Jewish winegrowers move forward on a warming planet – J.

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Jeff Morgan thought of the cabernet sauvignon grapes he had bought this fall in Pope Valley, near Napa.

“I have sourced grapes from this particular vineyard for almost 20 years, I would say,” said Morgan, co-founder of Covenant Wines. “And I’ve never had a problem with the water before. We always had enough water to get through the growing season.

Not this year, however. Usually the grapes can be harvested until the end of October, but in mid-September the owner of the vineyard told Morgan the grapes must be picked. Now.

“They were probably going to run out of water because all the reservoirs were drying up, and that is their main source,” he said. “It was a shock to my system.”

It has been shock after shock in recent years in the wine industry. California and the west were ravaged by fires, as rising temperatures and the disappearance of the snowpack dramatically reduced the water available. The reason? Climate change.

“We see it,” said Oded Shakked of Healdsburg-based Longboard Vineyards, whose path eventually led him from Herzliya to the wine studies program at UC Davis. “The harvests are done earlier. It’s definitely heating up.

Oded Shakked of Longboard Vineyards in Healdsburg says it has become more difficult to obtain fire and risk insurance.

This means things are getting harder for those in the industry, including the small group of dedicated Jewish winemakers who have made northern California their home.

“Certainly in California we’re all very aware that we’ve been in a drought situation for several years – a severe drought situation,” said Morgan, whose kosher winery operates in a space in Berkeley. “And then of course, anyone who lives on the West Coast couldn’t avoid the specter of wildfires.”

But optimism, resilience, and a willingness to cope with the ups and downs of farming keep the Jewish winemakers of northern California in the game, even as it becomes increasingly difficult to play.

“It takes a lot to hunt [us] out of town, ”said Len Lehmann, the entrepreneur and philanthropist turned winemaker who owns Portola Vineyards in South Bay. “But everyone sees that it is more and more difficult to do business.

According to the California Department of Water Resources, the state gets 75% of its water from rain and snow from watersheds north of Sacramento. It runs through a system of reservoirs, dams, and aqueducts to irrigate fields and orchards that made California an agricultural powerhouse and put Napa, in particular, on the map as a major player in the industry. international wine industry.

In recent years, however, the abundance of water has dried up. California experienced uninterrupted drought from 2011 to 2019, and large swathes of the northern part of the state are currently in the highest level of drought, despite recent rains. Called D4, it is an “exceptional” drought category, but the exceptional becomes normal; the state looks at water levels from October to October, and the last “water year” was the the driest in a century. October 19, Governor Gavin Newsom expanded the existing drought emergency to include the entire state, and made further advocacy for conservation.

Wineries have workarounds for the lack of water, like shaping plants to provide shade or replacing sprinklers with drip irrigation – which was invented in israel in the 1960s and was widely adopted in California. Israel, where we even tried to growing wine grapes in the arid Negev desert, has always been at the forefront of making the best use of every drop of water, Morgan said, such as reuse of wastewater for irrigation.

“Their efficient use of gray water is something we should aspire to in California,” he said.

Berkeley-based Jeff Morgan of Covenant Wines was told of an early harvest in September.
Berkeley-based Jeff Morgan of Covenant Wines was told of an early harvest in September.

There is also dry farming, practiced by Lehmann. He generally does not need water for his vines, instead relying on rain and what the vines can draw from the soil.

“Usually we don’t irrigate at all and let the vines find their own water,” he said.

But this year he had to turn to drip irrigation five times. “They couldn’t find water,” he said.

It is not so much that all periods of drought are fatal for farmers. A year or two of low water is something growers know how to handle.

“I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, and we’ve had droughts before – two years, say, at a time,” Ernie Weir said. “And we handled it.”

a bald man in a blue t-shirt standing in a field of green stems stretching above his head
Hagafen’s Ernie Weir saw it all and persevered.

Weir’s Hagafen Winery in Napa Valley has been producing kosher wine for decades; it was even served in the White House. But not knowing how long a drought will last creates a base of uncertainty that is stressful for all winegrowers.

“It’s one of the scary things about climate change,” Lehmann said.

It used to be different, Morgan thought. That is to say before 2015.

“We used to worry about the rain falling on the grapes towards the end of the harvest and not being able to remove the grapes from the vines before the rain,” he said. “Now we don’t worry about the rain, we worry about the fire. “

Since 2000, the amount of land that has caught fire in northern California each year has exploded. Of course, fire has always been a danger in California’s dry climate. According to the Los Angeles Times, from 1950 to 1999, just over 1 million hectares of vineyards burned in 50 years. That total may sound like a lot – and it is – which makes it even more shocking to learn that the same number of acres, over a million, burned in the last 20 years, from 2000 to 2019.

In October 2019, the Kincade Forest Fire raged through Sonoma County, destroying around 100 buildings, forcing 185,000 people to evacuate and leading to power outages for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.

The 2018 camp fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise, was fueled not by space lasers but by drought, the build-up of dry vegetation and extreme winds, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.

In 2017, a week after Yom Kippur, the Tubbs Fire began its assault on Santa Rosa, ultimately killing 22 people and destroying 5,600 structures, including those at URJ Camp Newman.

The extreme effects of drought on Lake Oroville, July 26, 2021 (Photo / Kelly M. Grow-California Department of Water Resources)
The extreme effects of drought on Lake Oroville, July 26, 2021 (Photo / Kelly M. Grow-California Department of Water Resources)

He also touched Hagafen.

“We were greatly affected by the fires of 2017,” Weir said. “The cellar almost burned down. Another of our structures burned down, a lot of our equipment burned down, and our vineyards burned down.

Hagafen is replanting lost vines, but it will be some time before the vines begin to bear fruit ready for wine.

“It’s going to take us about seven or eight years to fully recover from the effects of the 2017 fires,” he said.

And even when vines or cellars are spared, smoke can ruin a harvest by soaking up the skins of the grapes. That’s what happened in 2019, Weir said.

“The smoke was so persistent that it destroyed almost all of the red wine production in Napa in 2020,” he said. “And I’m not exaggerating.”

The Berkeley-based company Covenant doesn’t grow its own grapes, but Morgan sources it in northern California. It was a roll of the dice, he said, to find out where the smoke was blowing and which grapes were contaminated. Some vineyards were close to outbreaks, but the wind blew the smoke elsewhere.

“Other grapes that I have from other vineyards were a long way from some of the fires, but the smoke just sat on those vineyards and really affected them,” he said.

Knowing that smoke can be a factor every year, winegrowers have to do the math, Lehmann said.

Len Lehmann of Portola Vineyards in the South Bay.
Len Lehmann of Portola Vineyards in the South Bay.

“We are producing more rosé now because it reduces our risk,” he said. “Rosés, and especially white wines, are less risky. (Typically, red wines are fermented with their skins on, while whites are pressed first and can potentially still be made with grapes that have been affected by smoke.)

There are also other risk factors. After PG&E cut power to the Lehmann vineyard due to an overloaded grid and had to send 70 workers home, he bought a generator. Fire and risk insurance is also increasingly difficult to obtain and more expensive.

“Insurance is becoming a real problem,” Shakked said.

But all the winemakers have used the same word to describe the people in their industry: resilient. Morgan said they have to do it or else they wouldn’t have gotten into farming, where uncertainty and risk are part of the game.

“We are resilient and we find solutions because we can’t afford not to find solutions,” Morgan said.

And there are benefits to drought. Sometimes the crops are smaller, but end up being stellar.

“Grapes can be great in those years,” Weir said. “I think that’s what we’re going to see in 2021.”

And Morgan is optimistic that growers and winegrowers can cope with whatever nature has in store for them, even as the effects of climate change become increasingly glaring.

“I used to panic 20 years ago, when the temperatures were approaching 100 degrees, and I thought, oh my God my grapes are going to die, my vines are going to die and everything is going to be a disaster”, a- he declared. noted. “We actually learned to manage. “


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