How Climate Change Could Impact Your Wine and Beer

Pinot Noir grapes just before they are harvested. A 2018 study finds that grapevines in California's Napa Valley were not at risk of dying from “even very dry conditions.”

Pinot Noir grapes just before they are harvested. A 2018 study finds that grapevines in California's Napa Valley were not at risk of dying from “even very dry conditions.” (ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

Let’s go outside and experience some nature. And we’ll take our drinks with us.

This week, KQED reporters told us about how drought could spell doom for beer, but maybe not for wine. Plus they gave us some history on California’s eucalyptus groves and a Central Valley town with perhaps the least environmentally friendly backstory in the world.

1. Could GMO beer help the environment?

Charles Denby and his colleague, Rachel Lee, prepare to pour their yeast samples into beer fermenters at the brewery at UC Davis.
Charles Denby and his colleague, Rachel Lee, prepare to pour their yeast samples into beer fermenters at the brewery at UC Davis. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

Beer fun fact: It takes about 11 gallons of water to produce the hops for a single pint of beer. And the nation’s hops supply is susceptible to drought and increased temperatures from climate change.

As a fan of hoppy IPAs, that doesn’t sound too good.

But one California scientist, Charles Denby, is trying to make beer with genetically modified yeast instead of hops, while still maintaining that hoppy flavor we love. He’s got a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology, and, like many great ideas, his aha moment came in the bathroom:

“I was literally sitting in the bathtub reading this book about brewing science and I got to the section about hops. And they actually spelled out exactly what the molecules were for the primary determinants for hoppy flavor,” says Denby. “And I looked at the molecules and was like, ‘Oh my God.’ ”

2. Good news: California grapes can handle a drought

Wine drinkers can relax. Even intense drought is unlikely to kill California's grapevines.
Wine drinkers can relax. Even intense drought is unlikely to kill California’s grapevines. ( Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

While drought could be deadly to hops, grapevines apparently are made of tougher stuff.

A new study found that grapevines in the Napa Valley were not at risk of dying from “even very dry conditions.” It concluded that there was literally no level of drought it studied that could kill Wine Country grapevines.

Hopefully, this will lead to some water conservation efforts on the part of farmers. At the very least, we know that drought or no drought, there will be wine.

3. Eucalyptus trees: Friend or foe?

Blue gum eucalyptus globulus grows fast and in poor soil, which made it a favorite of investors anticipating a hardwood famine in the early 1900s.
Blue gum eucalyptus globulus grows fast and in poor soil, which made it a favorite of investors anticipating a hardwood famine in the early 1900s. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

Some people in California hate eucalyptus trees. Others get naked and hug them to stop them from being chopped down. I personally have no strong feelings about the trees, but I was fascinated to learn about their history in California from KQED’s Bay Curious podcast:

  • Eucalyptus seeds first came to California from Australia in the 19th century.
  • Californians planted tons of eucalyptus trees in the early 20th century ahead of an expected timber shortage that never materialized. So the state was stuck with them.
  • There’s scientific and political disagreement over whether eucalyptus trees increase fire danger.
  • They’re not native, but they’re not super invasive. Just “moderately” invasive.

4. The charming story of how a California oil town got its coal-themed name

Model Ts arrive in Coalinga in 1914, marking the city's first carload of automobiles. C. R. Vanderlip was the dealer.
Model Ts arrive in Coalinga in 1914, marking the city’s first carload of automobiles. C. R. Vanderlip was the dealer. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Central Valley town of Coalinga has a pretty not-nature-friendly background. It started out as a coal town in the late 19th century, and then it hit it big as an oil producer in the early 20th century. But the story behind its name literally made me say, “Awww. That’s so cool!”

Between 1870 and 1880, coal was discovered in Coalinga, and mines to extract the resource were built into the hills. In 1888, miners built a railroad that connected the mines to coaling stations on the flat land. There were three of these loading stops: Coaling Station A, B and C.

Eventually, a little town sprouted around the first stop. Bill explains that Coaling Station A became the name of the town, and then they shortened it. “They just called it Coaling-A, instead of calling it Coaling Station A.”

5. Where’d all the snow go?


As a Minnesota guy, I love snow. As a current California resident, I don’t get to see much of it.

And it turns out, there’s even less of it this year than usual. I’m talking about the state’s snowpack, which is just 27 percent of the average for this time of year, according to the California Department of Water Resources. KQED resident snowman Dan Brekke breaks it down:

Why any of this matters: The mountain snowpack is often called California’s “frozen reservoir.” As a rule of thumb, water mavens say that the mountain snowpack supplies nearly one-third of California’s water needs. So, a meager snowpack means meager spring runoff into reservoirs — and perhaps, down the road, less water to distribute to farms and cities.

The DWR and other analysts are quick to point out that last year’s historic wet season filled the state’s reservoirs — most of which are storing more water than they typically would at this time of year.

So it might not be as bad as it sounds, but it’s definitely not good.

Before you go…

A Stanford researcher has created a piece of music out of climate data from the past 1,200 years (collected by Berkeley researchers). Take a listen.

How Climate Change Could Impact Your Wine and Beer 5 February,2018Ryan Levi

Author

Ryan Levi

Ryan Levi is a reporter and producer at KQED News and the host of the weekly Q’ed Up podcast. Ryan started at KQED as an intern where he reported on-air and online for The California Report, The California Report Magazine and KQED’s daily newscasts. Prior to joining KQED in 2016, Ryan was a general assignment reporter and producer at KBIA-FM, the NPR member station in Columbia, Missouri. Ryan reported on Columbia’s renewed fight against homelessness as well as coordinating the station’s coverage of the annual True/False Film Fest, one of the top documentary film festivals in the country. Ryan has also written about film, food, books, religion, theater and other topics for various publications. You can find Ryan on Twitter @ryan_levi.

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