Virginia wine and climate change

Virginia becomes the wine center Jefferson envisioned 200 years ago.

Modern technology and marketing have helped, but a changing climate has transformed Virginia into a wine-making terroir worthy of the founding father’s aspirations.

The Daily Climate, December 30, 2014

Charlottesville, Va. –- Gabriele Rausse tends to grape vines that are thriving on the same high slope where Thomas Jefferson tried, and failed, to launch a Virginia wine industry more than 200 years ago.

Rausse is widely hailed as the father of Virginia winemaking, having spent the past 38 years bringing the art and craft of his native Veneto region in northern Italy to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the United States. Now chief gardens and groundskeeper at the 2,500-acre historical site of Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation, Rausse thinks often about climate—what it was like during the third president’s time, and what it is like as he works the soil today.

He has reached no firm conclusion on how much global warming has contributed to today’s viticulture success in the Old Dominion. He has seen vines killed by harsh cold, and likewise has witnessed grape crops fail in unrelenting heat. And Rausse has studied Jefferson’s meticulous records of his own extensive agricultural experimentation, revealing that he, too, endured both extremes of Mother Nature.

“If somebody from Italy asked me, ‘How is the weather in Virginia?,’ I would answer, ‘I have no idea!’” Rausse said.

What is certain, however, is that thanks in large measure to Rausse and a few other pioneers, Virginia now is nurturing a successful wine business, surging from just six vineyards in 1979 to more than 235 today—with most of that growth in just the past decade. Government agriculture experts once advised Rausse he’d never grow grapes for anything more than jelly in Virginia, he said. Now, the state ranks No. 7 in the nation for wine-grape growing, with 6,100 tons processed in 2013.

Virginia may be still a relatively small player on the U.S. wine scene (dominated by California, which grew 84 percent of the nation’s wine grapes last year), but it is among a vanguard of states investing in expanding wine production as a locally important agritourism industry. Nearly all of the wine produced in these states, including Michigan, Texas, and Pennsylvania—where wine grape production more than tripled last year—is sold only in state, often right at the wineries, which lure visitors with tasting events, festivals and creatively mapped wine trails. Virginia’s wine industry contributes an estimated $750 million a year to the state’s economy, and has attracted a wide array of wine entrepreneurs. Singer-songwriter Dave Matthews and real estate magnate Donald Trump both own Virginia vineyards.

As one of the newest of the New World wine regions, Virginia also may be one of the best places to witness the impact of climate change on the wine industry. Experts may debate how much warming is to credit for the Old Dominion’s recent winemaking success—modern disease-control technology and marketing certainly have been crucial, too. But there’s no question that these new U.S. vineyards, not bound by the rigid appellation rules of Europe and more nimble than far larger, more established wine-making regions of the U.S. West Coast, are adapting in real time to climate change today. Virginia winemakers have flourished by shifting what varieties they produce and altering management practices to respond to the changing conditions they’ve witnessed just within the four decades of the industry’s brief history in the state.

It’s a microcosm of what’s happening in winemaking around the globe. Read more.


Jefferson weather notesA man of wine, 200 years ahead of his time.

Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to grow wine grapes in Virginia hit snags at every turn.
His efforts would bear much better fruit today.

The Daily Climate, December 30, 2014

Did Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to grow wine grapes fail due to disease or a climate that was far colder than today’s?

The answer is probably a little of both.

Over 56 years, beginning six years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, continuing during his term as third U.S. president, and until his death in 1826, Jefferson tried to grow dozens of species of wine grape vines, but never produced a single bottle. Read more.