Wine, Adapting to Climate Change, & the Peter Parker Principle

beforeThe Red Mountain AVA is Washington’s smallest, warmest, and maybe its most distinctive wine-growing region. The warm part has been advantage for most of Red Mountain’s history. But not any more, according to Gaye McNutt and Benjamin Smith, owners of Cadence Winery and the Cara Mia Vineyard.

Too Darn Hot

Climate change has had a variety of effects that condition Smith’s ability to make the elegant wines he prefers. Earlier harvest, potentially higher alcohol levels, sunburned fruit, tough tannins — none of these impacts is desirable. Working with vineyard manager Dick Boushey, McNutt and Smith considered many alternatives and found each potential solution problematic in one way or another.

Then they hit upon an insight — to transform the vineyard in the image above to the emerging vineyard you see below.


The result is the first vineyard in Washington State specifically designed to mitigate the effects of climate change by doubling the row density of the vineyard. First planted in 2004 at three feet between vines and eight feet between rows the vineyard is now spaced at four feet between rows.

This tighter spacing provides up to two hours additional morning and afternoon shading of adjacent rows thereby cooling the fruit, reducing the effects of high heat, and ultimately producing more elegant, lower alcohol wines even in hotter vintages.

All around the world winegrowers are facing up to the challenges that climate change presents and, because wine people are creative by nature, they are finding ways to adapt through innovative viticultural techniques. Cadence is a model of how this can be done.

The Cadence solution is not inexpensive, of course, but it promises to allow them to continue to make excellent wines and even has benefits as an opportunity to add additional clonal selections to the mix.

Peter Parker Principle

A 2000 case winery like Cadence is to be commended for setting an example of innovation to mitigate the effects of climate change. Larger wineries can do the same, but the Peter Parker Principle (familiar to all Spider-Man enthusiasts) holds them to a higher standard. With great power comes great responsibility.

Many large wineries have risen to the Peter Parker challenge. Familia Torres and Jackson Family Wines, for example, have taken the lead in forming a global wine alliance to fight climate change, the International Alliance for Climate Action.  Adrian Bridge of Port producer Taylor Fladgate was instrumental in creating the Porto Protocol and the global conference on climate change and wine that Sue I and attended last year.

Many wineries embrace their social and environmental responsibilities by becoming benefit corporations (B Corps for short). Certified B Corps commit to a social and environmental responsibility agenda and agree to transparent assessment of their activities. Are you familiar with B Corps? A number of large businesses have taken this step including Patagonia Works, which has a B Impact Score of 151.2 on a scale of 0-200 (the minimum score for B Corps certification is 80 — an “ordinary” business might score about 50 points).  The craft beer producer New Belgium Brewing is also a B Corp (B Impact score 136.5).

It is easy to be a B Corp skeptic because it seems so unlikely that a business really would elevate people and planet to the same level as profit in its priority list. And I am sure that some are more committed than others. But a number of my former university students have become practitioners of and advocates for the B Corp program and they have persuaded me to take it seriously (Steve, Russ, Portland, Douglas, and Colleen — I’m talking about you).

Many wineries are entering the B Corp economy. Oregon’s A to Z Wineworks became the first certified winery B Corp in 2014 and is now joined by a growing international community including Symington Family Estates in Portugal and Fetzer Vineyards in Calfiornia. Fetzer, with about 2.5 million case production, is the largest B Corp winery in the world.

The Symington Family’s sustainability program, Mission 2025, is especially ambitious and includes a recently announced €1 million Impact Fund. The primary use of the funds will be for community well-being and health, environmental protection and conservation and cultural heritage and education in the Duoro and Alto Alentejo regions where the company has vineyards.


Mapping the Road at Fetzer

Fetzer has doubled-down on the Peter Parker Principle. Fetzer and its Bonterra brand have long been known as environmental stewards and activists. Chilean leader Concha y Toro’s 2011 acquisition has given Fetzer greater scale and even deeper commitment to corporate social responsibility.

Fetzer’s 2017-2018 “Peter Parker” report, Mapping the Road, makes good reading because the range of activities and commitments is very impressive. As the report says,

Fetzer Vineyards understands that transforming the future requires not just small, incremental steps toward sustainability, but rather an ambitious framework—like regenerative development—applied to every part of its business. With the knowledge that the road will not always be easy, Fetzer Vineyards is poised to continue taking bold steps toward its vision of a regenerative, net positive company, and to be part of the movement to redefine what responsible business is all about.

One thing that I admire is that Fetzer is willing to “own” its supply chain. Many environmentally ambitious firms limit their universe of concern to their own operations, which is both practical and understandable. But wine’s supply chain is long and complex and progress in the vineyard and cellar alone is commendable, but not enough. Major players like Fetzer need to take responsibility for the whole chain. It’s the Peter Parker thing to do.

And, increasingly, they are. Congratulations to Cadence, Symington, Fetzer, and others  for their leadership.

5 responses

  1. Adapting to climate change will be critical to wineries going forward, but just as important is supporting policies that reduce the risk of climate change and that will keep warming below 1.5 deg. C. To do that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (HR 763) which has been introduced in the House will reduce emissions by 40% within 12 years and create jobs. Several wineries around the country have endorsed this bipartisan legislation. You can learn more and endorse HR 763 at

    • Yes, seems carbon pricing makes a lot of sense. Especially if revenue generated is given out as dividends or put toward clean energy development. Best way to spread costs of pollution across the entire economy and spur innovation!

  2. Hi Mike,

    I read your stuff with interest.

    My vineyard was planted with the idea of mitigating high temperatures and heat stress.

    For one, I stayed away from the warmer sites. It took me a few years to find this spot. Rarely hits a 100°F. Hill top with a breeze.

    I do 8 foot spacing with a horizontally divided canopy, a lyre if you will, copying the beautiful design of Crawford Vineyard. We have 100% cover crop, no bare soil, no herbicides, no tillage.

    Horizontally divided dual drip line for alternate root zone irrigation on deep fine silt loam flood deposited soil. Lots of inter row vegetation.

    I also have been able to grow 10 cultivars successfully with zero use of pesticides. Sulfur is a pesticide. Water, sweat, manure are the only inputs.

    Wine is ingredient labeled, including pesticides used on 5 cultivars.

    Regards, Paul

    Barbara Sherman – Paul Vandenberg Paradisos del Sol Winery and Organic Vineyard – 509.829.9000 Come Taste Paradisos!


  3. It is desirable and indeed inevitable for climate sustainability to become a guiding principle for many agricultural beverages such as wine, beer, and coffee. But it is also vital for the leadership of ALL these industries to stand up and speak up for realistic efforts to reduce carbon emissions- especially those that use the marketplace, such as the Congressional bill H.R.763 the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Why so vital? Because resilience efforts alone are simply going to fail without sharp reductions to carbon emissions. Science and economics tell truth on this.

  4. Thank you for your great article here, I appreciate your passion and perspective. I agree with what’s been shared above – pricing carbon is a fantastic step to reducing carbon emissions to the degree that we really need to in order to protect the well-being of our vines, our wineries and our livelihoods. Returning dividends, as in the aforementioned bill, HR 763 – The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividends Act, which is in the House right now with 75 co-sponsors, is a wonderful way to combine carbon pricing with dividends returned to households, which will spur innovation, jobs, and the entire economy, thereby protecting not only businesses but low and middle income families as well. Thanks again!

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