At high noon the other day, Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail, the storied wine road in the most storied wine region in the country, looked deserted and sad.
The valley’s picture postcard landscape—endless rows of grape vines on gently sloping hills, wineries as grand as castles—was cloaked under dusky sepia skies. Winds carrying smoke from the wildfires raging up and down the West Coast sent ash falling like snow flurries. An air quality index app confirmed what it felt like to breathe: Very Unhealthy!
Kari Flores, farm manager for the Robert Sinskey Vineyards, could not muster cheer, wine country’s default mode, for this shambles of a year. “Worst season ever,” she said, en route to feed a flock of sheep employed to graze the vineyard floors. “Completely unsustainable.”
Robert Sinskey Vineyards, with approximately 200 acres of organically grown grapes on eight plots in Napa and adjoining Sonoma Valley, has lost its 2020 season, a first in its more than 30 years. Pandemic lockdowns killed much of its business—it literally cut its losses when restaurants closed by removing buds from vines in the spring. Then, the early wildfires in mid-August finished it off. The fires spared the vineyards but ruined its small harvest. “We had just started picking,” Flores said. “When the lightning strikes came.”
Some wineries kept pickers frantically harvesting their grapes, even in evacuation zones. Of those, some have sent samples to labs that test for smoke taint. Others are processing untested grapes, hoping the wine they produce will be worth the effort. It is too soon to know. Napa and Sonoma Valley wine organizations are still tallying the latest damages to the industry, a significant piece of California’s agricultural economy. (California is the fourth largest wine growing region in the world, after Italy, Spain and France.) With fire season here until late fall, when the rains come, if the rains come, no one is counting on the worst being over.
Wine regions all over the world are dealing with disasters linked to climate change, but the Napa and Sonoma Valleys have faced an unrelenting barrage. Over the last several years, they’ve grappled with drought, floods, cold snaps and record heat waves in addition to increasingly destructive annual wildfires. Vineyards have burned completely or partially. Workers have lost homes. The region’s microclimates, which growers depend upon to produce different wine grape varieties, have become unpredictable and unreliable.The seemingly endless succession of “challenges,” to use the wine country word, has convulsed a once-charmed industry and is forcing growers to reexamine how to operate to adapt and survive.
A Sprawling Industry Reckoning with Climate Change
Renata Brillinger, executive director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), which advocates for climate resilient organic farming practices, says the wildfires are forcing a reckoning.
“It’s clear that climate change is a global problem,” she said, “But its impacts on agriculture and the climate solutions farmers can provide are local—as are the strategies that will improve resilience. What worked for the past many decades may no longer be appropriate and we need to fundamentally rethink everything.”
The wine-making business is a notoriously individualistic industry that has exploded in popularity and cost in the last 20 years as tech titans, CEOs and Hollywood moguls discovered the lucrative pleasures of owning a vineyard of their own. Since 2015, California Alcohol Beverage Control has registered an average of 170 new wineries each year. That’s up from seven wineries per year in the 1990s and three new wineries registered each year in the 1980s. There are over 1,700 registered vineyards in the Napa Valley, about 500 with tasting rooms, and 425 wineries in Sonoma County. It costs over $500,000 to go through the process to register a vineyard with no guarantee of success.
Investor-vintners can obviously afford to also invest in earth-friendly practices. Unlike the bootstrap mom and pop wineries, however, many newer vineyard owners have nothing to do with farming. They hire people to make decisions. Some world-famous, very expensive wines are still grown with herbicides considered likely carcinogens. “We have to create buffers between us so we don’t get pesticide drift,” Flores said, referring to the spread of pesticides from where they are sprayed due to wind.
Still, Napa has experienced a trend toward more environmentally friendly grape growing. Napa Green is a sustainability certification program started under the 550-member Napa Valley Vintners to help vineyards comply with environmental regulations imposed after the Napa River was deemed “in distress” several years ago. It has evolved into an independent non-profit that is launching what it calls a next-level, stand-alone climate action and environmental stewardship certification by year’s end. (Third-party sustainable certifications affirm that growers are meeting rigorous standards for environmental awareness and practicing a healthy, long-term approach to the land, planet, employees and community.)
In 2014, Sonoma County Winegrowers, a group formed by wine grape farmers to encourage and assist in better land stewardship, set a goal to have all vineyard properties certified sustainable by the end of 2019. (Napa Green’s goal is to reach wide sustainability by the end of this year.)
“In September of 2019, we announced that 99 percent of local vineyards have been certified sustainable,” said Karissa Kruse, the Sonoma organization’s president. In January, she added, the organization started a pilot project with the California Land Stewardship Institute where 20 local vineyards have designed programs to minimize their production of climate changing greenhouse gases.
“The greenhouse gas reductions will be monitored, documented and shared,” Kruse said.”This will help us better understand the role of vineyards in mitigating climate change and identify specific agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon.”
Making Wine for a Small Planet
When Robert Sinskey, a renowned Los Angeles eye surgeon, decided to start wine making for fun and profit in the 1980s, global warming was on the horizon but outside the consciousness of most people, including those in wine country. His son Rob came to Napa in 1986 to help out for six months as the wine business was growing too fast. Most everyone farmed conventionally and used pesticides, including Sinskey.
Rob, a graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York City who’d considered careers in photojournalism and advertising, had no plans to join the world of viticulture. But after a week, he said, he became obsessed with an improbable dream: to grow a world class wine that would first do no harm to the planet.
He and his friend Jeff Virnig, a winemaker, made a detailed plan to grow a business that “could do well and do good.” “We thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could go organic,” Sinskey said. The first challenge was how to make great organic wine, an oxymoron at the time.
“A visit turned into 30 years,” he said from a picnic table outside the Napa farmhouse he shares with his wife, Maria, a professional chef and the Sinskey Vineyards’ culinary director.
Early on, Sinskey witnessed what pesticides and herbicides were doing to the soil. “They were sterilizing it,” he said. “Creating a monoculture where nothing else would grow.” The idea of harming the environment to create what is essentially a luxury product repulsed him.
Rob Sinskey’s then-radical move was guided, he said, by the early warnings from climate scientists. He was alarmed that burning fossil fuels like oil and gas was leading to global warming, now climate change, that would irrevocably harm the planet.
He was also inspired by the “whole farm” or “biodynamic” practices founded in the early 20th century by Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher. Steiner popularized the first of the organic agriculture movements, treating soil fertility, plant growth and livestock care as ecologically interrelated tasks. Sinskey hadn’t read much on farming and the environment “except for reading ‘Diet For A Small Planet’ in college.”’
Sinskey Vineyards has been lauded in recent years as a “farmer leader” (as CalCAN calls those committed to “climate smart” practices). It uses solar energy for 75 percent of its operations, recycles its water, powers its tractors and trucks on used cooking oil. It cultivates a rich soil system using cover crops, composts, biodynamic preparations and low-impact farm implements (includings its sheep). It sells olive oil made from its olive trees and wool flokatis and yarn from its sheep. It keeps bees.
Each property has nesting boxes for owls, bluebirds and bats, along with raptor perches that host a variety of hawks. Its fruit orchards grow apples, figs, kumquats, oranges, pears, persimmons, plums and peaches. (They are also trying to grow black truffles, a 10-year experiment that has yet to yield results.) Two feral cats roam a large barn.
At the Sinskey residence, a small vineyard experiment to grow more climate-resilient zinfandel grapes dominates the side yard.
Sinskey Vineyards lost a hillside crop of cabernet sauvignon grapes in the deadly 2017 Tubbs fire that destroyed entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County seat.
The fire, the worst in state history until the Camp Fire obliterated the town of Paradise and killed 85 people in 2018, kicked off four consecutive years of devastating fires, triggering blackouts and evacuations. This year, Sinskey said, echoing his farm manager, was definitely the worst.
“I feel that we’re paying the price for everybody else getting cheap energy in the last few decades,” he said, “and this is how it plays out. It might be cheap up front but downstream, it’s causing us billions of dollars in damage and ruining lives.”
He knows billionaires who can afford to lose a season, or an entire vineyard and friends who’ve put their life savings in their vineyards who have lost everything to fires. At his vineyards, he was forced to lay off most of his staff. “The bank and the government are my partners now,” he said.
If extreme weather events continue to threaten the vineyards, he said, “then I think we have much bigger things to worry about than losing wine grapes. I said all along that if we don’t compensate for the damage we do, nature’s going to check us—and it’s checking us.”