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‘Canary in the coalmine’: Climate change becoming big factor for Idaho winemakers

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Martin Fujishin stands in his Wilder vineyard, which was planted three years ago (Kelcie Moseley-Morris/Idaho Capital Sun).

Wilder winemaker tries to make his new vineyard a sustainable space


The Martin Fujishin who grew up working on a farm in Adrian, Oregon, would have made sure the ground between the rows of his vineyard was spotless.

But at his 13.5-acre vineyard in Wilder, the ground is seeded with a layer of cover crops — mixed mustard in the spring, winter wheat during the cold season, and sprigs of alfalfa flowers in between. Walking through the crunchy brush flushes out delicate lacewing insects that make their home inside the plants, eating aphids and other common bugs that plague agricultural fields.

At the top of the hill, wooden bat boxes that house up to 300 bats are fixed to a tall pole. The bats eat 1,200 mosquitos in a single hour. Red-tailed hawk roosts and barn owl boxes are also scattered around the property, all working together to provide natural pest patrol, along with habitat for bees, quail and other creatures.

These are just some of the features around Fujishin’s vineyard that were put in place to make it a more sustainable, environmentally friendly space. As the effects of climate change start to become more apparent across the country — and especially across the West with widespread heat, drought and wildfire — Fujishin is hoping his efforts will make a difference, including from an economic standpoint.

“Sustainability isn’t just about how often you spray or what you do in the vineyard, it’s about your employees and the community,” Fujishin said. “We’re trying to do things where we’re protecting our employees. We’re providing a good wage, and we’re providing jobs for them year-round, and so we try and tailor all of the ways that we manage the vineyard, and the winery itself, to try and create this sustainable ecosystem in the business as well.”

Idaho’s growing wine industry

Since the early 2000s, Idaho has grown from approximately 10 wineries to nearly 70, according to the Idaho Wine Commission, at least 30 of which are scattered around the Treasure Valley. As of 2017, the industry had a $209 million impact on the state and produces 160,000 cases of wine on an annual basis.

The crop is particularly popular in southern Idaho because the geography has historically been favorable for growing conditions. Cold winters allow the vines to go dormant, and the warm days and cool nights of the desert climate helps keep a balanced flavor in the grapes.

But as climate change shifts weather patterns across all areas of the West, bringing drought and high heat, conditions aren’t as consistently ideal as they once were. While the issue affects farmers of all kinds, vineyards are strongly affected because weather changes the way grapes taste — one of the most important aspects of winemaking. The heat, cold, moisture and even the amount of shade or dappled sunlight from leaves in a vineyard shapes how the grape will taste.

How does weather change grape flavors?

Benjamin Cook, an adjunct research scientist at Columbia University, has studied drought and biological life cycles of flowers and other plants at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. He said every stage of the grapevine lifecycle is sensitive to temperature, in particular, and that shapes the variety of wine to which it’s best suited. Warmer, drier climates will cause a grape to mature differently than cooler, wetter areas.

“(Ripening) allows the flavor compounds to grow, the acidity to go down at a steady rate, and the alcohol to reach an optimal point,” Cook said. “So when you’re planting a grape in its optimal climate, all of those things are on point. If the climate is too hot for that grape, then you’re going to get way too much rapid maturation, your acidity is going to plummet, your alcohol is going to be higher, and your flavor compounds don’t have the same time to develop before you need to harvest. So oftentimes you’ll get a very unbalanced wine.”

A recent example occurred in France in early April, when a cold snap that followed a record-warm early spring devastated grapes and other crops. Research attributed the “false spring” event to climate change, and said such events are up to 60% more likely as the world warms. As with most plants, if the weather warms up and cues the grapevine to begin budding and flowering and then gets hit with freezing temperatures, it likely won’t survive.

“As far as agriculture and climate change goes, wine is kind of the canary in the coalmine,” Cook said. “It’s a perennial crop that sticks around every year, and it’s so sensitive to what’s happening with weather and the environment.”

While it is possible to use heaters and other tools to mitigate weather impacts, Cook said it’s more likely that winemakers will start producing new varieties of wine, including ones that are more drought or heat resistant.

Dry, hot conditions could make for interesting wine flavor production

Like every other farmer in Idaho this year, Fujishin is grappling with drought in his vineyard. He put off a trip to Seattle in July because of the heat and the constant need for irrigation to keep the vines stable – particularly since the vineyard is still considered new. Fujishin bought the property, which originally belonged to former Gov. Phil Batt, three years ago, and it takes three years to get the first production-ready harvest.

To conserve water, Fujishin uses a drip irrigation system that tailors the amount of water to each section of the vineyard using soil moisture monitoring rather than large overhead sprinklers. He partnered with Boise State University to build a weather station that is set in the middle of the vineyard, monitoring the soil and temperature patterns to gather data year over year that he uses to inform his winemaking decisions.

Michael Williamson, who owns Williamson Orchards and Vineyards in the Sunnyslope area of Caldwell, said the drip irrigation system actually helps with flavor quality. His family has been farming in the Caldwell area for more than 100 years, growing cherries, peaches and other fruits in addition to grapes, and over time they have switched from flood and sprinkler irrigation to drip systems.

“We get better quality when we’re more water conscious, the fruit has better flavors, and you can get better colors,” Williamson said. “The trees and vines are both better balanced, and you get more intense flavors.”

With the record-breaking heat this summer, Williamson said he is managing leaf removal on the vines differently for fear of the grapes becoming sunburned.

Partly as a result of changing climate patterns and weather variability, Fujishin is trying out several varieties of grape for this first harvest to see what works best. Up until now, Fujishin Family Cellars has sold a variety of red and white wines, but this field of grapes will be all red — Syrah, Graciano, serrano. He wants to find the right niche for the Snake River Valley.

“Variability is a real challenge in that every year it’s like writing a new rulebook, really,” Fujishin said. When he first started managing vineyards in 2007, it seemed like seasons were much easier to plan around. “And now, we really have to tailor our model to match with what we see on each individual year. … You’re not just following a set recipe; you’re actually tailoring what’s going on in the vineyard to that particular year.”

While Williamson hopes the dry conditions and heat won’t last too much longer, he said in the short term it could actually make for an interesting production year.

“It will lead to an interesting concentration of flavors,” Williamson said. “… To farm it will be a pain, but to drink the wine will be fun.”