Prof. Gregory V. Jones on Wine and Climate Change

Ξ March 12th, 2010 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Interviews, Wine News |

Professor Gregory V. Jones, from the of Southern Oregon University, is America’s foremost wine and climate change specialist. Owing to serendipitous turns of fate, a few details of which you may read below, he found his niche, the intellectual space where he was finally able to exercise his considerable gifts. His bio reads,
 
Gregory V. Jones is a professor and research climatologist in the Geography Department at Southern Oregon University who specializes in the study of how climate variability and change impact natural ecosystems and agriculture. He holds a BA and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in Environmental Sciences with a concentration in the Atmospheric Sciences. His research interests include climatology, hydrology, and agriculture; phenology of plant systems; biosphere and atmosphere interactions; climate change; and quantitative methods in spatial and temporal analysis. His dissertation was on the climatology of viticulture in Bordeaux, France with a focus on the spatial differences in grapevine phenology, grape composition and yield, and the resulting wine quality. He conducts applied research for the grape and wine industry in Oregon, has given hundreds of international, national, and region presentations on wine-related research, and is the author of numerous book chapters, reports, and articles on wine economics, grapevine phenology, site assessment methods for viticulture, climatological assessments of viticultural potential, and climate change.
 
His Curriculum Vitae adds flesh to the bio above. For a good summation of his current thinking please see his paper Climate change and the global wine industry.
 
I shall not dwell on a prolonged introduction. In what will be a three part series, the best introduction to Prof. Jones may be found in how he describes and amplifies his project here. I can promise you an enlightening and, at times, a controversial read. Enjoy.
 
Admin It is a great pleasure to meet you. You and I have a mutual friend in Portugal, Virgilio Loureiro. What were you presenting at his most recent conference?
 
Gregory Jones I was there at what they call the 1st Iberian Viticulture and Oenology Conference. It was a Spanish and Portuguese combination. Of course, the Spanish did not fully cooperate, which is typically the case. But it was a very, very, good meeting.
 
In what sense didn’t the Spanish cooperate?
 
GJ I think what happened was that they originally started communicating with the Spanish to put together a conference they could hold every year, and then the Portuguese chose a date, but it didn’t work for some of the Spanish contingent, you know how that goes; I’m sure it happens across countries in Europe. So they ended up holding the meeting anyway. It just didn’t get quite as much participation from the Spanish as they would have liked. But all in all, it was a very good meeting. I know a few people there that I’ve been doing either research or travel with over the years: Jorge Ricardo Silva and Carlos Lopes, and also Antonio Graca from the Douro region. I know a lot of them from different areas; so I went there on the invite to come and give a talk on the global perspective of climate and climate change in wine production. And the conference was good and very well attended. I really enjoyed it. It was a good group of people. It was nice to see Lisbon again.
 
Yes, it is a beautiful city. Who are the parties responsible for tracking climate change in Portugal? And are there groups specifically dedicated to researching its impact on Portuguese viticulture?
 
GJ Well, it’s a little bit scattered. There have been some results published from different pieces of research from people down in Lisbon and the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD), up north. There is a group from up there that have been doing some interesting things. A recent publication I saw was looking at the response of the vine and fruit composition to elevated CO2. There are some folks down in the Lisbon area aligned with the meteorological service there. They have been collecting a large amount of phenology data. They have been examining phenological changes over time. The other group is out of the Douro and is run by Antonio Graca. It is a group called ADVID. They have received some funding from the European Union [EU] to do a climate change assessment in Portugal. So, it’s a little bit scattered throughout the country, but there are some good things being done.
 
About the EU, I know that there are some very sticky relations between Portuguese growers and the EU ever since Portugal became a participating member. I know that it is being recommended that many indigenous Portuguese varieties in certain regions be grubbed up, for economic reasons largely I suppose….
 
GJ That is happening in a lot of different locations. There are some really unfortunate characteristics that are happening here. It is putting downward pressure on indigenous varieties not grown in too many locations. For example, in parts of Portugal or in Greece, or even in Italy, you have tremendous indigenous diversity; but yet they don’t have the same marketplace position as the mainstream varieties. So there is the downward pressure from the EU to clean that up, so to speak. I think there is some short-sightedness there.
 
I most certainly do, too. I am currently working on a documentary with Virgilio not only on the endangered historical wines of Portugal, but also to celebrate the distinctiveness of their many indigenous varieties, some grown nowhere else on earth. I was told by growers that at a recent tasting of Dão wines by Mark Squires, who has inexplicably been given the Portugal ‘beat’ by Robert Parker, Squires suggested they grub up their Touriga Nacional and plant Cabernet! The growers were suitably incensed, as you might imagine.
 
GJ I agree, too. My experience in Portugal, Greece, Italy, and other places in the world is that those indigenous varieties provide, you could say, the spice of life! Who wants to have the 5000th Cabernet Sauvignon produced? I just don’t get it.
 
It is increasing evident that in blind tastings of Cabernets from around the world it is becoming very difficult to distinguish terroir characteristics.
 
GJ Sure. There are also some other issues that I think are tied to this. Much of our ability to adapt to different environmental conditions is really likely tied into those indigenous varieties, in there genetics. If we don’t preserve that then we will have less adaptive ability as time goes on. It is extremely important. For example, Xynomavro from Greece, a red variety, how does it retain such good acidity in an extremely hot climate? That genetic trait likely could be very useful for many other varieties that are being grown in quite hot climates.
 
Indeed. I was in the Azores recently and on Pico Island I met a winegrower who insisted that he had discovered a wild yeast that could finish a wine up to 19% alc. This suggests, along with your example, that there are genetic reserves as yet unexplored.
 
GJ Sure. And realize that there is a lot of resistance to genetic modification. It is not well accepted. But traditional plant breeding is a form of genetic modification. We need to look at that. It might prove useful instead of stopping all genetic work.
 
In my experience in talking with growers and environmentally-minded citizens, their opposition to GMOs, banned in organic agriculture here in the states, is typically when a bit of the DNA of one life form is inserted into another, a bacterial bit inserted into a plant, for example, to supposedly provide better pest resistance. It is the cross-species exchange that is of greater interest.
 
GJ That’s a splicing issue. I can see their point of view. But we really need to look at traditional plant breeding to try and understand how we can utilize some of that genetic diversity. I think it will be important as time goes on and all kinds of environmental issues become more challenging.
 
Background
 
Could you tell a little of your background and how you came to explore climate change with respect to viticulture?
 
GJ It was basically my pursuit of a college education. I didn’t go to college. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even graduate high school when I should have. I went an alternative path. I ended up being a sous-chef at the age of 17. I spent a lot of time working as a sous-chef and running restaurants for quite a few years. I came out of that arena and went into retail for a while. I owned and operated some large golf stores, selling and repairing golf equipment. It took the economic downturn of 1987 to kind of open my eyes. I got tired of working for everybody else, so to speak. And then when the economy got a little tight in ‘87 I just didn’t want to do it anymore.
My dad kept saying it was time to go back to school. So I sold everything I had, took a GED, got a bachelors and a PhD, all in 7 1/2 years. That’s the path I took.
 
When I was doing my bachelor’s degree I really had every intent and purpose to be a hydrologist. I felt that studying water would prove important in the future. I was somewhere in my third or fourth year of my undergraduate work when I took a class in Meteorology and Climatology, and I just fell in love with it. I realized that the air is a fluid just like water is a fluid; but it was more dynamic. I began to study Climatology.
 
About the time that I was trained to pick what I wanted to do from a climate scientist’s standpoint, my father was looking to get out of medicine to grow grapes and make wine. He had studied it enough to know exactly what the scenarios were about why grapes grew where they did and what controlled quality. So here I am, a budding climate scientist and my father is interested in grapes, so we’d talk on the phone and he’d ask me all these questions. So I’d go back and try to find the answers. Most of the time the questions that he was asking were not fully answered. I kept finding that there were no climate scientists studying viticulture in any great way. Viticulturists typically knew the climate was important, but none of them were looking at it in ways that I thought were answering the questions. So having a business background, I thought, hmm, there’s a niche. So I said to myself somebody’s got to be a wine climatologist; that’s what I started doing.
 
I did my dissertation work in Bordeaux, looking at phenological production and quality metrics related to the climate in Bordeaux; I helped my dad through his process. That has led me to where I me today.
 
Climate and the Winegrower
 
Winegrowers can be a pretty conservative bunch. I’ve had interviews with many, and I have broached the issue of climate change, about changes they’ve detected in their vineyards. There is a certain percentage who, though aware of changes, will nevertheless make it known, largely in political terms it must be said, that they are opposed to the broad outlines of the reality of climate change. There is this curious discordance between what you might call the ‘anecdotal’ and the ‘programatic’. What do you suppose accounts for this?
 
GJ I think it largely has to do with our short term memory and immediate gratification. (laughs) I’m being a little facetious, but I really think there is something tied into that. We are such a ‘here and now’ kind of culture, society. It has been widely proven in what is known as Ethno-Climatology studies that we really can’t remember the past very well; we are clearly focussed on the present. You ask the average person what the weather was like a week ago, they can’t tell you. So ask them what the climate was like five years ago. They really can’t. Now, agriculturalists are a little bit better than that. But the average person is very poor. I really think it is a perception-based issue that is fundamentally tied to the immediacy of what we are doing.
 
I’ll give you a great example. I know you would have a sense for this. I travel all over speaking about all aspects of wine production issues, but when I talk about climate change I know, good and well, that if I show up to a place to give a talk and it’s just been the coldest winter, the coldest day, the coldest week, that people will look at me as though I were not very bright. I’m more or less an idiot; I don’t know what I’m talking about. But if I go somewhere and it has just been the hottest day, week, month, year, then I am brilliant! This holds virtually everywhere.
 
That scenario has been playing itself out nationally with respect to the snow storms in New York.
 
GJ I was just at the New York Wine Symposium two weeks ago. I was there during all this snow, and there I am talking about climate change! One of our perceptions is that it is snowy there. Well, yeah! It’s supposed to be snowy there; of course, it’s been a little bit more than normal, but if you look at the temperature data, the North East has actually been warmer than average this winter. What has been colder than average is that broad swath down through the Carolinas and Georgia and Florida. But do they recognize that? No. There’s been a lot of snow they’ve had to shovel, so they’re all saying ‘climate change is bullshit’.
 
It’s one of those things. Variability is in the climate system. I think when you start talking about temperature changes people always think that it’s always linear. This year has got to be this much warmer than last year and next year is going to be this much warmer than the year before… that’s not the way it works! It can never be expected to work like that. History has told us that it doesn’t work like that. Even during the Little Ice Age there were warm years.
 
Yes. Recently I had a conversation with Richard Smart, the viticulturist…
 
GJ Richard and I are good friends. We’ve worked together on quite a few things.
 
He’s a cool dude. He said of certain climate change denying wine writers, in his characteristic drawl, “They don’t know what the bloody hell they’re talking about”.
 
GJ Put it this way. I give every scientist their due because that is what science is about. We need to have debate to further science. For me the whole issue about trying to understand climate change is that I need to be a part of the climate science community that is debating and furthering our knowledge; not the skeptics and the ‘doom and gloomers’. Because they are not doing anybody any justice. The skeptics are doing nothing more than calling names at people, and hacking emails, and being paid by Big Oil and Big Coal. The doom and gloomers, on the other side, are so pro-environmental that they can’t listen to anybody. What good does that do us? It just makes us all look bad.
 
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End of Part 1
 
Part 2
 
Part 3
 
Admin

 

3 Responses to ' Prof. Gregory V. Jones on Wine and Climate Change '

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  1. velobabe said,

    on April 26th, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    wow ken payton just provided a link to this site. i just read your story of evolution and is so intriguing. look forward to returning to your stories and listening a lot. similar parallels and milestones, as mine. love your father’s awareness and you being a shepherd for them. our winery in colorado: http://www.woodycreekcellars.com/

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 26th, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    Thank you, velobabe. Prof. Greg Jones’ work is deserving of the widest possible circulation. I hope my interview helps.

  3. Robert Connors said,

    on June 6th, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Very interesting article. Keep up the good work. I think the comments about the ’skeptics’ who are in the employ of big oil and coal, and spreading dis-information, and the comments about variability year-to-year are exactly correct. After all, everyone knows that if it’s raining today, there can’t be a drought going on, right? lol

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