When the Petaluma Gap AVA set out to distinguish itself from other northern California growing regions, it didn’t look first to traditional factors such as soil and elevation. Instead, it highlighted a less-discussed vineyard factor: wind.
“The Petaluma Gap is different in the sense that it’s all about this wind-driven force from the Pacific Ocean that moves through this natural, geographically-occurring wind tunnel,” says Erica Stancliff, the winemaker at Pfendler Vineyards and the president of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance. The local hills create a tunnel that draws cool air and fog into the area, forcing temperatures down in the mid-afternoon and keeping them low until the following morning.
“What this means for growing is that we have a much longer ripening window because we have nice sunny days, but it stays really cool at night and in the morning,” adds Stancliff. Less sunlight means the soil doesn’t dry out as quickly, which is helpful in drought years, and growers can hang fruit for longer without losing acidity.
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The idea that wind is a factor in vineyards is not new. Oregon’s Van Duzer Corridor AVA (established in 2018) and Washington’s The Burn of the Columbia Valley AVA (established in 2021) denote wind as a major contributor to their wines. The Mistral in France and the Tramontana in Italy and Spain are legendary for their benefits in vineyards as well—as is their ability to drive locals mad with their constant howling.
However, the role of wind is often discounted or not really understood. “Wind is really the least studied and least summarized statistic when you look at the vast majority of wine research publications,” notes Greg Jones, Ph.D., a wine climatologist and CEO of Abacela in southern Oregon. “That’s probably because places that have wind-related effects are somewhat rare in the viticulture industry.”
That may not be the case much longer. Like all components of weather, wind is changing as climate change advances. SevenFifty Daily spoke with winegrowers, viticulturists, and climate experts to outline the impact that changing winds could have on wine regions—and how winegrowers around the world can adapt their growing practices and vineyard protections.
The Pros—and Cons—of Wind
Many of the ways wind impacts wine are well documented. “We see decreased vigor and decreased set—that’s a big one,” says Matt Dees, the winemaker at The Hilt in the blustery Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Grapes are self-pollinating, but when there are hard winds whipping around, “it’s tough for that pollen to connect. We see smaller berries, and we see thicker skins,” which can produce red wines that are darker and more tannic.
In the Rhône Valley, the Mistral plays a big role in reducing the risk of mildew. It typically blows in after a rainstorm, “and it has a very positive effect, quickly drying the vineyard and blowing away many cryptogams and other diseases affecting the vine and grapes,” says Jean-Frédéric Bistagne, a winemaker who works with biodynamic vineyards in Lirac and Châteauneuf-du-Pape through Domaine des Maravilhas. “We say that the Mistral is the equivalent of one treatment by removing excess moisture from the grape’s skin.”
Strong winds can dry the grapes, which concentrates their aromas and sugar, says Clément Talmo, the U.S. export manager for Rhonéa. They can also play a significant role in a region’s temperature and moisture level. “Sun helps mature grapes, but it also sometimes [produces] over-mature wines that are too strong and too heavy,” says Talmo. “Wind is key to tempering that and bringing balance.”
In the Van Duzer Corridor, where winds come whipping up a mountain corridor each afternoon, “It’s been observed but not fully documented that they mute the daytime temperature during the summer by a couple of degrees,” says Dr. Jones. “That could be significant over the period of ripening.”
In southern Spain, the Levante and Poniente bring contrasting weather patterns that help with wine production. “The Levante is an intense, hot, dry easterly wind that reduces humidity levels across southern Spain, while the Poniente from the west raises these levels,” says Ellen Lainez, the founder and wine concierge at The Wine Consul.
The effects of wind aren’t always positive. Hot, late summer winds, such as those that come from the Sahara Desert to Europe, can desiccate vines and fruit just as the grapes are ripening, says Jones. In Oregon, where the wind typically comes off the Pacific Ocean to the west, late summer often brings warm winds from inland as well.
Argentina’s Zonda is a warm, dry wind that comes from the Andes and is typically followed by a significant drop in air pressure. That draws low temperatures from Patagonia to the Uco Valley. Franco Bastias, the chief agronomist for Domaine Bousquet says their risk of late spring frosts is already high due to the vineyards’ 3,600-foot elevation. The Zonda increases that risk.
Wind can also make the growing problem of wildfires worse. Just in the last few years, high temperatures and gusting winds have been blamed for worsening fires in Portugal, Chile, and the west coast of the United States.
The Winds of (Climate) Change
As with other climate factors, the strength, temperature, and unpredictability of wind is expected to get more extreme as the planet warms. The winds in places like the Petaluma Gap and Van Duzer Corridor are the result of inland air warming and rising, which allows cooler air to flow in and take its place. In these places, the increasing temperature differential is likely to make this effect stronger, says Jones.
“What we’re seeing with climate change is not strictly warming, although this summer begs that question,” says Joan Davenport, Ph.D., an emeritus professor of soil science at Washington State University. “What we are seeing are more swings in temperature. The cold is getting a little colder and the warm is getting warmer. As that’s happening, what it tends to do is increase thermal differences, and that causes more wind events.”
Another common wind effect is the movement of cool air from mountaintops to warmer areas below, often overnight. Hot winegrowing regions, including some spots in eastern Washington, rely on this so-called air drainage for a more notable diurnal shift. “If the landscape warms more during the day, the air up top may not be as cold,” says Jones.
For Stancliff, these changes are not theoretical. “What I’ve noticed is the marine layer is not as dense when it comes in,” she says. “It’s always been quite dense in the morning, but when it comes back in the evening, it’s not as dense as it once was.”
Perhaps more notable is the increasing frequency and severity of windstorms. “We have a consistent wind of over eight miles per hour in the Petaluma Gap, but it’s more extreme when we start to have gusts,” says Stancliff. In October, a massive wind and rain storm blew down many trees, including some that had been withstanding local winds for a long time.
So far, French and Italian producers aren’t seeing big shifts in the Mistral. However, Laurent Brusset, the president of the Cairanne AOC in the southern Rhône, believes the windy periods are shorter than they were 10 years ago.
Lainez is seeing changes in the Tramontana. “It is moving around and shifting a little. It’s not getting as cold as before,” she says, and it’s not causing the diurnal shift to be as great. Growers in Empordà and other parts of Catalonia are already responding by shifting their plantings to higher-elevation sites.
Traditionally, the Zonda winds have come between August and October. “Now, we are getting Zonda winds in June and July, and also in November and even December,” says Bastias. He is considering moving pruning even later so the winds are less likely to bring frosts or break young shoots or flowers.
Managing the Impact of Changing Winds
While there’s no way to control the weather, there are some things vineyard managers can do to give vines a fighting chance against more frequent and robust winds. Growers in traditionally windy areas such as the Columbia River Gorge typically invest in sturdier trellis systems and grow their vines lower to the ground, says Jones. “If you get a tall canopy and you get really strong winds, you can break off shoots because the young chutes don’t tend to be very rigid yet; high winds can snap them right off.”
Gian Matteo Baldi, the CEO of Bentu Luna in Sardinia, notes that the vite ad alberello pruning method (also called the bush vine or goblet method) is common to help the plants withstand high winds.
“As wind and wind events increase, you’re seeing an increase in crop water demand,” says Dr. Davenport. “If you’re not meeting that, you can run into serious problems,” including poor fruit set and shriveled berries near harvest. Growers may have to irrigate more to compensate for soils and plants dried out by hotter or more frequent wind.
Davenport also recommends planting biological windbreaks around vineyards, with a focus on fast-growing trees, hedges, or other plants that will be a safe haven for beneficial insects.
“It doesn’t take (the wind) away, but it lowers its intensity in the vineyard,” she says. “The tricky thing is you can’t surround the vineyard block or it causes other problems.” She recommends planting in spots where the natural vegetation can block the prevailing winds. That won’t help with unusual wind events, but those are typically short-lived. (Domaine Bousquet is planning to place high-altitude vegetation in the vineyards to guard the vines and grapes.)
Stancliff says there is already some conversation amongst growers in the Petaluma Gap about making planting decisions based on the direction of the prevailing wind so that the vines can move with (not against) heavier gusts—a tactic that has worked well for Bistagne. “My vineyard is planted in line with the Mistral direction so that the wind blows parallel to the vineyard and never puts a strong pressure on the leaves, grapes or berries during the growing season and, notably, the blooming period,” he says.
It will be interesting to watch the effect of changing winds over time, Stancliff says. “It’s very hard to say what average and normal is anymore. Our growers have already had to roll with so many punches, especially this year with the drought.” But she has no doubt locals will find solutions, whatever the wind blows their way. “The wind is what makes our AVA so special. We’re going to find ways to keep farming in this area because the fruit is just that good.”
Sophia McDonald is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and on websites, including Wine Enthusiast, Eating Well, Sip Northwest, and 1859 Oregon’s Magazine.