Climate change could help Idaho wine growers – if temperatures don’t rise too much

As any farmer will tell you, the work never seems to be done, including working the long rows of grape vines at the Colter’s Creek Vineyard near Juliaetta.
As any farmer will tell you, the work never seems to be done, including working the long rows of grape vines at the Colter’s Creek Vineyard near Juliaetta. Lewiston Tribune

Coco and Karl Umiker have been growing grapes in Idaho’s Clearwater Valley for 12 years, and last year their efforts paid off.

Wine Press Northwest gave its Double Platinum honor to Clearwater Canyon Cellars’ merlot, grown entirely in Idaho. Merlot grapes from north-central Idaho also won good reviews for Mike Pearson, his wife, Melissa Sanborn, and their Colter’s Creek Winery.

They hope their success helps get final approval for the pending Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area. If the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury approves, it would be the latest in the explosion of successful Pacific Northwest wine-growing areas to come on the scene — in part because of climate change.

The Clearwater and lower Snake River canyons had a flourishing, award-winning wine industry from 1864 until prohibition, Coco Umiker said. Her grandfather remembers vineyards right across the road from her family’s 100-year-old farm.

But every eight years or so, winter temperatures got so cold that they would seriously damage the grapevines.

“I’ve been growing grapes 12 years,” she said, “and we haven’t had one of those.”

Umiker, who holds undergraduate degrees in microbiology, molecular biology and biochemistry, and a Ph.D. in food science, agrees with Oregon climatologist and wine expert Greg Jones: Global warming has benefited vineyards in the Northwest.

“We’re in the sweet spot,” Umiker said. “The weather data suggests it’s easier to grow grapes in the Lewis and Clark Valley than it was 150 years ago because of less extreme winters.”

A booming wine industry is just one sign that the climate change that scientists say has caused longer and fiercer fire seasons, earlier river runoffs and smaller snowpacks isn’t all bad news.

But over the next 85 years, it is going to get progressively warmer, some climate experts predict. If that happens, that warmth could alter agriculture, threaten salmon, other cold-water fish and wildlife, and change skiing and snowmobile trails.


Earlier this month in Paris, 195 countries agreed to make sweeping changes aimed at dramatically reducing carbon dioxide and other emissions that contribute to the greenhouse effect. If they succeed, said John Abatzoglou, a University of Idaho climate expert, Idaho temperatures still will rise by 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

But if we do nothing, he said, temperatures are expected to rise 11 to 12 degrees. That would place Southern Idaho into a climate similar to that of Bakersfield, Calif., today, Abatzoglou said. But it could be worse: We could be facing Bakersfield’s future, which climatologists say will be even hotter temperatures and likely a continuing drought.

“There’s probably a good case to make there are probably worst places to be than the Northwest,” Abatzoglou said. “With climate change there is going to be winners and losers.”

Thousands of families left the Great Plains Dust Bowl during the 1930s, when the land dried up and soil blew away. Even though the Southwest has suffered through the worst drought in 500 years, it’s still not clear it will face its own dust bowl.

NOAA scientist Cliff Mass has said he expects migration from California and the Northwest, already a strong trend, to grow as the climate warms and water becomes scarcer. By the middle of this century, places such as the Southwest could face worse droughts, and low-lying areas such as the Florida Keys might face flooding threats.

“The main thing Idaho has going for it is we are pretty water rich,” Abatzoglou said. “The projections say we aren’t going to have much change.”


Alan McRae, who specializes in agricultural real estate for United County real estate in Caldwell, said buyers have been coming to Idaho from California and the Southwest because of land values, which are much lower here. He and others hear rumors that large California wineries are looking to move into the region.

But most of the best wine soil in the Snake River Valley already is growing grapes, he said. He’s less convinced there is a lot of water available in Idaho for potential new wine or other agricultural interests.

“The ones with the good, strong water rights are the ones who are going to have value,” McRae said.

Pearson, from Colter’s Creek Winery, said water has been a factor in the growing interest in vineyards up Potlatch Creek near Juliaetta in North Idaho.

“Realtors are getting a lot of calls from California looking for grape land,” Pearson said.

Mother Earth Brew Co., which plans to open a brewery in Nampa in 2016, said water was one of its considerations. Mother Earth’s Kevin Hopkins told the Statesman that the current water supply in California was not a primary consideration for building its Nampa brew room and corporate offices.

“It’s more of an issue of future water availability and planning,” Hopkins said. “In that case, Idaho absolutely shows a positive spin on that.”


Idaho’s hydroelectric and renewable energy portfolio, which gives businesses a low-carbon footprint, also is attracting new businesses that want to tout their green values. Clif Bar & Co., a leading maker of sports bars and organic food and drinks, broke ground this year on a state-of-the art bakery in Twin Falls.

“(Renewable energy) wasn’t the only factor but was a compelling factor for why they located to Idaho,” said Megan Ronk, chief operating officer for the Idaho Department of Commerce.

Aimee Christensen, who works for the energy consulting firm Christensen Global Strategies in Ketchum, was in Paris for the climate talks. She says Idaho will benefit more when it reduces its energy reliance on out-of-state coal and changes policies to favor solar and other renewable energy sources.

“We can quickly make that transition,” she said.

Boise’s Brandy Wilson, global director of sustainability for the giant engineering and environmental firm CH2M, was working with other businesses in Paris to push for a shift to a low-carbon economy.

“What I observed in Paris, listening to Shell and Monsanto, they’re really looking at this as an opportunity,” Wilson said. “Businesses like to reduce their risk and increase their opportunity.”

Idaho can do that by using natural features such as forests to store water and wetlands to filter water and reduce carbon, Wilson said.

Monsanto, the global agribusiness company, announced during the Paris talks that it was committed to making itself carbon neutral by 2021. Monsanto is developing an incentive program to encourage farmers to use more carbon-neutral crop production methods, such as conservation tillage, and cover crops that reduce carbon dioxide releases. Such techniques also keep key nutrients trapped in the soil.

These corporate-driven initiatives fly in the face of strong Republican denial that climate change is human-caused and catastrophic. Trent Clark, public affairs director in Soda Springs for Monsanto, is also a former chairman of the Idaho Republican Party.

He said Idahoans shouldn’t wait for consensus to take common-sense actions like those proposed by Monsanto.

“Your exact position on atmospheric chemistry is not a determinant about whether sequestering carbon in your soil is a good idea,” Clark said. “There are nutrient-management and soil-health benefits that accrue that are a benefit, whether the globe is warming or not.”

Vintner Umiker, of Clearwater Canyon Cellars, said she thinks their family firm can adjust to a 5-degree rise in temperature relatively easy, with good growing techniques and by planting the right varieties. But if there happened to be a 12-degree rise, high summer temperatures could become a bigger issue for Idaho grape growers.

“Reducing climate change, if it’s possible, would benefit us,” she said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Idaho climate series

Journalists from the Statesman, the Times-News in Twin Falls, the Tribune in Lewiston and the Post Register in Idaho Falls are examining the potential effects of a changing climate for the next six days:

TODAY: Idaho could be a refuge for businesses in a changing climate

Monday: How climate change could alter Idaho agriculture

Tuesday: Changing climate will shift the way Idaho gets electric power

Wednesday: The effects on fish, wildlife and the economies that depend on them

Thursday: How the climate is shaping our range, forests and fires

Friday: How Idaho political leaders are responding