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How El Niño Is Impacting California’s Wine Industry

Will the rains of El Niño turn water into wine?

In 1998, heavy rains hit California mid-winter in what was described as one of the strongest El Niños to date. It caused flooding, abnormally high waters, and multiple storms that led to substantial damage. That year, the wine was different, too.

Winemakers at the time prepared for what they knew was going to be a rough year. Vineyards, indeed, do need rain. But extreme, uncontrolled, and prolonged showers are hard on any crop — especially so for wine grapes. Sure enough, after the 1998 vintage was bottled and sampled, critics furrowed their brows: The wine was different, less bright, and simply not as good as years past. The likely scapegoat was the strong El Niño, but was this climate phenomenon really to blame for a lackluster vintage?

In 2016, the West Coast faces a similar reality. Yet again, 'tis the season of El Niño, aptly named with a Spanish flair for its arrival's proximity to the birth of the central figure of Christianity. The impending severe weather may be welcomed with more open arms than in the past, due to the drought in California. But the change in weather patterns will yet again affect how crops develop and transform into consumable goods.

The effects of an onslaught of winter rain are hard to predict for this year's wine crops. Harsh weather conditions could forever besmirch 2016 vintages, or rains could revive parched soils. We asked the leading wine and climate experts what havoc this winter could wreak.

El Niño may sound like an alarming prospect, but for winemakers, it’s just one of dozens of climate factors that influence their vintages.

Meet El Niño

El Niño events — which bring about heavy rains and cooler days — tend to occur every three to eight years, but not every event is created equal. This particular El Niño, however, is receiving an unprecedented amount of media attention because of the severe drought that has plagued California. "There has never been a drought in the history of the world that has ever received as much attention as this drought," says Dr. A. Park Williams, a bio-climatologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. Williams's work combines climatology and ecology with a particular focus on the consequences of drought. "The world is watching California," he says.

This is because what El Niño brings to the West Coast and Southern U.S. is rain, and a whole lot of it. El Niño may sound like an alarming prospect, but for winemakers, it's just one of dozens of climate factors that influence their vintages. According to Christopher Howell, winemaker at Cain Vineyard in St. Helena, California, fine wine's sensitivity to the climate is intrinsic in the product's definition. Each year, inclement weather presents new challenges for vintners. If handled correctly, these factors are the alchemy that yield a great wine. But as weather events get more and more extreme, growers are faced with new challenges on the journey from vine to glass.

Does El Niño damage the grapes?

In the spring of 1998, Southern California saw cooler weather and a lot of rain. This was less than ideal for the vines, which bud in spring when temperatures rise above 50 degrees. In fact, the weather was so atypical that growers almost thought the vines wouldn't flower. According to Mia Klein, founder and winemaker at Selene Wines in Napa, California, the late flowering and harvest made for a unique vintage "not as bright" as the previous year. 1997, in contrast, was widely heralded as a great vintage for the Napa region. In 2003, the New York Times described the '97 batch of Napa wines as "rich, beautifully balanced wines."

When bottles from '98 were first uncorked, says Marika Vida, sommelier and wine director at the Ritz-Carlton in Manhattan, "it got panned." Take, for example, the reviews of Joseph Phelps's 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine Enthusiast, in its review of the vintage, described it as having an "almost sulfurous quality" with "off-putting aromas" to boot. (The year prior, the same vineyard's output was heralded as one of the best in years.) Fine-dining establishments, said Howell, even refused to order '98 wines, and it begged the question whether global climate events like El Niño would cause systematic negative effects for the industry.

The seasons, they are a-changing

In addition to rain, unpredictable temperature is one of El Niño's major effects. While vintners point to precipitation as their main concern, scientists think growers should be more fearful of less-than-hot summers. These cooler temperatures — which come from increased cloud cover — could delay the onset of the growing season. Williams notes that most of these wine regions are just on the other side of the coastal mountains, which provide a little buffer from the marine influence. Thus, the colder elements at sea will likely domino onto land. "During years like this, summer clouds are going to be more frequent than average," Williams says. "And that would mean daytime maximum temperatures would be lower." Prior to the summer clouds, vintners may have to worry about a late frost delaying the onset of the growing season, as well.

In essence, it's anyone's guess what could happen. "El Niños are weird," explains Williams. "They tend to bring warm, very wet, tropical storms up to California, but they also tend to allow for big troughs to develop where you get exposure to arctic air." Since California feels the impacts of El Niño mainly from January to March, that cool air could push back the start of the growing season if a late frost kills off early growth.

"You don’t necessarily want more rain. You just want timely rain."

Predictions for the 2015 California vintage

Does the 1998 allegory bode well for 2015? One thing is for sure: The vines are going to get a lot of rain, and there's no telling exactly when they'll come or what they'll do. This year, the California wine community is eager for a rainy season, if only to replenish the now-dry land. "It's going to be nice," Klein says, explaining that a good early rain will help the vines recover from years of stress.

There are many ways to model the "strength" of a brewing El Niño, including sea surface temperatures, air circulation, and wind strength, so different predictions might show slightly different results. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in conjunction with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, provides the gold standard for El Niño prediction. According to their measurements as of December 17, in terms of sea surface temperature, the storm that's brewing in the Pacific is tied with the last huge event from 1997-1998. But it may become the strongest El Niño in at least the past 50 years as they collect more observations.

Even with needed rains, wine production could falter. An extreme rainy period isn't going to be an panacea for the dry land when it comes to wine. "You don't necessarily want more rain," says Vida, the sommelier. "You just want timely rain." If rain comes too late, it will mess with plant development — which is exactly what happened in 1998. The ultimate vineyard hope is to get a year of just enough rain with no inkling of a drought. Every year's elements are different, which is what makes each vintage interesting and exciting. But with the current drought, the cards are stacked against California.

Can you taste the quirkiness of El Niño?

The ultimate question is whether these environmental factors will funnel into a certain note or flavor profile. At first sniff, will there be a vintage bouquet that screams 'El Niño?' Or, decades from now, will we look back on 2016 as the year we chucked even Two Buck Chuck? It turns out that the answer isn't so simple. In fact, after a few glasses of an El Niño vintage, a climate scientist and an oenophile might get in a tussle over the provenance of the flavors in their glasses.

"I don't see the consumer going to the grocery store and saying, 'These wines from 2016 aren't up to par,'" says Dr. Kevin Pogue, a professor of geology at Whitman College in Washington state, and an expert in how climate influences terroir — that is, a wine's unique flavor profile imparted by the local environment.

"I don’t see the consumer going to the grocery store and saying, ‘These wines from 2016 aren’t up to par.’"

In fact, the question of whether El Niño seeps into the terroir may uncover a dirty secret of sorts: consumers of American wines are looking for something different in the bottles they uncork. "Most North American wines are not terroir wines," Pogue explains. "They're trying to give you consistent wines that you like. It's the difference between Bud and an über-craft beer."

During dry spells, like the drought that has plagued California, growers rely on irrigation to keep grapes happy. If the coming El Niño brings heavy rains, growers will likely capitalize on it by retaining water in retention ponds. It is these practices that set West Coast wines apart from European varieties prized for their enigmatic and ephemeral terroir. "Wines from France, Spain, and Italy have so much more variation than our wines do. The product you get from California or Washington is much more stable," says Pogue. "If it's dry, we water more. We know how to deal with it." Pogue argues that if a vineyard is irrigated, it simply isn't poised to be a terroir wine. "To really taste terroir, the grape needs to be growing some place where it could live without people," Pogue says. "If you manipulate too much by watering, your manipulation cancels out the natural terroir... [It's] the easiest thing in the world to destroy."

Pogue firmly argues that California wines do have a certain kind of terroir, but it's just different than the coveted variations cultivated in French vineyards. "I believe there is terroir on the West Coast, but it's not as pure," he says. "I tell people that vintage variation is terroir variation over time." In California, terroir is more spatial and less temporal on short timescales, and because of practices like irrigation, El Niño will be less discernible as a flavor nuance in different vintages.

Vida wouldn't go so far. According to Vida, irrigation is a necessity in places like California because the grapes wouldn't survive without it. The differences are in style, one that both European and American vintners have come to accept. "It's old world, new world," she says. If irrigation didn't exist, there simply wouldn't be wine in these new-world locales. And the flavor of the land still comes through, even if modern techniques are aiding the process.

Other oenological experts agree, however, that El Niño will likely not become a discernible flavor. Dr. Gregory Jones, a professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Southern Oregon University who has made his career in studying how climate influences viticulture says, "Can you taste El Niño in the wine? I would say no." Rains will likely come in winter when there are no fruits on the vines, and this onslaught will be accompanied by a suite of other climatological factors that might persist for many seasons. Dr. Jones reasons that El Niño "could affect broad characteristics: how much water is in the soil, how well the vines grow in spring." These factors could persist across vintages and muddy any potential El Niño notes.

To add to this, there's another layer to the sordid tale of the last El Niño vintage. Somewhat ironically, time softened opinions of 1998. In fact, many sommeliers and experts have reversed their opinions of the '97 and '98 vintages. What was thought of as a bad year for wine due to inclement weather turned into unique blend of grapes that just needed some rest. Vida describes '98 as a bit austere, but compared the the 1997 crop it had "more longevity." Now, 17 years later, 1998 has "stood the test of time."

What separates the good from the great isn’t that one vineyard got better weather, but the expertise behind each vintage.

In the end, it will probably prove futile to sequester bottles from the next few California vintages with the hopes of someday reliving the days when a rainy monster reared up from the equatorial Pacific. On the bright side, however, even if the impending El Niño turns out to be as strong as predicted, the grapes will persist. What separates the good from the great isn't that one vineyard got better weather, but the expertise behind each vintage. As Vida says, when faced with prospects like a behemoth El Niño, "you have to know how to vinify better."

In the wine industry, mutability is key. Growers and winemakers have always been at the mercy of the climate, working with the weather's ebb and flow to coax the land and their vines. In the fields, growers are heeding the advice of climate scientists like Jones and Pogue. "If El Niño does produce reasonable rainfall, you need to be able to capture it," Jones says, adding that growers have go-to climate scientists they trust. They often listen, he explains, heeding his advice this year to expand retention ponds or dig flow paths to reduce erosion in advance of the coming rains.

When it comes to getting wine into barrels, if it's a later harvest, that will mean some early-ripening grapes (like Merlot) may not fare as well as the later ones (like Cabernet). The vintner, being the master mixer he or she is, will have to take this harvest into account when creating the optimal blend. Vida used the example of Merlot. If the winemaker knows it's going to be a rough vintage later in the harvest, that year will showcase a lot of Merlot. The secret isn't to master techniques that will alter the process, it's about having a "sense of timing," says Vida, and reacting appropriately during the latter parts. Howell explains the cold El Niño season in the early months could lead to a later harvest.

But extreme El Niño events are just one example of what vineyards could have to deal with in future climates, and these dynamics have been part of the artistry of wine for millennia. For example, despite the colder El Niño winter, warmer spring weather could lead to over-ripening and increased sugar content. In short, Klein and Howell are trained to react to a sliding scale of seasonal effects — El Niño is one of them. "A lot of things happen in the spring; a lot of things happen in the summer; a lot of things happen in the fall," Klein says.

That being said, what's more threatening than the potentially largest El Niño in recorded history is the prospect of braving the holidays without a glass (or several) of wine. But for the near future at least, with forecasting climate scientists and talented vintners, this is one thing we won't have to worry about.

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