Greg Jones is a climatologist, and Professor of Geography at the Department of Environmental Studies at Southern Oregon University who conducts applied research for the wine industry. He was named One of the Top 50 Most Influential People in the Wine World by Decanter magazine for his global ability to present climate change to wineries. Now he consults with wineries around the world on the relationship between climate change and grapes, and lectures internationally.

There has been much hype within the wine industry about climate change and the effect that will have on wine regions around the globe. Is there any legitimate concern over this issue and will it have dramatic effect or minimal effect? 

First, there really has only been hype over this topic because that is what the media does … create or enhance controversy. The science behind the role that climate plays in viticulture and wine production is well known, as are the observed trends in the climate structure in wine regions worldwide. Of course modeling climates into the future has some uncertainties associated with it, but our models results from 10-20 years ago are close enough to what we are seeing today to show that our modeling efforts into the future are worth paying attention to. Yes, there is a legitimate concern. However, climate change is a slow process that I feel that the astute grower/producer can reasonably adapt to over time. Numerous vineyard management decisions provide a range of adaptive potential that can be very effective depending on the magnitude of the change and conditions of the operation. However if one is not aware of the changes and constantly adapting, then they are more vulnerable and lower their future adaptive capacity. The other issue is understanding whether the change comes about in average conditions, variability, or extremes … or all three. While growers/producers can better manage/adapt around small, incremental average changes in climate (as we already have), increasing variability and/or increasing extremes is hard to plan for. Both observations and modeling show that our climates today are more variable than in the past and are likely to be even more variable in the future. The challenge is whether or not the site, varieties planted, or management plan can produce sustainably across these wider swings in week to week or vintage to vintage variability. Also climate extremes (i.e., extreme rain events, high temperature events, dry spells, hail, etc.) have generally increased worldwide. The challenge with extremes is that they are usually a risk to the crop and/or a significant loss event and if they increase in frequency or magnitude, there will likely be more situations whereby increased loss will lead to more failures. Not all regions have seen or will see the same changes in average conditions, variability, and extremes which makes a universal strategy less likely. 

What, in your experience, is the most common mistake people make when planting their vineyard? 

Site selection. If one can choose the best site for what they want to do then they will avoid or mitigate numerous issues down the road. The issues surrounding site selection are broadly tied to matching the variety to the climate, having soils that are not limiting, and a landscape that enhances both climate-plant, and plant-soil inter-relationships. The variety-climate match is the most fundamental decision in site selection but is often overlooked when one wants to grow what they like, not what the climate can ripen consistently (most common for small growers). There are two general approaches that potential growers follow; 1) they already own the land, or 2) they seek out the best land. In the first situation if the climate and landscape are marginal and it is planted, limited success will be realized. The second scenario allows a new grower to minimize risk while maximizing potential. Of course, not all land is perfect and there will be compromises. 

You lecture about your studies to winemakers and grape growers across the globe. Do you encounter much resistance to your presentations? 

No … growers and producers are generally very aware of the changes in weather and climate in their region or for their site. But this does bring up and interesting aside … the human fallacy of the immediate versus the long-term. It is very clear that when I go give a talk on climate change (anywhere in the world) and it has just been the hottest day, week, month, or vintage … then I hear feedback that I am spot on and even brilliant. However, if it has just been the coldest day, week, month, or vintage … then the feedback goes to I don’t know what I am talking about or even that I am an idiot. Humans put so much weight on the here and now that sometimes it is hard for us to put it all into perspective, and this is very evident with weather/climate. There has been a tremendous amount of study on this issue, along with other work that shows that our remembrances of past climates are typically skewed by singular or a few events. The classic is when an older relative tells you “oh I used to walk 10 miles to school in knee deep snow all the time, so don’t complain about a two block walk in a couple of inches.” While the relative might be somewhat right in some ways or if they were from the same regions, it is highly likely that one or two events magnified how it was remembered. Also, they were much smaller back then and knee deep snow was not so deep. Another analogy is how we perceive weather forecasters. Most people would say that ‘they never get it right’ when in reality the skill rate for forecasting temperature is well over 95% and rainfall over 90%. If it rains on your significant event (e.g., wedding, picnic, etc.) when the weather forecaster said it would not, then they will be forever wrong in your mind even though they get it right the vast majority of the time. 

As a holistic climatologist who studies variability and change within wine growing regions, what are your conclusions for the future? 

Wine production is a highly adaptive enterprise where I believe that the magnitude of the economic benefit will drive the innovation necessary to meet the changes in existing regions, but will also open new regions to viticulture. However, there will also likely be some changes in suitability in existing wine regions that will alter both the varietal mix and the wine styles that can be produced. While this is partly a natural progression of time and changes in markets, the likelihood that climates will continue to change is evident and will undoubtedly continue to play an increasingly important role in the future of the wine industry. 

As grape growing is an ancient farming process, what can the past teach us about the present and future of farming?  

Throughout history agriculture has been more of an adaptive enterprise whereby people migrated to wherever a given crop could be grown. Today our systems are more static or fixed to given regions where significant investment, both economically and culturally, ties the crop and production system to a given place. However, if what we know about historical climates and agricultural suitability is correct, then we should clearly expect changes in the future. 

You were named One of the Top 50 Most Influential People in the Wine World by Decanter Magazine. Did this surprise you and did it help open doors to be taken more seriously? 

This was quite an honor and completely unexpected. I have always simply wanted be a good scientist and teacher and do research that either has not been done or needs updating that helps us better understand the role that climate structure, suitability, variability and change play in viticulture and wine production. To be recognized by people outside of academics was very rewarding. However, I must say that people took me seriously before making the Decanter list, I just became a little more known by others in the wine industry because of it. From a research perspective it did open some new doors to collaborative efforts in other wine regions. 

With your research, you have helped growers match specific grape varieties to specific plots of land. What is the success rate and are there instances where, regardless of research, some grapes just don’t grow well

Our technology and data sources today allow us to analyze or model the terroir of regions to better understand the baseline suitability and risk issues. This type of research has grown tremendously over last 15-20 years providing maps of suitability or ‘terroir zoning’ that remove much of the basic trial and error that occurred historically. The result is typically better overall decisions by growers, but I have not collected any data on the actual success rates, which would be hard to define anyway. 

While this kind of data and research can detail landscape and soil issues better than ever, the biggest benefit that I can see is the development of spatial climate data products. Historically growers/producers compared regions using station data, which often do not represent the area where vines are actually planted, or come from too short of time periods or even completely different time periods. I have seen a tremendous number of incorrect comparisons and planting decisions being made using station data. However, using qualified station data, along with known ways in which weather/climate vary over the landscape and greater computing power, have together allowed us to depict and analyze the patterns over entire wine regions. This ‘distribution’ in weather/climate parameters such as temperature and precipitation across regions, provides a much better understanding of what to expect in terms climate suitability and/or risk for viticulture and wine production. 

All farming releases C02 into the air.  Where does grape growing fall into the mix and to what degree does it impact the environment? 

We are still learning about the role that the entire wine production stream plays in CO2 production and how increasing CO2 might impact wine. Results tend to show that growing wine grapes is somewhere in the middle of all agribusinesses in terms of CO2 production. However, when you look at the entire production system and delivery to consumer, the wine industry has a relatively large footprint because we ship a heavy product all over the globe. This has also been studied quite a lot and has resulted in some fairly good assessments and strategies on how to best measure and mitigate CO2. But it still comes down to the fact that society needs fuel sources that do not disrupt an important equilibrium in the earth system and lower the overall impact on the environment. In terms of CO2 benefiting wine production, there is some evidence that higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere will lead to larger vines and higher yields. However, these studies are limited in scope and there is much more work to be done to understand the complex relationships between growth, fruit production, and compounds that develop in the grapes. Also, one issue that we have only scratched the surface of is how higher CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere translate through the fruit and into the wine. Some work has been done in this area, but not enough that we have confidence in the possible effects on quality, flavors, aromas, etc. in wine. 

You have studied and collected data from most of the top wine growing regions in the world. Where have you not been and what region is most in need to being fully researched? 

I have been fortunate to travel and/or do research in nearly all major wine regions worldwide. However, there are many regions (some small and some large) that I have not visited and would like to. Southern Italy comes to mind. I have traveled throughout central to northern Italy and conducted research in many regions, however I have yet to get to the wine regions of southern Italy. I would also like to do a return trip to Argentina and Chile to explore more of the wine regions there. Also for all of my travels in Australia, I have never made it to Western Australia and would very much like visit the wine regions there. 

As for research needed, the clear answer is China. China has exploded on the wine scene as both a consumer and producer and will likely become an increasingly important player in wine production globally. However, very little has been published internationally on the climate and terroirs of Chinese wine producing areas. I have a project currently doing some of this work but have yet to visit the country. 

It’s the end of a long work day, and time to relax with your family over dinner. What would be one of your ideal wine and food matches? 

I am a fan of crisp, slightly high acid white wines that go with cheeses and fish. For red wines I tend to lean to those that go well with spicy, bold foods. Today I tend to drink more Portuguese and Spanish white and red wines than anything, however I thoroughly enjoy trying new varieties and styles of wines from all over the world.