Climate change is hitting the wineries of the Nappa Valley hard. Extreme climatic phenomena burn and destroy crops. As if that were not enough, the insurance companies are turning their backs on the operators.
In Napa Valley, the lush heart of America's high-end wine industry, climate change is a calamity.
Last September, a wildfire ravaged one of Dario Sattui's Napa Valley vineyards, destroying millions of dollars in goods and equipment, as well as 9,000 cases of wine. November brought a second disaster: Sattui realized that the precious harvest of Cabernet grapes that survived the fire had been ruined by smoke. There would be no 2020 vintage. An incredibly dry winter led to a third calamity: in the spring, the reservoir of another Sattui vineyard was almost empty, which means little water to irrigate the new harvest. Finally, in March, a fourth blow came: Sattui's insurers said they would no longer cover the cellar that had burned down. No other company either. In insurance parlance, the winery will go bare in this year's fire season, which experts predict to be particularly fierce. “We have been hit in every way possible,” Sattui said. “We cannot continue like this. "In Napa Valley, the heart of the lush wine upscale American industry, climate change is a calamity. Steps Out: On the main road through the small town of St. Helena, California, tourists continue to flock to the vineyards with exquisite tasting rooms. At Goose & Gander, where lamb chops are $ 63, the line is always long. But if you deviate from the main road, the scenery is quite different. Where once the valley vineyards drew their fame from the perfect balance between soil, temperature and rainfall, today they are nothing but scorched landscapes. Water supply is very difficult and nerves already strained for vineyard operators expect even tougher days
Desperation has caused some growers to spray the grapes with sunscreen, in an attempt to prevent roasting, while others irrigate treated sewage from toilets and sinks because the tanks are dry. Everyone feels concerned by the fate of the winegrowers; even those who cannot distinguish a Merlot from a Malbec. Napa has some of the most expensive farmland in the country, selling for up to $ 1 million per acre; a ton of grapes yields two to four times more than anywhere else in California.
If there is one place in American agriculture that has both the means and the need to thwart climate change, this is it.
But so far, the winegrowers have proved to be quite powerless in the face of a warming planet and are unable to adapt. If the heat and drought trends worsen, "we are probably bankrupt," said Cyril Chappellet, president of Chappellet Winery, which has been in operation for more than half a century. " We're all going to be bankrupt."
Stu Smith's cellar is at the end of a two-lane road that winds up the side of Spring Mountain, west of St. Helena. Driving requires some concentration: The glass fire of 2020 burned down the wooden posts that held the guardrails, which are now found like ribbons thrown over the edge of the cliff.
In 1971, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, Smith purchased 165 acres of land there. He named his winery Smith Madrone, after the orange-red hardwoods that surround the vineyards he planted. For nearly three decades, these vineyards - 14 acres of Cabernet, 7 acres each of Chardonnay and Riesling, plus a handful of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot - were untouched by wildfires. Then, in 2008, smoke from nearby fires reached his grapes for the first time. The harvest took place as usual. Months later, after the wine had aged but before it was bottled, Smith's brother Charlie noticed something was wrong. “He said, 'I just don't like the taste of red wines,” said Stu Smith. At first, Smith resisted the idea that there might be a problem and then eventually took the wine to a Sonoma County lab, which determined that the smoke had penetrated the skins of the grapes to affect the wine. taste. This is what winemakers have called “smoke taint” and is now threatening Napa's wine industry. “The problem with fires is that it doesn't have to be around us,” Smith said. Smoke from distant fires can float long distances, and there is no way a grower can prevent it. Smoke is a threat primarily to reds, whose skins provide the color of wine. (The skins of the white grapes, on the other hand, are discarded, and with them the residue of smoke.) The reds also have to stay on the vine longer, often until October, which makes them more vulnerable to the fires that usually rage. in early fall.
Of course, the winegrowers could choose to switch from red grapes to white, but this solution would not correspond to the demands of the market. White Napa grapes typically sell for around $ 2,750 a tonne, on average. Reds, on the other hand, fetch an average of around $ 5,000 per tonne in the valley, and more for Cabernet Sauvignon. In Napa there is a saying: Cabernet is king.
The damage of 2008 turned out to be a harbinger of the worst to come. The mist of the glass fire filled the valley; so many winegrowers sought to test their grapes for smoke that the turnaround time at the nearest lab, once three days, became two months. The losses have been staggering. In 2019, producers in the county sold $ 829 million worth of red grapes. In 2020, that figure dropped to $ 384 million. Grape Sunscreen Across the valley, Aaron Whitlatch, head of winemaking at Green & Red Vineyards, got into a dust-colored jeep for a trip up the mountain to demonstrate what the heat does to the grapes. The week before, temperatures had risen to over 100 degrees and staff had sprayed the vines with sunscreen. "Keeps them from burning," Whitlatch said. The strategy had not worked perfectly. He showed a bunch of grapes at the very top of the peak exposed to the sun during the hottest hours of the day. Some of the fruits had turned black and shrunken - becoming, in fact, absurdly expensive raisins. "The temperature of this cluster probably reached 49 ° C," Whitlatch said. “We were set on fire. ". As the days get hotter and the sun gets more dangerous in Napa, wine growers are trying to adapt. A more expensive option than sunscreen is to cover the vines with shade cloth, Whitlatch said. Another, even more expensive tactic is to replant rows of vines so that they are parallel to the sun in the hottest part of the day, catching less heat. At 43, Whitlatch is a vineyard fire veteran. In 2017, he was an assistant winemaker at Mayacamas Vineyards, another Napa winery, when it was burned down by a series of wildfires. This is his first season with Green & Red, who lost their entire crop of reds to the smoke from the glass fire. The glass fire was a wildfire in northern California that began on September 27, 2020 at 3:48 a.m. for an undetermined cause and was active for 23 days.
Following this fire, the winery's insurer wrote to the owners, Raymond Hannigan and Tobin Heminway, advising them of the changes needed to reduce its fire risk, including updating the circuit breaker panels and the addition of fire extinguishers. “We've spent thousands and thousands of dollars to improve the property,” Hannigan said. A month later, Philadelphia Insurance Cos. sent the couple another letter, stating their decision to no longer insure them. The explanation was brief: “Ineligible risk - exposure to forest fires does not meet current underwriting guidelines. ".
Heminway and Hannigan could not find coverage with any other insurance company. The California legislature is considering a bill that would allow wineries to obtain insurance through a state-run high-risk pool. But even if it passes, Hannigan said, "it won't help us during this harvest season."
Just south of Green & Red, one can find Chappellet Winery. Chappellet Winery is the image of efficiency on a commercial scale, producing some 70,000 cases of wine per year. The main building, which the parents built after buying the property in 1967, looks like a cathedral; gigantic wooden beams soar upwards, sheltering endless rows of oak barrels in which a fortune-worth Cabernet ages.
After the glass fire, Chappellet was one of the lucky ones; he always has insurance. It costs five times more than last year. His winery now pays over $ 1 million a year, up from $ 200,000 before the fire. At the same time, its insurers halved the amount of coverage they were willing to provide. “It's crazy,” Chappellet said. “It's not something we can take long term. "
When spring arrived this year and the Sattui vineyard reservoir was empty, his colleague Tom Davies, president of V. Sattui Winery, drew up a back-up plan. Davies found Joe Brown. Eight times a day, Brown trains at a loading dock at the City of Napa's sanitation department, fills a 3,500 gallon tanker with treated sewage, and drives 10 miles to the vineyard, then walks around go back and do it again. The water, which comes from toilets and household drains and is sifted, filtered and sanitized, is a steal at $ 6.76 a truckload. The problem is transportation: Each load costs Davies about $ 140, which he says will add $ 60,000 or more to the cost of running the vineyard this season. And that assumes Napa officials continue to sell wastewater, which in theory could be made drinkable. As the drought worsens, the city may decide its residents need it more. “We're nervous that at one point Napa Sanitation will say, ' No more water, '” Davies said.