Napa Moves North? Climate and Willamette Wine Country

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grapesWine enthusiasts of the Willamette Valley region may rejoice over impending climate change, as warmer weather will likely extend growing seasons and allow for greater varieties within local vineyards. Growing conditions throughout Oregon are expected to reach premium status, similar to current wine country in Northern California.

In recent years, Oregon has seen a decrease in annual frost days. However, such changes are concurrent with pressures such as population growth. According to the 2015 National Movers Study, Oregon has remained the top-notch destination for movers over the last three years—a 69% inbound migratory rate marked in 2015 alone. Considering housing needs, the future of our local farmlands and vineyards may be susceptible.

Disease pressure is also a concern, as mold and mildew thrive in humid environments, necessitating technological advancement.

“We’re going to be facing new and different kinds of pests,” said Jim Bernau, founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards.

Willamette Valley Vineyards receives support from Oregon Wine Research Institute researchers and affiliates such as Mark Chien, OWRI program coordinator. Chien reports a pinot noir block recently planted at OSU’s Woodhall research vineyard to test trellis systems, the supportive framework for vines. Chien and the OWRI team hope these systems can help alleviate the effects of sunlight on the fruit.

“Other methods of mitigating the effects of climate change include manipulating row direction, aspect and elevation, or even changing varieties and rootstocks,” explained Chien.

Gregory Jones, director of the Business, Communication, and Environmental Division at Southern Oregon University, assures that temperatures in the Willamette Valley will remain “under upper heat limits for varieties over the short term, but over the longer term, these limits could be reached if climate continues to change at the same rate unabated.”

One further concern is water, depleting as the earth warms but needed for irrigation systems. Drought emergencies have seen an annual upsurge in Oregon counties and Jones predicts a competing demand on water sources, “where municipal needs will challenge agricultural needs similar to what is happening in California already.”

Jones continued, “For Oregon agriculture and specifically wine production, it all comes down to economics and the ability to afford access to water.”

In the meantime, Bernau advises an effort in reducing environmental impacts. “We’re heading into the unknown in a hurry,” he warned.

The topic also warrants a glance back to the past, just half a century ago when grapes were impossible to grow.

“Our industry wouldn’t exist to the same degree it does today if climates hadn’t changed over the last 50 years,” Jones said. Luckily, it seems—at least for now—local wine producers can count on flourishing conditions.

If interested in further information on the Oregon wine industry, consider attending Grape Day 2016 on Tuesday, March 29, sponsored by OSU and the Oregon Wine Research Institute. The annual event will highlight the newest research regarding grape and wine conditions and “the sensory impact of wine.” Tickets are $65 and those interested may register through OSU’s Oregon Wine Research Institute website,

By Stevie Beisswanger

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