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Meet the Winemaker Working to Future-Proof Wine for a Climate-Challenged Future

The warming world is affecting all agricultural industries, with wine being no exception. New York’s Gotham Winery is banking on diversity and adaptability to strengthen the grapes and the industry, both socially and environmentally.

Making a good wine involves more than harvesting and crushing a grape. It involves a delicate process incorporating a variety of factors that contribute to the end product. The surrounding climate, variety of grapes, harvesting practices, soil terrain and gradient are all responsible for the wine's terroir and play a critical role in producing the fine wines we drink today.

Climate change is threatening the world's vineyards agricultural commodities. Our plants and ecosystems are all vulnerable to its effects; and that includes the grapes harvested and fermented to fill our glasses. As global temperatures and seasons change, the regions of the world that are suitable for wine grapes also change. Planting seasons in places such as Spain, Italy and Australia are already limited; and the warming weather affecting these seasons is causing the grapes to ripen faster , producing higher sugar concentrations that ultimately affects the alcohol content, acidity and color of the wines.

“When we think about the evolution of the Vitis vinifera — the family of grapes that everyone loves (the Merlots, the Cabernets, the Sauvignon Blancs), grown in Spain, France and Europe in general — we know they are a very sensitive group of grapes; and it can be a battle to produce the wines,” Kwaw Amos, founder of Gotham Winery, told Sustainable Brands. “To produce them and produce them well, it is essential you have to have the right temperature; otherwise, you’re just not going to produce a good wine.”

Amos, an equity finance specialist by day and a winemaker by night, founded Gotham — New York State’s only African American-owned winery — in 2004. Originally sold under the Oson Wine Cellars label — a name tying into his West African heritage — Amos understands that for the industry to thrive, it is essential to evolve and adapt with the global changes taking place from both a social and an environmental standpoint.

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Each variety of grape native to a specific region has a narrow climate window that allows for optimum growth, and shifts in this range directly impact the quality and cultivation of the wine grape. If temperatures rise by 2 degrees, wine regions that are suitable for growing wine grapes could shrink by 56 percent. Therefore, for wine grapes to withstand climate change, we need to identify those that can adapt to the change — and Amos says that wine grapes native to New York, when compared to the vinifera grape, can do this.

“By identifying grapes that are able to withstand climate change, you can combine and grow wine grapes in a much more sustainable way. They have a stronger ability to withstand natural pests, use cover crops and adapt to their surroundings,” Amos explained. “So, these hybrid grapes have the benefits of the vinifera in terms of taste; but then on top of that, you have the robustness and survival capability of the native grapes.”

Genetic diversity and forward-thinking are paramount when it comes to the survival of the wine industry. It is not just the warming temperature threatening the industry, but erratic weather changes such as the severity of droughts, flooding, etc. These increasingly frequent events mean that wineries need to rethink where they can grow their grapes; and the answer is not as simple as moving to higher elevations, where temperatures are cooler — which would only be a temporary solution.

“When wine growers move to areas of higher elevation, climate change volatility is actually going to be more detrimental in the long term,” Amos asserts. “You might think ‘oh, it's not as warm; so, I can grow the grapes’ — but then you get a flood, or something of that nature, that wipes out your whole crop and you're going to wonder what the point of all that was.”

So, instead of running from climate change, wine grapes need to be modified so that they can still thrive in the changing climatic conditions. Additionally, climate change must be mitigated by the industry as much as possible, with an emphasis on minimizing environmental impact — hybrid grapes might be an answer now; but there is still an urgent need to protect the environment that caters for their growth and long-term survival.

Wanting to stay ahead of the curve, Gotham is not only adapting and creating more robust, hybrid grapes — its Finger Lakes facility, on a 72-acre sustainable farm near Lake Keuka, runs completely on solar panels. Gotham has also partnered with Hunt Country, a family farm that has been recognized for its pioneering sustainability practices.

While environmental sustainability is one of Gotham’s founding principles, the social aspect of sustainability is core to its philosophy.

“When we created our Unité series, to me it was about reconciliation — racial reconciliation, and reconciliation between human beings and the land. And Unité is an analogy of that,” Amos said. “Through Gotham and Oson, we can push New York wineries to think about diversity and how to empower people who already work for those industries.”

Amos says he is also partnering with non-wine brands owned by other minorities to broaden impact — for example, an upcoming art series will highlight African American artists and use their designs on Gotham’s wine labels. Encouraging and supporting minority-owned businesses is crucial in the push for a fairer society, and Amos is utilizing his platform and his love of wine to do just that. He has hosted yoga-wine events and cycling-wine events, and says he is constantly thinking of other ways that he and his wines can help support entrepreneurship.

As the wine industry evolves and the grapes are adapted, consumers also need to understand the role they play in the evolving world: “In the end, consumers need to become more aware and more flexible in terms of the wines they are willing to accept,” Amos explained.

“As wineries adapt, people need to be open to new experiences, to get out of their comfort zone; if someone is producing something with a new grape you’ve never heard of before — like a Vidal, not a Sauvignon Blanc — pick it up and try it! As the consumer, you have a voice; and you need to look for wineries that are not only doing things for themselves but also the planet.”