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04/10/2013 02:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2013

California Wine: Climate Change Could Decimate State's Wine Industry

Here's a tip for fans of the famously bold flavor of California wine: drink up now.

If a recent study predicting the effects of climate change on the global wine industry is correct, the area suitable for wine production in California could shrink by as much as 70 percent by 2050 due to global warming.

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this week and featured contributions from researchers across the globe, found that Golden State wine production could plummet at the worst possible time--an endless series of hot days when a chilled bottle of Chardonnay would really hit the spot.

California's $121.8 billion wine industry accounts for nearly two-thirds of all wine produced in the United States and, according to the Wine Institute, supports at least 82,000 jobs nationwide.

"Climate change is going to move potential wine-producing regions all over the map," explained the study's lead author, Lee Hannah of Conservation International, in a statement. "Consumer awareness, industry and conservation actions are all needed to help keep high quality wine flowing without unintended consequences for nature and the flows of goods and services it provides people. This is just the tip of the iceberg--the same will be true for many other crops."

The study predicts that, worldwide, the area suitable for wine cultivation will decrease significantly; however, the size of that shrinkage will vary greatly by region. In Chile, the area suitable for producing wine is expected to decrease by 25 percent but in the Mediterranean climate of southwestern Australia, the drop could be as high as 70 percent.

"Viticulture is famously sensitive to climate, and changes in wine production have been used as a proxy to elucidate past climate change," wrote the study's authors. "Wine grapes are symbolic of a wide variety of crops whose geographic shifts in response to climate change will have substantial implications for conservation. Although changes in suitability for viticulture may be especially sensitive to climate and therefore among the first to occur, other crops have well known climatic limits and are expected to experience change as well."

The authors urged wine growers to take proactive moves to combat some of effects of climate change on their businesses, such as implementing less water-intensive growing techniques or investing in new varietals tolerant to warmer temperatures.

In regards to the latter suggestion, the authors suggested vintners in places like France, where wines are typically identified by region (e.g. Bordeaux), to begin a marketing switch toward identifying them by varietal (e.g. Pinot Noir), so customers will be more comfortable when regions that have been producing a certain type of wine for generations are no longer able to do so.

While California already lists its wines by varietal rather than by region, climate change could bring about a shift in the types of wine grown by Golden State vintners, which, in turn, could cause reluctance among consumers hesitant to shell out their hard-earned dollars for wines with unfamiliar names.

Cross-breeding the grapes used for a popular favorite, say, Zinfandel, with another strain of grape may make that the resulting hybrid more resistant to heat, but the wine produced from those grapes could no longer be called Zinfandel.

"That's the big problem," Andy Walker, a grape breeder at the University of California, Davis, explained to NPR. "We've spent the last 100 years emphasizing [certain] varieties, and we've really marketed those names very effectively."

While the study portends impending doom for the low-lying viticultural regions along the West Coast like Napa and Santa Barbara, there's some good news for other areas whose climates aren't currently well suited for grape growing.

As the climate warms, the study's authors posit it may be become possible to grow wine grapes, as well as myriad other agricultural products, at latitudes much colder and farther north than is currently possible--namely in the "Yellowstone to Yukon" area stretching northward from Montana and Wyoming, through much of Western Canada and into the southeast portion of Alaska.

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