Talking with Wine Climatologist Gregory Jones
Greg Jones is the CEO of Abacela, the vineyard and winery his parents, Earl and Hilda Jones, founded in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley in 1995. After earning a Ph.D. in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia and doing his dissertation on viticulture in Bordeaux, he has become a globally renowned atmospheric scientist and wine climatologist, sharing his knowledge with the wine industry in roles such as professor at Southern Oregon University and director of the Center for Wine Education Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore.
Jones’ research linking weather and climate with grapevine growth, fruit chemistry and wine characteristics has made him a popular speaker at wine-industry conferences and a prolific contributor to journals, books and reports, including to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize–winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. He recently spoke with associate editor Aaron Romano about his career, how changing conditions benefit and challenge the wine industry, how wineries are adapting and what the future holds.
Wine Spectator: When did your interest in wine begin?
Greg Jones: I started cooking in high school. By the time I was at the end of high school, I had become a chef at a restaurant in the Bay Area. I remember one of my first jobs in Sausalito, I wasn't even old enough to drink, but they let me come in and listen and talk to the distributors selling wines.
WS: What came first, an interest in science or wine? And how did the two intersect into wine climatology?
GJ: I originally wanted to be a hydrologist, but climatology and meteorology piqued my interest. So I was in the right field [environmental sciences], to begin with; it just took me moving through that to really see the wine and climate science connections.
One of my advisors wanted me to study broadacre crops, like rice or corn or soybeans or wheat. I knew a little bit about the wine industry, and I knew that it provided a much more interesting background as a crop to study. I convinced him to allow me to study viticulture and wine production. All this happened right about the time my father was moving into growing grapes and making wine, and this parallel thing started happening.
I did my Ph.D. research in Bordeaux. At that time, during the mid-’90s, I probably had more data on Bordeaux grapegrowing and winemaking and climate and weather and soil factors than anybody at that point in time. That really expanded my thoughts around climate science in viticulture and wine production.
WS: What does a wine climatologist do?
GJ: Collecting data and understanding the patterns, structure and trends within that data is what a wine climatologist does. When I started this whole process, nobody in climate science studied viticulture and wine production. I was one of one.
I’ve installed dozens and dozens of weather stations and monitors all over the world. My family’s vineyard is probably one of the most instrumented vineyards you’ll find, including three full weather stations, 24 temperature sensors and 40 soil moisture sensors on 80 acres of vineyards.
I’ve spent a lot of my career attempting to understand better what makes certain varieties suitable to certain climates in terms of their productivity and quality. And in doing that, you know, you have to collect data. I’ve been doing quite a bit of fieldwork here in Oregon and a few other places. My datasets from Bordeaux, for example, were anywhere from 50 to 100 years long. Then you have to manage that data, manipulate and analyze the data, and interpret what it’s telling you.
WS: What are some misperceptions associated with climate and wine?
GJ: That latitude is an analog for the climate. If you looked at trying to take multiple climate factors and do an analog for them, Bordeaux’s most closely matched climate in the United States is in southern New Jersey. When you go to Bordeaux, you sweat during the summer because they have a lot of humidity in the air. In Napa, there is no humidity in the summer. Bordeaux gets 60 percent of its rainfall during the growing season. Napa gets 15. A big difference there.
WS: What are you seeing happening in the wine industry around climate impact on grape growing?
GJ: It helps to go back to when I first started as a student in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The vast majority of geoscientists worldwide were on the fence about what kind of trends were happening and how much influence humans had. … When I started collecting my data in Bordeaux, I found that the models I was trying to build on grapevine growth and productivity couldn’t work unless I included a trend. What that told me is that, even back then, climates were changing, and we weren’t really paying enough attention to it.
I remember giving a talk in 1995 or 1996 in Bordeaux; people there thought I was crazy. But I showed them what the data was saying: You’re in a trending environment, and temperatures are getting warmer. If all of our models at that time are correct, in the next 20, 30 years, you’re going to be in a very different place. And boom, fast forward: Here we are.
The impacts are varied. It depends on the region and the varieties being grown. It also depends on where the region was 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago and where it is today. For example, the Oregon wine industry did not exist in the 1950s. The biggest reason it didn’t exist is that the climate was not conducive to it. It was just too cold. Its growing seasons were too short and inconsistent, and it just would have been economically not feasible. Fast forward to where we are today. In terms of its recognition, Oregon today is a completely different place, and that kind of change has allowed our industry to really grow and be as recognized as it is.
We’re now talking about what the next 40 or 50 years may bring. Let’s do a what-if and say temperatures keep going up in a linear structure. Places like the Willamette Valley will be arguably somewhere between 2.5 and 4.5 degrees [Farenheit] warmer than they are today. The reason that that’s important is Pinot Noir only has a roughly 4-degree growing season climate niche worldwide. So, if we warm in the Willamette Valley by 3 or 4 degrees, we’re warming more than the entire known geographic climate spread of Pinot Noir today.
WS: Are there any particular regions that are most susceptible?
GJ: One hundred years ago, Burgundy made a much more elegant, lower-alcohol, lighter-color wine. Today it’s still Pinot Noir but has moved up the ladder, so to speak, from cool-climate limits to the warmer-climate limits. It’s not that it’s at its limit, but it makes a different style, even though the typicity is still Pinot Noir.
If you don’t get the climate right, you can’t grow Pinot Noir. But, on the other hand, suppose you’re in a region where the main variety you’re growing is at the upper limits of that temperature threshold. In that case, these kinds of things will be a big issue for those regions, like Burgundy, with strict laws about what can be legally planted.
WS: What can vintners do to adapt?
GJ: You have to really think about what wine regions are producing today. What did they used to produce, and how are they doing it differently?
Everybody started doing one viticultural thing: fine-tuning their vineyards, particularly with trellising systems. Everybody went from sprawl [letting the vine grow like a tree] to VSP [training vine shoots upward to form an umbrella-like hedge] structures. What happened to some degree is that we were fine-tuning the grapevine for the climate back then. And as the climate warmed, we’ve found that those tight VSP canopy structures were probably not the right thing to do. In the past ten years, I’ve seen VSP with cross arms on the top to get a larger canopy structure protecting fruit. Some people are even doing a true V, where the fruit zone is down at the bottom of the V. I’ve also seen other people do a situation where they have a straight VSP on the east side and a sprawl on the west side [to protect from greater late-day sun exposure and heat].
Those right there are simple adaptations and the kinds of measures people are doing. There are, of course, others. A great example is how we have historically planted on south-facing slopes because it gives you more solar radiation. But in a warmer world, planting on a north-facing slope may not be a bad idea.
Of course, one you often hear the most about in the media is that you have to change varieties. And yes, some people are doing it because the climate allows them to. Other people are doing it because they probably have to. I’ve heard more people planting Syrah, Gamay, even Tempranillo in the Willamette Valley because the climates are conducive to it now. We’ve arguably been about experimentation in the New World, trying to figure out what works where.
[Aerial view of vineyard plots at Abacela]
In Oregon's Umpqua Valley, which is warmer than the Pinot Noir–focused Willamette Valley, Abacela is able to grow Malbec, Spanish varieties such as Tempranillo and Graciano and varieties from southern France such as Grenache, Syrah and Tannat. (Andrea Johnson Photography)
WS: What is Abacela specifically doing?
GJ: I’ve taken over for my dad and am trying to be a little more conscious about our carbon footprint. We were one of the first wineries to do the Oregon Carbon Neutral Challenge. We have about 350 acres of other land in a conservancy, and we try to maintain that. We are looking harder at managing soil in terms of regenerative soils. We have a relationship with Wildlife Safari, where we provide hay grown in our open pasture land, and they provide “zoo doo” back to us. We take all our rachis [stems, leaves, etc.] and marc [stems, seeds, skins] from fermentations, and we blend that in with the “zoo doo” to make our compost. We’re trying very hard to make sure that we do those kinds of things to add back to the vineyard from the regional environment.
Also, I think all vineyards need to experiment to find out how things perform. We’ve gone from 27 different varieties down to 15 now. We feel pretty good about what we have, and we think that they’re very suitable to our climate today and likely will be for some time in the future.
WS: What are other climate-related concerns for vintners?
GJ: Precipitation. Dry summer environments are likely to become both warmer and drier, which is a challenge from a water standpoint. The West Coast will likely only become more dynamically driven to a broader, dry summer than we have today. Having the same amount of snow in the future is less likely too.
There are some places that I think have challenges with extremes. For example, look at Europe. For the past three or four years, late winter and early spring warmth have been producing bud breaks two to four or six weeks early. The problem with that is that cold events don’t go away. Frost still occurs, and some parts of Europe have been hit hard in the past few years.
Of course, varying levels of these kinds of things would probably also tie some of this into fires and smoke issues. In California, two years ago, a fairly large dry lightning event generated most of the fires in the West. … We will likely have a greater possibility for fires in the future just because there will be more fuels. And if more people are living in environments that are kind of fragile, to begin with, all it takes is one spark.
WS: Is there an optimistic takeaway for winemakers and wine lovers?
GJ: This industry is very dynamic. It has a lot of players that are very in tune. I think this is an opportunity for people to look at what they’re growing and how they’re growing and maybe do things that are different. In 20 to 30 years, we could have some absolute stellar wines coming from places we’ve never heard of before, or have different wines coming from places we have known for a long time but that create new notoriety.
There’s a lot of interest in the ability to adapt. I think the resiliency of the industry is very large, so I think the industry’s vulnerability will lessen over time. I’m very optimistic that there’s just a lot of individuals in this industry that will kind of float that for us—and, you know, I plan on being one of them.