How The Wine Industry is Adapting to Climate Change
Catching up with scholarship winner Paige BreenPaige Breen
March 28, 2022
Applications are now open for 2022-2023 James Beard Foundation scholarships! Each year, the James Beard Foundation offers tuition waivers and grants to students across the country who plan to further their education at a culinary school or hospitality institution, college, or university. As of 2022, the Foundation will have awarded nearly $9 million in financial aid to over 2000 recipients.
We are catching up with previous winners to hear their stories and see how the scholarship has impacted them. Below, we spoke to 2021 Debbie Lewis Women in Wine Award winner Paige Breen. Hear how she combined her two passions, environmental research and wine, into a career.
Wine is inextricably linked to the place from which it comes. Many styles of wine are known simply by the name of the place where the grapes were grown, like Bordeaux or Prosecco. In most wine-producing countries, a complex set of production methods and guidelines must be met before a bottle of wine can include the name of a certain place on its label. Famously, sparkling wine from outside of the 84,000-acre Champagne wine-growing region in France cannot be called Champagne, even if it is made from the same grape varieties and uses the same winemaking methods. And while the concept of terroir is controversial for both sociocultural and scientific reasons, it is often highlighted in various marketing campaigns. So, what happens to wine when an environment changes irreversibly due to climate change? This is the question that drives my research.
As a geology major at Yale University, my research focused on reconstructing climate conditions from tens of millions of years ago. After working in other fields for a few years post-graduation, I rejoined the effort to address the climate crisis, but this time, I combined it with my new passion: wine.
I’ve been fascinated by wine since my first sips of Chianti when I was studying in Tuscany during college. For me, wine can so beautifully capture a time, place, and culture. But having spent most of my life far away from any major viticultural regions, I didn’t believe I could build a career around wine. But after years of tasting, reading, and dreaming about wine, I started to think it might be possible. After receiving advice and inspiration from industry professionals and mentors, I enrolled in the Wine & Spirits Education Trust Level 3 Award in Wines course and applied for a degree in viticulture and enology. In the fall of 2020, I worked my first grape harvest at Paumanok and Palmer Vineyards in the North Fork of Long Island.
By the spring of 2021, I moved west to work with Beth Forrestel, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). Currently, my main project is working on a viticultural climate index, an updated version of the widely used Winkler Index that was developed at UC Davis in the 1940s. The Winkler Index, in its current form, uses temperature measurements throughout the growing season to make recommendations as to which grape varieties will thrive in a particular region. For example, according to this model, Cabernet Sauvignon is well-suited to the Napa Valley. My research aims to create a more robust model, using additional parameters, to better determine where grape varieties should be planted in the context of a complex and changing climate.
In 2021, I came across the Debbie Lewis Women in Wine Award, days before the deadline. I was familiar with the James Beard Foundation but did not know about its many initiatives to support education. I was also inspired and touched by Debbie Lewis, who made her own career change to the wine industry in the 1990s. In the early summer of 2021, I was honored to learn that I had been granted the award. With the support of the scholarship, I began my graduate program at the Institut Agro Montpellier in the Languedoc region in the south of France. My coursework has introduced me to additional ways that the wine industry is adapting to climate change, from breeding new grape varieties to using atypical yeasts for alcoholic fermentation. When I am not in class or learning more about the wines of France, I am busy analyzing viticulture and climate data that I collected in Napa Valley during the 2021 harvest season. Next year, I will continue my research at Germany’s Geisenheim University. There, I will continue the research I started at UC Davis by creating a comprehensive dataset on the climate, topography, viticulture, and enology as it relates to Riesling wine in the Rheingau region of Germany.
Though the impacts of climate change are increasingly alarming, there are ways the wine industry and the world can adapt. By looking back to what we know about climate transitions and using climate modeling to predict what lies ahead, we can trek a better way forward. And while the environment may change drastically in the coming decades, researchers are working so that conduits of invaluable human culture, such as viticulturists and winemakers, will be prepared for the challenge.
Applications for the 2022-2023 James Beard Foundation Scholarships are now open until April 8, 2022. To learn more about the program and application process, visit jamesbeard.org/scholarships.
Paige Breen is currently a graduate student in viticulture and enology with a focus on climate science. An alumna of Yale University, she has worked and researched in New York and at the Robert Mondavi Institute in Davis, California. Learn more at paigebreen.com.