When a family does its homework on the property that represents its livelihood and our own appreciation for their craft, we take note just as we do when the professor teaches:
Jackson Family Wines is among California
winemakers employing both high-tech and old-school
techniques to adapt to hotter, drier conditions.
On a misty autumn morning in Sonoma County, Calif., Katie Jackson headed into the vineyards to assess the harvest. It was late in the season, and an army of field workers was rushing to pick the grapes before the first rains, however faint, began falling.
But on this day, Ms. Jackson, the vice president for sustainability and external affairs at Jackson Family Wines, was not just minding the usual haul of cabernet, chardonnay and merlot grapes. She also checked on the sophisticated network of systems she had put in place to help crops adapt to a changing climate.
Ms. Jackson, along with her siblings and mother, owns and operates Jackson Family Wines, one of the largest family-owned winemakers in the country. Best known for its Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, a supermarket staple, the family also produces dozens of other wines on five continents. After decades in the business, the Jacksons are sensitive to slight variations in the weather, and they are convinced of one thing: It is getting hotter and drier, and that could be a problem.
As California endures a yearslong drought, the Jacksons, like other winemakers, are grappling with new realities. Grapes, though a surprisingly resilient crop, are ripening earlier. Nights are warmer. Aquifers are running dry.
As a result, the region’s wine country has become a laboratory for the reshaping of agriculture nationwide. Because, of course, it’s not just California that’s warming up.
The Jacksons are going beyond the usual drought-mitigation measures. They are using owls and falcons, to go after pests drawn by the milder winters. They are finding new ways to capture rainfall. And since fossil-fuel consumption is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, they are trying to become more energy efficient, in part through the use of old-school farming techniques.
Climate change is forcing the Jacksons to confront questions both practical and existential: Can you make fine wine with less water? Will good grapes still grow here in 20 years? What will become of an industry central to California’s identity, one that says it contributes $114 billion a year to the nation’s economy?
Wearing jeans, a plaid shirt and hiking boots, her hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, Ms. Jackson, 30, caught a ride with one of the vineyard managers to a hill overlooking the picturesque Alexander Valley, an area that produces some of California’s best wines.
At the peak, she stopped to inspect a shed housing the recently-updated belly of the vineyard’s irrigation system. Inside was a new energy-saving variable-frequency drive that allows for more precise, efficient watering.
Nearby was a solar-powered weather station. If the sensors decide it has become too cold in the middle of the night (climate change, of course, doesn’t mean it’s always hot), new wind machines will automatically start circulating warm air to protect the vines.
Beside that was an owl box — occupied — part of an effort to control pests without pesticides. And just below the peak was a man-made reservoir, one of more than 100 added to manage what is any farm’s most precious resource: water.
“The climate has been getting warmer and warmer, and we’re seeing more extremes, from really wet to really dry,” Ms. Jackson said. “Little by little, we’re learning.”
So far the drought has not wreaked havoc on the California wine business. No harvests have been destroyed and quality remains strong. Moreover, many of the Jackson vineyards are in pockets of the California coast that benefit from the cool, humid fog.
But the challenges here are hardly theoretical. Already, climate change is threatening the world’s coffee supply. Several reports suggest that rising temperatures around the globe could imperil major winemaking regions in the coming decades. One study suggested that by 2050, many regions in Europe, including much of Italy and swaths of Southern France, could become unsuitable for wine grapes. The same study suggested that California production could fall by 70 percent by the century’s midpoint.
Already, winemakers in the region are noticing distinct changes that signal a hotter, drier future.
“It used to be there were a lot of nights when it would get 28 and 29 degrees, but now when farmers wake up, they’re less likely to have a mud puddle with ice on it,” said Daniel Sumner, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis. “The growers are going have to be a little bit more nimble.”…
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