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In Finger Lakes vineyards, climate change has already arrived

In this March photo, Arthur Hunt, owner of Hunt Country Vineyards near Keuka Lake, inspects a Riesling vine. Hunt lays some vines on the ground in the winter and covers them with straw to protect them from extreme cold. (March 12, 2019) Glenn Coin |

Syracuse, N.Y. -- In a broad clearing of the the Fox Run Vineyard stands a gleaming metal wind machine. A single blade is mounted atop the 40-foot-tall, swiveling pole. Scott Osborn, owner of the vineyard on Seneca Lake, installed it three years ago to help save grapes from late frosts.

As the climate warms, Osborn explained, the buds on the vines have been opening earlier. And even though air temperatures are on average higher than they used to be, a single blast of frigid air from Canada after those buds open, or break, can do great damage.

“Seneca Lake tended to retard bud break until the 10th or 15th of May,” said Osborn, whose winery rests on the western slope of the lake. “In the last eight years we’ve noticed bud break is happening in late April or the first few days in May. And there’s still an opportunity for frost up until the 15th of May.”

Hence the wind machine, which kicks on when air at the top is 34 degrees. The blades blow that slightly-above-freezing air through 15 acres of vineyards to keep the buds from bursting.

“If you lose a bud, you lost a pound of grapes,” Osborn said. “That can be devastating.”

Wine grape varieties have been created over centuries to grow in specific zones of terrain, temperature and rainfall. Slow-growing and temperamental, grapes are a barometer of how changing climate conditions will affect farming in the future.

“Grapes are sensitive,” said Suzanne Hunt, the seventh generation to help run Hunt Country Vineyards on Keuka Lake. “Grapes need narrow temperature ranges for flavor development and ripening. Increases in local temperature could spell disaster for wine regions of the world."

Grapes are one of New York’s highest-profile crops. The New York Wine & Grape Foundation estimates that the industry accounts for nearly $6 billion in direct economic impacts, including tourism.

Osborn, Hunt and other Finger Lakes grape growers are adapting to a world of warmer temperatures and more extreme weather. They’re doing things they never used to do, like installing wind machines, laying vines on the ground in winter and covering them with insulating straw, and spraying pesticides more frequently to beat back microbes.

For grape growers, climate change isn’t something that’s coming in 2050. It’s here now.

“We’re already seeing changes in climate that are likely to have big impacts on the wine industry in the Northeast, including Upstate New York,” said Ben Cook, a climate scientist with Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In April, Cook conducted a webinar for growers on how to respond to climate change.

Cook and other experts say several changes are already hitting Finger Lake wineries:

  • Warmer winter and spring temperatures. The annual average temperature statewide has risen more than 2 degrees since 1970, and winter temperatures have risen at almost double that rate.

  • More frequent heavy rainfalls, which can wash away soil and cause mildew and rot.

  • More pests that thrive in warm, humid conditions.

  • A longer frost-free season. That could actually be a bonus; some growers say a longer growing season can produce better wines.

The Hunt Country Vineyards struggles with all of those issues, Suzanne Hunt said at a legislative hearing earlier this year on a state Senate climate change bill. Hunt said the family vineyards has faced unprecedented weather the past decade: flash floods in 2014 and 2015, a drought in 2016, and extremely cold temperatures in the winters.

“Now we face the most daunting threat in two centuries and seven generations, which is climate change,” said Hunt, who helps run the vineyard with her father, Art.

Out in the vineyards, the Hunts have developed new techniques to overcome a rash of bitterly cold winter temperatures. (Scientists say extremely cold temperatures are becoming more common in temperate areas like Upstate New York because the heating of the Arctic pushes cold air farther south.) On one section of his vineyard, Art Hunt has started laying some of the vines for Chardonnay and Riesling grapes on the ground in winter, then covering them with straw.

“It doesn’t have to keep them warm; it just needs to keep them 3 to 4 degrees warmer than the minimum temperature,” he said.

Hunt vineyards might be at the forefront of responding to human-caused climate change -- and at taking steps to prevent it. The winery has installed electric vehicle charging stations, geothermal heating units, and more than 300 solar panels that produce 70 percent of the vineyard’s electricity.

“You have to anticipate change, and not just react to it,” Hunt said.

Growers will have no choice but adjust to the changing climate, Cook said. Not all the changes will be bad, and not all of them will be devastating, but they will force growers to be vigilant and adaptable.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean a collapse of the wine industry, but it means there’s going to have to be some changes,” he said. “By the end of the 21st Century, Upstate New York might be warm enough so it might not be conducive to Riesling. By the end of the 21st Century, they will have to shift to somewhat warmer climate grape varieties.”

That won’t be easy, Suzanne Hunt said.

“It takes decades to develop new grape varieties,” she said. “You have to test them for disease resistance, you have to wait five years to have grapes to make wine.” Then, she said, it could take years to see how well the wine produced from those new varieties sells in a competitive marketplace.

Scientists project that by 2060, New York’s climate could be similar to the hotter, more humid climate of today’s Virginia. It’s time now for growers to figure out how they’ll cope, said Timothy Martinson, a senior extension associate with Cornell University.

“If you think your climate is going to be more like Virginia and South Carolina in 30 to 40 years, that might make some of the varieties we grown now more untenable,” Martinson said. “One of the impacts would be higher humidity, so you might have to modify your practices to thin out your canopy so things dry out faster. It might mean leaf removal might have to become more aggressive.”

Climate change could add stress to grapes – and growers – already struggling with a changing environment. Invasive species such as the spotted lanternfly, which has decimated some Pennsylvania vineyards and is making New York growers nervous, can damage crops at the same time those crops are being blasted by extreme weather.

Not all of the climate changes have been, or will be, harmful. John Ingle, owner of Heron Hill Winery, which has 36 acres of vineyards on Canandaigua and Keuka lakes, said he has seen the growing season start about a month earlier and last a couple of weeks longer in the fall.

“When you get that extended growing season, that gives you a lot more ripe and mature grapes, so they make better wine," Ingle said. “With more heat, it gives (grapes) more sugar, and more sugar makes more alcohol, which makes more lusher-tasting wines.”

The big dilemma for grape growers is not just how to handle today’s conditions, but how to hedge their bets on an uncertain future climate. It’s expensive and time-consuming to install equipment like wind machines or to switch to new grape varieties, and nobody knows for sure what the climate will be like decades from now.

“If I was talking to a grower today and he said, ‘What do I need to do for the next 30 years?,’ I’m not going to tell him to plant Zinfandel because we’re going to be like California,” Martinson said. “Who knows where we’re going to end up with this? Whatever it is, it’s going to be in very slow motion.”

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