Flourishing Michigan Wine Industry Might Take Hit From Climate Change

February 15, 2020

You probably wouldn’t normally associate the controversial subject of climate change with your occasional glass of wine. But the Michigan wine industry, in which a single grapevine can produce up to 10 bottles of wine, may take a hit from climate change.

Climate Change and the Michigan Wine Industry

Climate change, a term often used interchangeably with global warming, is defined by Wikipedia as “the long-term rise in the average temperature of the Earth’s climate system.” Although the reality of an occurring climate change as caused by human activity is hotly contested in political and social circles, 97% of climate scientists and experts agree that climate warming trends are taking place, and are probably a result of human civilization’s impact. The majority of the world’s leading scientific organizations have followed suit, issuing public statements to endorse this position.

Meanwhile, far away from the public debate around climate change, the state of Michigan is the United States’ sixth largest producer of wine. But Michigan, typically more widely recognized for its contributions to music and the auto industry than to wine, may not be as far removed from the impacts of global warming as you’d expect.

The state’s wine businesses generate around $2.1 billion in economic activity every year, and supply more than 27,930 jobs to Michigan’s workforce. Like the more than 50% of employees worldwide who work outside the office at least a few times per week, many people employed in the wine industry never see the inside of an office building. Instead, they’re interested in working outdoors catering to the grapes or finding the perfect balance of flavors in production facilities.

Wine is a drink most commonly consumed during special occasions, such as weddings. With around 50% of all Americans over 18 married just in 2017, wineries also make for popular honeymoon destinations. With so many people and other businesses relying upon the wine industry, it’s easy to see how climate change will have a rippling effect, not only targeting agriculture, but crossing over into other industries as well.

In spite of this flourishing industry’s valuable economic impact on the country and the world, climate change is thought to be causing considerable damage to the state’s wineries. In turn, the jobs enjoyed by those thousands of workers may be threatened.

The Effects of Climate Change on Vineyards and Wineries

This is due in part to the fact that a wine’s quality is incredibly sensitive to minor changes in weather. For example, a sudden frost can lull sensitive grapevines into a sort of false sense of security, even though harsh weather conditions may be just around the corner. But unfortunately, unexpected frosts aren’t the biggest climate-related concern the state has for its wineries.

Warmer weather brought on by climate change has perhaps the greatest impact on the natural pests that target wine grapevines. Wetter, warmer weather can result in tougher fungal pressure, an extended range of travel for all pests, and increased insect activity.

As one example, yellowjackets are a type of wasp that preys on and consume other insects. However, when the weather starts to get cold, they begin eating the vineyards’ sugary grapes instead. At first glance, this may seem like less of a problem thanks to warmer weather, but think again: increased temperatures and humidity levels mean yellowjackets can survive more easily, resulting in a considerably larger population of the wasps. And while climate change may mean slightly milder or shorter winters, winter will definitely still come, so that ultimately means more yellowjackets to consume Michigan’s grapes. Yellowjackets are sturdy insects that are difficult to catch, making them a challenging and resilient enemy to Michigan vineyards.

How the Michigan Wine Industry Is Fighting Back

To cope with the increase in pests, wineries and vineyards are experimenting with a wide variety of control approaches. Called integrated management, their developing approach to pest control includes inspecting fields before planting and utilizing canopies, in addition to new and improved fungicides and insecticides.

Surprisingly, it’s not the warmer summers that affect grape growing the most, but the warmer winters. Michigan farmers are accustomed to experiencing heavy snowfall during the winter. This snow is supposed to cover grapevines almost completely, keeping the grapes beneath safe from cold air and predators. However, with shorter, warmer winters on the rise, snowfall hasn’t been what it used to be.

However, there is hope for Michigan wineries. While climate change is expected to harm the industry by reducing crop yields, grape farmers can fight back by increasing the diversity of crops they plant. A new international study suggests that increasing crop diversity can help curb some of the potential damage caused by climate change.

Vinifera grape varieties, such as Chardonnay and Riesling, constitute just about 65% of Michigan’s wine grapes. These white wine varietals are also considered better for your teeth since they don’t result in staining. Popular French hybrid grapes don’t survive as well because they originated in warmer regions than Michigan can compete with. Meanwhile, American hybrids like Concord grapes are sturdy in cold temperatures, but they’re considerably less popular as wine grapes. That said, a hybrid mix between Concord and French varieties is starting to become more popular.

Other tactics for fighting climate change in the vineyards include placing heaters around grapevines and using sprinklers to raise temperatures above freezing during unexpected frosts.

Although climate change poses a significant problem for many industries, more and more organizations are starting to take notice and get involved.

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