Washington wine: How climate change could benefit our state

It sounds crazy, but climate change could actually benefit Washington state.

Scientists predict that we are going to see wild fluctuations in the weather over the next 50 years. That gradual warming brings challenges, but it could mean great things for Washington wine.

Could our state become the next Napa? It's not as crazy as it sounds. 

"Drier summers and wetter winters - and eventually it’s going to be unmistakable what’s happening," said Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond.

Climate change is happening and we're already feeling it, according to Bond. But just wait. Within the next few years and decades, he says weather fluctuations will get even more severe. 

"To the point where even the cool summers in the future are like normal ones," said Bond. "And the warm ones in the future are like something we've never had."

There are obvious downsides. Droughts and wildfires in the summer. Snow, ice, and floods in the winter.

But there could be some benefits to climate change, believe it or not. Our state's burgeoning wine industry, for example, where most of the grapes are grown in the desert climate of eastern Washington.

"It’s a climate where our grapes are ripe buy not fully ripe," said Kevin Pogue, a geology professor at Whitman College." "Nicely balanced, because of our latitude, we are on par with Burgundy and Bordeaux, some of the finest wine growing regions in the world. Three or four things that come together sugar levels, acid levels, where it reaches its maximum, and that’s when you want to pick it."

Washington wine reports warm year, low yields and good quality in 2021

The Washington State Wine Commission’s (WSWC) annual production report for 2021 shows last years’ grape harvest was impacted by record-breaking heat, resulting in low yields of high quality fruit.

"It’s easy to do that in Washington, but some areas further south, because of climate change, that has become more difficult," he said.

"I think the regions that the really premium grapes can grow (in) are going to move north, said Bond. "So Napa Valley is not the place to buy some acreage these days with what’s coming."

Changing temperatures mean increased dangers for vineyards, in the form of invasive bugs, or frost on grapevines, wildfires, and a lack of water for irrigation. It's a cautionary tale for grape growers, particularly in the southern part of our state.

"Something like 20 to 50% of presently where the premium grapes are grown will no longer be viable by the middle of the century," he said.

So, Washington wine country could be heading north. Pogue says Okanogan County - just across the border from British Columbia's wine country - is poised to become a prime wine-growing region, much like Oregon's Willamette Valley.

"I think in the short term climate change is not going to hurt us very much here and might actually provide opportunities in places like the Puget Sound area for growing really cold climate grapes," he said. "Particularly now you might see Pinot Noir moving up. There are some people already growing Pinot Noir in the Puget Sound area, but it’s going to be much more viable and riper, so I think in the short term we are going to be better off."

The Washington beer industry is also adjusting to the effects of climate change. 80% of the nation's hops are grown in the Yakima Valley. Water, insects, and mold are growing threats to those crops as temperatures continue to rise.

2020 wildfires and smoke damage cost Woodinville winery its entire vintage release

A renowned winery in Washington announced it will not release a 2020 vintage due to smoke damage. The owners of Betz Family Winery in Woodinville said their vineyards were impacted by the Evans Canyon wildfires last September. 

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