures less of its heat.

Mr. Whitlatch, 43, is a veteran of wineries. In 2017, he was a winemaker assistant when another Napa winery, Mayacamas Vineyards, was burned down by a series of wildfires. This is the first season on Green & Red, with an entire crop of reds swept up in smoke from Glass Fire.

After this fire, the winery’s insurer wrote a letter to the homeowners, Raymond Hannigan and Tobin Heminway, listing the changes needed to reduce fire risk, including updating circuit breaker panels and adding fire extinguishers. “We spent thousands of dollars improving the property,” Mr. Hannigan said.

A month later, Philadelphia Insurance Companies sent the couple another letter, canceling their insurance anyway. The statement was brief: “Inappropriate risk – bushfire exposure, does not meet current insurance guidelines.” The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Heminway and Mr. Hannigan were unable to find coverage from any other operators. The California legislature is considering a bill that would allow wineries to obtain insurance through a state-run high-risk pool.

But even if that passes, Mr. Hannigan said, “It’s not going to help us this harvest season.”

Just south of Green & Red, Mr Chappellet was standing in the middle of bottled wines and trucks unloading. Chappellet Winery is the picture of productivity on a commercial scale, producing around 70,000 cases of wine a year. The main building, built after his family bought the property in 1967, resembles a cathedral: huge wooden beams rise upwards and protect the rows of oak barrels that age a fortune’s worth of cabernet.

After Glassfire, Mr Chappellet is one of the lucky ones – he still has insurance. It costs five times more than last year.

The winery now pays more than $1 million a year, up from $200,000 before the fire. At the same time, it cut insurers in half the amount of coverage they wanted to provide.

“Madness,” said Mr Chappellet. “It’s not something we can stand for long term.”

There are other problems. Mr Chappellet pointed to vineyards where workers were cutting grapes from the vines – not because they were ready to harvest, but because there wasn’t enough water to grow them. He estimated that he will cut his crop by a third this year.

“We can’t afford to give them the normal amount they need to be truly healthy,” said Mr Chappellet.

To show why, a couple that once fed the vineyards set out onto a dirt road, stopping by the reservoir. The first was one-third full; the other, just above it, had turned into a barren pit. A pipe that once pumped out water instead lay on the dusty lake bed.

It disaster,” said Mr Chappellet.

When spring came this year and the reservoir in Dario Sattui’s vineyard emptied, his colleague Tom Davies, president of V. Sattui Winery, devised a backup plan. Mr. Davies found Joe Brown.

Eight times a day, Mr. Brown drives into a loading dock in the cleanup department of Napa City, loads 3,500 gallons of treated wastewater into a tanker truck and drives 10 miles to the vineyard, then turns around and does it again.

At $6.76 a truckload of sifted, filtered, and disinfected water from household toilets and drains, it’s very cheap. The problem is transportation: Mr. Davies costs about $140 each load, which he estimates will add $60,000 or more to the cost of operating the vineyard this season.

And that’s assuming Napa officials continue to sell wastewater that could, in theory, be made potable. As the drought worsens, city dwellers may decide they need it more. “We were nervous that at one point Napa sanitation said it was no longer water,” Mr Davies said.

After Mr Davies had passed the empty reservoir, he stopped on a hill overlooking the vineyard.

If Napa can go another year or two without major wildfires, Mr Davies thinks insurers will bounce back. More difficult to solve are the smoke stain and the water scarcity.

“It’s too early to talk about the demise of our industry,” said Mr. Davies, looking down at the valley. “But it’s definitely a concern.”

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