Illustration of a bunch of grapes next to a beaming sun and a thunderstorm cloud

Credit: James Heimer

Here comes the rain again

California winemaking in the era of climate change

The first thing you notice about a vineyard is the quiet. 

In their winter dormancy, row by row, grapevines sit hushed, like monks in an open-air cathedral, listening for the chant of nature that instructs them.

Cultivating grapes for wine is deliberate, scientific, and emotional work. And in the chaos that is climate change, outcomes can range from soul-crushing to thrilling.

By late spring, leafy branches extend in worship to the sun, the rain, the heat, and the evening chill, the tiniest clusters of berries taking in water from deep roots.

Cultivating grapes for wine is deliberate, scientific, and emotional work. And in the chaos that is climate change, outcomes can range from soul-crushing to thrilling.

For more than a decade, I have been a senior lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School, teaching both Business Communication and Business Leadership and Human Values courses. Carey has supported the application of my craft—a lifelong journalist—to telling the stories of businesses: their struggles, strategies, and moral responsibility to the environment and society. It started with my reporting about a five-star Scotch whisky company's oyster reef restoration project, expanded to my documentary about the Chesapeake Bay, and by extension to an exploration of the marine environment.

Restoration is about regeneration, and my journey has led me lately to the world of soils and how to feed the world. And interestingly, winemakers have been at the forefront of giving back to the soils, so depleted by overtilling, monoculture, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides and, of course, challenged by a warming planet. This is how I wound up in California in yet another wild climate event, the West's ninth siege of flooding rains, after years of drought that left vast portions of the state in flames.

According to the Wine Institute, damage from California wildfires since 2020 has been approximately $3.7 billion, which includes lost sales, buildings and structures, vineyard acreage and grapes, and other ancillary losses. In general, as temperatures rise and drought conditions persist, new growth diminishes in forests, while dried-out plants become tinder for fires that turn into days and sometimes weeks of raging blazes. Fires can erupt for many reasons, including lightning from the violent storms, a hallmark of climate change. People in the business of growing anything say they are using science and ingenuity to stay a step ahead of nature gone wild.

The Double L Vineyard, Morgan Winery

Santa Lucia Highlands, California

"This crazy weather is my biggest concern," winemaker Dan Morgan Lee tells me in the middle of the California winter's extraordinary rainy season. A lifetime winemaker and founder of Morgan Winery, Lee owns 65 acres in Soledad, California's Santa Lucia Highlands. In this rain-drenched winter, the hillsides have transformed from drought-parched brown to a green as rich as the Scottish Highlands. Fifty acres of the vineyard are planted with grapevines and, together with the grapes that Lee buys from other farmers, Morgan Winery produces 30,000 12-liter cases a year. Its stocks sell out annually, with retail prices ranging from $20 to $75 per bottle. He holds 90+ ratings for many of his wines, mainly chardonnays and pinot noirs.

Morgan bottles everything from the vineyard before the next harvest. "We sell a good product that tastes good to us," Lee says. But in recent years, like all farmers, he's concerned about the intensifying manifestations of climate change. "The dry years are really dry, and the wet years are only wet." The Highlands experienced a flood two years ago. In 2020, a fire in the hillsides corrupted the flavor of red grapes in many vineyards, including Morgan's, with smoke taint so powerful that it made them unusable. A Labor Day temperature spike last year dehydrated some grapes on the vines, but Lee sees every day as a new exercise in advance planning and patience. "We find that, a lot of the time, your sugars rise with a full moon and once it starts to wane, they normalize."

Beneath the Santa Lucia Highlands, Lee says, is an aquifer that's bigger than Lake Tahoe, enough to support growth for at least two decades. When this highly coveted land became his in 1996, he resolved to go organic. "There were so many people around here who said, 'You're absolutely crazy!'" But, he thought, "we were so fortunate. Land in the Santa Lucia Highlands doesn't change hands, probably ever, and we thought, How do we treat this property with the most love and the most respect that we can?"

Pisoni Vineyard

Santa Lucia Highlands, California

On a mid-January day, not far from Morgan's Double L Vineyard, Mark Pisoni waits in his white mud-splattered farm truck to lead visitors to his corner of paradise. Rain is falling and stopping and drizzling and stopping and falling again. Drenched hillsides drip mud, gravel, and sometimes spontaneous streams onto a countryside route punctuated by orange and white striped "Road Closed" signs. The Pisoni Vineyard is a 280-acre ranch, with 35 acres of grapevines. Inside that area, among the grapevines, is a 2-acre showcase of plants meant to attract farm-friendly insects.

The 45-year-old Pisoni lives on family farmland with his wife and two children, not far from his Swiss- Italian-American grandmother, 97-year-old Jane Pisoni, who, with her husband, Eddie, bought the prized Santa Lucia Highlands acreage in 1979. Their first vines yielded fruit in 1982. "You can't just farm anymore," Pisoni says. "You need to be an advocate. We're certified sustainable, taking practices from biodynamic, regenerative, organic, and even traditional methods. You have to do what's best for your ranch." Pisoni says as a farmer, he is "eternally optimistic" and doing his part: reducing his carbon footprint, using tractors less with minimum tillage overall, using cover crops to keep soil moist and reduce water consumption, fertilizing naturally with organic compost, adding organic matter back to the soil. In 2020, the winery was one of four businesses awarded the California Green Medal for Sustainable Winegrowing Leadership.

Frog's Leap Winery

Napa Valley, California

Around 200 miles north of Monterey Bay, winemaker and owner of Frog's Leap Winery John Williams farms about 200 acres in Napa Valley, turning 800 to 900 tons of grapes annually into about 50,000 cases of wine. In 1989, Frog's Leap was the first winery in the Napa region to be certified organic and went solar more than a decade later.

A Cornell University and University of California, Davis, grad, Williams traveled west from his family's New York dairy farm in 1975. "I got on the Greyhound bus at the depot in Ithaca with a $69 Ameripass to the Napa Valley and still have the return ticket!" Selling his motorcycle a few years later to start the Frog's Leap brand, he produced his first 500 cases in 1981. Today, Frog's Leap wines are sold in every state and overseas. Prices range from $26 to $125 a bottle.

Williams is part of an army of farmers dedicated to regenerative practices of aggressive natural soil enrichment: natural composting, using plants and animals to promote natural organic complexity, training roots to go deep to seek out underground water sources. He does all that while looking over his shoulder at the onrushing boulder that is climate change. "I have moments of pessimism. It's not climate change," he says, "it's climate crisis. These things we thought would never happen, like a pandemic shutting down every restaurant in the country, the wildfires that we've had, the eight consecutive days over 110 degrees in the Napa Valley during our fall harvest— unprecedented activities."

He's a serious businessman motivated as much by producing a quality wine and absolute bottom line survival as he is in sustaining good work at good wages for his 65 employees. Williams says his world view was altered forever when he read Rachel Carson's paradigm-changing 1962 book, Silent Spring. He is an acolyte of the ancient Chinese book, Tao Te Ching, a philosophical celebration of natural harmony. In his view, a good wine is the product of natural balance, where older vines support the overall strength of the vineyard, plants are allowed to use their leaves to cover fruits in harsh sunlight, and chemical pesticides and herbicides are taken out of the mix.

"It's about inviting life back into the farming system," Williams says.

Louise L. Schiavone is a senior lecturer at the Carey Business School.