WineInk: Fires, floods and frosts — Resilience in face of adversity in Grand Valley and beyond
This one is difficult to write.
I found myself in awe of the intestinal fortitude of the wine growers and producers I met on a recent trip to Colorado wine country. Touring the Grand Valley AVA on the far western part of the state near Grand Junction, I was inspired that, despite a changing climate, they had the will and determination to work with nature and make wines of substance and meaning in such a harsh environment.
The Grand Valley, one of the state’s most important agricultural areas for fruit, including Colorado’s famed peaches, was hit on Oct. 27, 2020, with devastating frosts that killed thousands of vines and trees. On that night the temperatures in the valley fell to single digits, wiping out decades of work and dreams.
Walking through the vineyards and orchards, it was impossible not to notice the damage done and the renewed plantings replacing what had been damaged. The wine growers were invariably optimistic that these frosts were rare events. But still, they were intensely studying and planting new grape varieties called hybrids that they hoped will be more resistant to the vicissitudes of a harsh mountain climate.
But as I thought more about it, it struck me that this resilience is not specific to just the region. Rather, it is a necessarily shared circumstance by winemakers around the world who are — like all farmers — facing ever more difficult growing seasons and, worse, catastrophic weather events. Everywhere, with each season, it seems that wine regions are faced with unprecedented weather extremes that have had dramatic effects on the future of their very existence.
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The latest example occurred just a few weeks ago in mid-April, at the beginning of mother nature’s annual cycle, when a late frost hit the vineyards of Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the foothills of California’s Sierra Foothills and Amador county. Temperatures dropped into the middle 20s just as the buds on the vines were starting bud break, the time of year when the greenery begins to burst forth in the first step of the growing process. Freezing temperatures can stifle and kill the buds, halting the vintage before it has a chance to begin. For many producers, this freeze was the latest in memory — if not in history — and it was the latest snowfall in the Coastal Range of Oregon since the modern wine industry began.
The people at Hiyu, a biodynamic farm and winery in Hood River, Oregon, described the event in a lovely post:
“Just as we entered the season of flowers, winter cast a spell. It reached out into the tender world and blanketed the emergent blossoms and green shoots in freezing snow. The fruit trees in the valley were in the midst of flowering and the vines’ shoots were about to emerge from last year’s old wood. Living in the shadow of the mountain we’re more susceptible to both the beauty and caprices of the weather.”
It breaks your heart. And this is just one, the most recent, example of the effects of a changing climate that is being documented by journalists and writers.
In New York magazine this month, writer Ben Wallace wrote an extensive piece that detailed the way in which smoke from ever more regular and ever larger brush fires are impacting the wines of the Napa Valley and beyond.
In his piece, titled “When Smoke Gets in your Wine,” Wallace describes tasting wines with a scientist at the University of California at Davis that had been made from grapes infused with smoke from the September 2020 Glass Fire, which burned around the edges of the Napa Valley just as harvest was in full swing.
The Glass Fire was just the latest in a series of significant burns in the region that began with the 2017 Tubbs Fire. It damaged or destroyed 31 wineries and ended the vintage for many more whose grapes were tainted by the smoke. The aftereffects of smoke, which is still being studied as it is a relatively new phenomenon, can destroy the taste and nuances of a bottle of wine long after it is bottled. This puts winemakers in the uncomfortable position of having to decide, in advance, whether to release their wines if they have been influenced by smoke.
Losing an entire year’s harvest is obviously financially difficult, but so is the loss of reputation for a wine brand that sells wines that eventually show the taint from exposure to smoke. The toll from the fires of 2020 for valley vintners has been estimated to be as high a $2.3 billion.
Even worse were the deadly floods that tore through the Ahr Valley, a pinot noir wine growing region in western Germany. Last July a significant rain event settled just north of the picturesque region and dropped an unprecedented amount of rain. “This is a region that has been making wine for 2,000 years and has never seen such flooding,” said Horst Caspari, the Colorado State University viticulturist who lives in the aforementioned Grand Valley of Colorado. He was addressing a group I was with about Colorado wines when he was asked about the floods in Ahr. It just so happened that he was not only from the region, but he was there during the flooding.
“It was like nothing anyone could have prepared for,” Caspari shared. “This was a very modern and sophisticated wine region that was making world class pinot noir (known as ‘Spätburgunder’ in German). In an instant it was all gone.” It is estimated that as many 200 people died in the flood waters and 38 wineries were impacted or destroyed. Caspari, who walked the region in the days following the floods, was emotional as he described the scene. “The climate is changing, and these events are coming more and more often.”
Ironically, this past week on “CBS Sunday Morning,” reporter Seth Doane made a visit to the Ahr Valley to profile a fundraising program. It seems that the winemakers in the region have banded together to sell individual mud-encrusted bottles of their wines to raise money for flood relief. It was an inspiring story of resilience. You can see it at cbs.com.
One can think of wine regions as the “canaries in the coal mine.” They are indicators of greater weather-related problems that affect all crops and, in reality, all life.
When weather events strike these beautiful places that have names well known to many, they generate media attention. It is critical to understand that these events are happening more frequently and with greater ferocity each year. The events I have outlined above have all taken place over a span of less than the past two years. What does the future hold in store?
Nevertheless, as I talked to the vintners of Colorado this past week, it was their perseverent spirit that dominated the conversation. Something inspirational is happening and changes are taking place in Colorado wine.
We’ll take a look at those changes in upcoming columns.
2019 Chappellet “Las Piedras” Red Wine
High atop Pritchard Hill above the Napa Valley, the Chappellet family has been growing estate fruit for the renowned wines for over five decades. Their estate Cabernet Sauvignon is considered to be a beacon for mountain grown wines.
But this blend, the Napa Valley Las Piedras, named in honor of the “the rocks” on Pritchard Hill, is made using all five Bordeaux varieties, which sells for less than $100 is my favorite of the 2019 releases I have tasted. Big and bold with balanced tannins, the fruits are dark and luxurious.
A tasty treat from the Napa Valley.