A Path Forward for Pinot Noir

In the face of climate change, winemakers must work with scientists to continue producing Oregon’s world-famous wine.

Sarah Olson Michel
9 min readMar 23, 2020
Having a taste of Oregon’s local pinot noir. Photo by Sarah Olson.

I’m standing in the tasting room of Anderson Family Vineyards, swirling a splash of their 2013 pinot noir around my glass. I stick my nose inside and inhale — a strong scent of fruit greets me. This is my first taste of one of the New World wines that are competing with those made in Burgundy, France, where winemakers have had hundreds of years to perfect their craft. In comparison, the Oregon wine industry arose only seventy years ago, in the 1960’s.

I tilt my head back and try the ruby-colored wine. I am not entirely sure what to look for as I push the liquid around my mouth, but I jot down a few notes like earthy and light. As I drink, I’m listening to Allison Anderson walk me through a vertical tasting. We are trying different vintages of the same wines — pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot noir — and comparing changes in the wine from year to year.

“I think nothing speaks like the wine as to what happened that year,” Allison tells me. In 2013, she and her husband Cliff watched “a huge monsoon come through — 10 inches of rain in a just a few hours, right when the fruit was getting ripe. If you have a vineyard that isn’t on rocks like ours is, and it’s wetter, it’s going to soak up that water and burst the grapes. They’ll be pretty much ruined.”

When the Andersons bought their property back in the 1989, there were less than 40 wineries in the area. Today there are over 700, and Dundee Hills is the epicenter of the industry. Grapes grow well here thanks to an ancient lava flow from Eastern Oregon that occurred approximately 15 million years ago, depositing basalt over the sloping hillsides. Rich volcanic soil and a rain shadow caused by the Coast Range make Dundee Hills an ideal environment for growing pinot varieties.

As I sip, I ask about the challenges she and Cliff have encountered as vineyard owners. The problems that growers face are not much different than any other kind of farming, she says. Pests, disease, and adverse weather. Voles, bees, deer, and birds have all caused problems for them. One bird in particular, she notes, is the Cedar waxwing, Oregon’s most notorious fruit-eating bird. In fact, they are one of the country’s only birds that can subsist solely on fruit when they have to. This proves to be a problem when your crop consists entirely of grapes.

“As a grower, you’re mad at them because they’ll take all your fruit when you spent all year trying to grow that stuff. It’s maddening,” says Allison. They can’t kill the birds, but because their vineyard is small they can put nets over the vines to protect them. It’s the friendliest approach, Allison tells me. “It’s not their fault. They’re just migrating, hungry birds.”

The tasting room at Anderson Family Vineyard. Photo by Sarah Olson.

After the tasting, Allison and I take a walk through the sloping vineyards so she can show me the freshly-pruned plants. It’s the perfect time to be outside. The winter sun shines down on us, and for a moment the rain-filled clouds have rolled on. According to Forbes, wine sales and tourism in Willamette Valley continue are growing steadily in the double-digits. Here, the Dundee Hills region is bursting with new wine producers eager to be a part of the boom.

I met with a few researchers at the Oregon Wine Research Institute (OWRI) through Oregon State University to learn a little more about the pinot noir industry and some of the challenges they face today. One of the issues I am most interested in is how growers plan to adapt to climate change. With temperatures projected to rise four to nine degrees by 2100, I can’t help but wonder how it will impact vineyards like this one. In the coming years, vineyards could be facing much bigger problems than hungry birds.

Touring the sloping vines of Anderson Family Vineyard. Photo by Sarah Olson.

From the soil to the grape

I sat down with Dr. Patty Skinkis, Viticulture Extension Specialist with the Department of Horticulture at OSU, to learn more about the role of OWRI in the pinot noir industry. Skinkis conducts research to help growers answer questions about how to better manage their vineyards. One area of her research focuses on water management techniques, which is increasingly important to viticulturists in regions dealing with drought.

“It’s not just turning on the water or shutting it off, that’s not what we’re dealing with here,” she tells me. “Most of viticulture research with regards to water management has been just that. In recent years, people are asking, ‘Should I be turning on my irrigation? Should I be doing other things?’ and they’re making decisions but they don’t feel confident. People thought they didn’t need to care about it because they don’t irrigate, but that’s not true. We still need to care about soil and water and how the plants are responding.”

Her goal is to provide research that supports one answer or another so growers have a more clear path toward maintaining and protecting their crops. She’s “trying to add some science behind it so they can make better decisions.”

I ask whether climate change is something that pinot noir growers are starting to think about. Could Oregon ultimately lose the cool climate pinot noir depends on?

“In the Willamette Valley, they’re not as concerned because we’re still not as warm as to be pushed out of the zone for pinot noir,” she tells me. In fact, twenty years ago, Oregon was considered too cool and the weather too variable. The growers would rush to get their grapes harvested. But in these comparably warmer years, she says growers feel it’s much easier.

“It’s warm, it’s nice, it’s easy,” Skinkis says. “In a year when it’s more cool and rainy and typical of Oregon, it can be challenging. I would say from a pinot noir perspective, at least in the Willamette Valley, we’re actually in good shape. I don’t think there’s an impending need to do something right now. We’ve got the cool nights still. We’re not in danger.”

I can’t help but wonder how long those perfect conditions will last. But Skinkis tells me that growers have more immediate and pressing concerns than less predictable long-term changes.

Three members of the Skinkis lab during the 2018 grape harvest. Photo by Patty Skinkis.

“Even if we didn’t have climate change,” she says, “they have whittling water resources. Water is a concern for growers in general.” North of us, in Washington, growers have already started grappling with rising temperatures and an increasing need to irrigate. Certain grapes are being phased out to make way for varieties better suited for these growing conditions.

Other, more insidious problems for the growers are less obvious than access to water — for example, fungicide resistance. Growers have to spray to prevent fungal pathogens from affecting their vineyards. But fungal pathogens can develop resistance to the sprays, rendering them ineffective. This leaves vineyards without protection, and growers can lose their crops.

“What they’re finding is some of the products they use are no longer working,” Skinkis tells me. “They’re like superbugs. The fungal pathogens are able to live when they’re using those sprays.”

Growers have to carefully manage the vineyards to protect against pathogens and diseases. One disease currently affecting Oregon vineyards is called the Grapevine red blotch virus (GRBaV) for how it sometimes changes the canopy leaves from green to red. The disease can delay or adversely effect ripening grapes, later spoiling the wine. Researchers are currently unsure how it spreads, but they suspect certain insects may be responsible.

One of the questions they are considering is whether a changing climate could exasperate existing problems with pathogens and pests. But for the moment, the answer is unclear.

Members of the Skinkis lab measuring leaf gas exchange in a vineyard infected with Grapevine Red Blotch Virus. Photo by M. Blaylock.

From fermentation to flavor

Growing grapes is only half the process of producing pinot noir. I wanted to learn more about what happens to the grapes after picking, so I spoke with Dr. James Osborne, a wine microbiologist with the OWRI. He studies yeast fermentation and its impact on pinot noir. According to Osborne, the pinot noir industry is interested in understanding whether the microbial ecosystems present in the soil and on the grapes ultimately affects the wine produced by playing a role in the fermentation process.

If this is the case, the unique microbial composition of a vineyard — its microbiome — could be an important factor for growers to consider. For example, are any of their vineyard management techniques adversely affecting these microbiomes? I ask him whether, as a wine microbiologist, he thought about climate change and its potential future impact on pinot noir production. Perhaps, Osborne said, if the microbiomes of the grapes and soil do play a significant role, they may be impacted by a changing environment. Microbial contributions certainly affect the quality of the wine and help regions differentiate themselves, but characterizing that role is a challenge researchers are still tackling.

In order to understand that last step in pinot noir production, I spoke with Osborne’s colleague at the OWRI, Dr. Elizabeth Tomasino, a flavor chemist who works in sensory analysis of pinot noir.

“Pinot noirs around the world share some characteristics, like climate,” she tells me. Individual location also plays a role. Oregon’s soil composition, including the bedrock beneath it, is different than other places pinot noir is grown. The composition of the soil affects the water and mineral uptake. These minerals play an important role in chemical reactions when wine is being made.

I thought about a word Osborne had used in our previous conversation to describe the distinctiveness of a certain region: terroir.

“Terroir is this overall concept of the place where certain attributes make it unique compared to other places,” said Tomasino. “Because grapes are influenced by their surrounding area, you can get different characteristics depending on where it’s planted. It’s a really good story to tell people — why they should pick your wine over someone else’s? Well, if you like X characteristic, that’s only from here.”

Researchers are trying to characterize and measure these subtle, yet distinctive qualities inherent to terroir. “We’re using the senses as a tool to measure things in a product,” Tomasino tells me. “We have people that come in and evaluate different aromas and how intense they are. It’s really using the human being as a tool to measure the wine.”

I ask Tomasino the question I’ve asked each person working with pinot noir — is the industry thinking about the potential impact of climate change on their final product?

“They’re certainly aware of it. It hasn’t gotten to the point where they need to plant new grapes, ” she says. “But at the same time, one of the things that makes Oregon perfect for pinot noir is that it always gets cool at night. As long as that occurs, you might not have as big of an impact as other areas would. You know, climate change is gradual. It’s not like zero to one hundred, but it’s certainly happening.”

Moving north, she says, is not an option for growers. “If you look at a lot of places in Washington, they’re not growing pinot noir. But [Oregon growers] might start thinking about going higher in elevation to achieve similar temperatures.”

For the time being, it seems, Oregon’s pinot noir is safe — protected by a bubble of warm days and cool nights, safely tucked away in the valley. Though it’s possible that may change as temperatures rise, Oregon’s pinot noir producers are currently preoccupied with more immediate issues, like protecting their crops and getting their product into the hands of their customers.

How long before the bubble bursts, researchers can’t say yet. It’s a gradual change spread across decades, and right now, the most important thing is getting through each year’s harvest.

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Sarah Olson Michel

Feminist twentysomething whose reading time is continuously interrupted by life.