Correction to This Article
A photo caption in the article incorrectly implied that Doug Shafer, owner of Shafer Vineyards in California, is skeptical about climate change. He said only that he has not seen evidence of climate change at his vineyard.
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Some See a Warmer Future Disrupting the World's Wines

At Shafer Vineyards in California, Doug Shafer is skeptical about climate change's effects: "I'm not seeing a trend."
At Shafer Vineyards in California, Doug Shafer is skeptical about climate change's effects: "I'm not seeing a trend." (By Russ Widstrand)

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California produces many fine wines, but Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is the signature wine, at home and abroad. Shafer Vineyards in the Stags Leap District is one of Napa's top cabernet producers. The name Stags Leap may ring a bell: A wine from Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, down the road from Shafer, finished first among cabernets in the famous Paris tasting of 1976, besting several Bordeaux first growths. Napa Valley had arrived on the world stage.

For years, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon defined the appellation, but for at least the past 15 years, Shafer's Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon has been the benchmark wine of the district. Of Napa's top cabernet areas, Stag's Leap is closest to San Francisco Bay and therefore the coolest. I asked Doug Shafer, winery president, whether things are getting warmer. "I'm not seeing a trend that way," he said. "We had smoking-hot years in the '80s, like 1984 and 1987, when we picked very early, and we've had some cooler vintages of late. I just don't see it on a day-to-day, year-to-year basis."

Shafer acknowledged that the winery's 30-year history could not match the historical perspective of Europe's ancient estates. But, he pointed out, "by California standards we're not that young."

If the doomsayers are correct and Shafer isn't, what can wine growers do? They can move up, either in latitude or altitude, or move closer to the ocean. Does that mean the next Napa Valley will be Sonoma's Russian River Valley, now known for chardonnay and pinot noir, or perhaps the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia? Or some sunny mountainside in Colorado with no history of viticulture? Will Burgundy become the new Bordeaux and Germany's Mosel the new Burgundy?

Such questions occupied winemakers and scientists who gathered last month in Barcelona for the Second World Conference on Climate Change and Wine, at which speakers urged greater environmental awareness. The wine industry worldwide is becoming increasingly green: limiting carbon emissions, seeking alternative energy sources, using water more wisely. Twenty years ago, winemakers seldom talked about environmental issues; today some talk about little else.

Water has become the critical concern in Australia, said Prue Henschke, who with her husband, Stephen, runs one of Australia's finest wineries. "The country is enduring one of the worst droughts in history, with no relief in sight," she said. "We are okay with our vineyards [in south Australia's Eden Valley and Adelaide Hills], but other parts of the country are facing severe shortages. And it isn't just winegrowing; it's other agriculture as well. We're having to rethink all our practices."

Her vineyards, already organically farmed, are becoming biodynamic. "Everything we do moves us to sustainable viticulture," she said.

Research in the United States, Europe and Australia pointing to a long-term warming trend makes for disturbing reading, but nothing haunts me like Freddie Mugnier's prediction. A world without great Burgundy: That is truly alarming.

Joseph Ward is senior wine correspondent for Conde Nast Traveler.


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