Legislative retreat focuses on impacts of climate change on viticulture

The Virginia League of Conservation Voters Education Fund hosted 'Corks and Climate: Impact of a warming world on Virginia Viticulture' Saturday, Sept. 19 at DuCard Vineyards in Madison County.

The Virginia League of Conservation Voters Education Fund hosted ‘Corks and Climate: Impact of a warming world on Virginia Viticulture’ Saturday, Sept. 19 at DuCard Vineyards in Madison County.

Etlan, Va. – Harvest time is right around the corner in Madison County, with clusters of neatly manicured red wine grapes nearly ready to begin their transformation into DuCard Vineyards’ next batch of boutique wine.

For owner Scott Elliff, it’s been a long road, full of trial and error, to what promises to be a good harvest this year. But what the future holds is anyone’s guess due to the threat of manmade climate change.

“Right now, I think we’re hot – on fire – as an industry here and we like it sort of right where it is. If we had a lot more global warming here it would be a challenge for us,” Elliff told a crowd gathered at the vineyard Saturday, Sept. 19 as the Virginia League of Conservation Voters Education Fund hosted “Corks and Climate: Impact of a warming world on Virginia viticulture.”

State Sen. Donald McEachin (left) and Scott Elliff, owner of DuCard Vineyards, taste grapes right from the vine.

State Sen. Donald McEachin (left) and Scott Elliff, owner of DuCard Vineyards, taste grapes right from the vine.

The event, attended by Virginia Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources Angela Navarro and State Senators Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) and Emmett Hanger (R-Mount Solon), offered insights into what has worked at DuCard Vineyards as well as some of the challenges Virginia wineries currently face – and could face in the future – because of a changing climate.

While it’s true that some varieties of wine grapes thrive in hot and dry conditions, the long-term effects of global warming pose serious risks to an industry valued at $750 million in Virginia.

For example, warmer weather patterns are pushing certain destructive and invasive insects into Virginia where they burrow into grapes, killing clusters from the inside.

A warmer climate, and the harsher weather patterns that accompany it, also create problems for Virginia winemakers. Hurricanes or extreme storms can cause structural damage to established vineyards while excess rain diminishes wine grapes’ flavor and complexity and can also cause them to actually burst from oversaturation.

According to Tremain Hatch, a viticulture expert with Virginia Tech, climate change will likely result in warmer temperatures during the growing season, which will also last longer than it does today. He also anticipates more difficulties with cold weather and damaging frost, which can kill established vines.

To cope with these expected changes, grape growers are looking for sites at higher elevations and also trying to better match specific grape varieties with areas where they will best grow.

Viticulture expert Tremain Hatch examines grapes at DuCard Vineyards.

Viticulture expert Tremain Hatch examines grapes at DuCard Vineyards.

“Here in Virginia the major things that we’re doing is this emphasis on site and variety matching and choosing varieties that are going to have potential for us over the next 20 years,” Hatch said. “So we’re choosing varieties that can deal with acidity a little better, we’re retaining varieties that can deal with cold injury a little bit better, and for site selection, we’re looking higher in the hills.”

Francis Hodsoll, president and founder of E&E Frontiers, an energy management consulting business, and a member of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission, spoke to the underlying causes of manmade climate change and what Virginia can do to change course.

In the U.S., pollution from power plants are to blame for the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions that enter the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. The challenge in Virginia is changing the status quo in how we get our electricity.

“I personally believe the desire societally to restrain the amount of pollution we produce per unit of energy we consume is a long-term trend that is there,” Hodsoll said. “If you take that as a given, the question for Virginia is: How do we participate in that long-term trend?”

State Senators. Emmett Hanger (left) and Donald McEachin learn about the impacts of climate change on Virginia viticulture.

State Senators. Emmett Hanger (left) and Donald McEachin learn about the impacts of climate change on Virginia viticulture.

While cleaner, cheaper natural gas has been replacing coal for energy generation in much of the state, Hodsoll warned of over-investing in one fossil fuel to meet our power needs, calling instead for a more competitive energy market where emerging renewable energy technologies stand a better chance.

“To bet it all on natural gas is pretty much, in my opinion, like playing the penny stock market. So, you need a more diverse portfolio and renewable energy, energy efficiency creates a diverse portfolio,” Hodsoll said.

Carbon-cutting measures are already being utilized at DuCard Vineyards, one of the top-two most environmentally sustainable wineries in Virginia. The winery uses bottles that are 30 percent lighter than the industry standard, meaning they require less fuel to import than the typical bottle. DuCard was also the first Virginia winery to install solar panels, which prior to a recent expansion, created more than enough energy to meet the facility’s power needs. For Elliff, embracing renewable energy was part of his plan to “do it the right way” at DuCard.

“The irony is we’re using the sun to ripen our grapes out there,” he said. “Isn’t it nice we can use the sun to power our building at the same time?”

 

 

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