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Wine Industry Leaders Take on Climate Change at Vinexpo

Miguel Torres, Gaia Gaja, Kathryn Hall and Harvard professor John Holdren take the stage at 'Fire and Rain' environmental panel presented by Wine Spectator
On stage, from left: Harvard's John Holdren, Bodegas Torres' Miguel Torres, Wine Spectator's Dana Nigro, Gaja's Gaia Gaja and Hall's Kathryn Hall
Photo by: Philippe Labeguerie / Vinexpo
On stage, from left: Harvard's John Holdren, Bodegas Torres' Miguel Torres, Wine Spectator's Dana Nigro, Gaja's Gaia Gaja and Hall's Kathryn Hall

Suzanne Mustacich
Posted: June 19, 2017

Wine Spectator kicked off Vinexpo, the international wine-trade fair held biennially in Bordeaux, on Sunday by gathering experts and industry pioneers to tackle one of the most critical issues facing the global wine community: climate change. Senior editor Dana Nigro served as moderator for "Fire and Rain: Climate Change and the Wine Industry," a lively and thought-provoking discussion of the environmental issues facing vintners today and in the future.

Harvard professor John Holdren opened the conference by telling a rapt audience that the land suitable for grapegrowing will potentially shrink by 23 percent to 75 percent by the year 2050, and that higher average temperatures, heat waves, droughts, torrential downpours, hailstorms, pests, and the effects of increased CO2 on grape chemistry will test the wine industry's resilience.

"Adaptability and resilience are extremely important, but if we do not reduce emissions, then adaptability and resilience will fail," said Holdren.

He said that 200 years of climate-change science leaves no room for doubt that climate changes are due to "emissions of heat-trapping gases from fossil-fuel burning and land-use change." Those changes, and the harm they do to human life and health, property, ecosystems and economies, will worsen in the near future, no matter what action the world takes now, because of the amount of time it will take to reverse these already-in-process climate and energy system changes. However, the former White House science adviser said, strong and immediate remedial action will greatly reduce the severity of those negative environmental effects.

Holdren also bashed the myth that going green is an economy killer. Holdren, who was director of the White House Office of Science & Technology under President Barack Obama, argued persuasively that a healthy environment is the key to a robust economy. "Wine is an important product in the national economies that grow wine," said Holdren. "I would hope the wine industry would speak up as a group."

Reducing emissions has already become a mandate for many in the wine community. Miguel Torres, president of Bodegas Torres of Spain and Chile, has been a tireless advocate of sustainability.

Bodegas Torres dedicates 11 percent of its profits—more than $13 million—to climate-related innovations like CO2-eating algae and converting CO2 into plant fertilizer. Torres encouraged winemakers to reduce their carbon footprint, using the steps taken by his company as a model: recycling water, rainwater collection, rethinking rootstock and planting density, using lighter bottles and trimming the impact of packaging and shipping, relying on solar panels to generate electricity, and rediscovering ancestral Catalan grape varieties and buying vineyards in cooler climates.

"One of the great things about the wine industry is that they share information," said Nigro. "Success in a region helps everyone market their wines."

Torres enthusiastically recounted a pilot program to capture CO2. "If it works, and we can capture CO2 and turn it into [a resource], that could be fantastic."

Gaia Gaja, of Italy's leading Gaja Family Wine Estates, explained how her winery has moved away from monoculture and toward biodiversity in order to improve the resilience of the vines. They are looking at new ways to retain moisture in the soil and combat vineyard pests with natural prevention methods like funguses to fight mildew and mustard plants to discourage nematodes. Even grape varieties have come under scrutiny. "We moved away from Merlot as an early-ripening variety and that was a more evident step in terms of moving to fresher, later-ripening varieties," said Gaja.

But it was Californian Kathryn Hall from Hall Wines in Napa Valley that held up a model for community action through the Napa Green environmental certification. Their goal is to have all Napa vineyards certified by 2020. Hall admitted that the "green" decisions didn't always make financial sense in the short term. The Halls decided on a sustainable vineyard as a matter of personal ethics and the desire to find the most authentic expression of their terroir, citing careful stewardship of the land and terroir as the starting point for fine wine.

"We talk with clients and visitors about the issues," said Hall. "We don’t advertise what we do, but we tell the story of being responsible to the land and being terroir-driven."

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