Warming climate brings opportunity, challenges to NJ's wine industry

MILFORD, New Jersey -- The warming climate is transforming the wine-making landscape around the world, and turning once chillier New Jersey into a hotspot.

But the benefits of greater warmth come with strings attached, including extreme storms, that can complicate production in New Jersey, now the seventh-largest producer of wine in the United States and rapidly becoming a veritable wine country in its own right.

"Because of global warming and warmer winters, we're experimenting with grapes from France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. Rutgers did a study, and we have 87 different varieties being grown in New Jersey," said Gary C. Pavlis, a professor and agricultural agent at Rutgers University.

As harsh winters become less common, vintners like Tom Sharko, owner of Alba Vineyard & Winery, and Todd Wuerker, the owner of Hawk Haven Vineyard & Winery, are seizing the moment to experiment with new grape varieties while adjusting their production to the rapidly fluctuating weather conditions that are a hallmark of climate change.

"Over the years, we've seen a fluctuation in temperatures. Last year was cooler, so it was a longer growing season, which extends how long it takes to ripen the fruit. This year, it's been a little bit warmer than last year, so we're seeing grapes start to ripen already," said Wuerker.

Warmer temperatures, while beneficial for wine production, can present challenges.

"The negatives from a New Jersey standpoint is that we are more likely to get severe storms. The last thing that grape vineyards want is a deluge of rain, that's like taking a bottle of wine, pouring a quarter of it out, and filling it with water," said Pavlis.

"As it gets warmer, we're going to see more problems that you don't expect, like the lanternfly that came in from Asia and tornadoes, which can wipe out a vineyard," he said.

Despite the uncertainty and threats of climate change, vineyard owners like Wuerker and Sharko are determined to adapt to whatever challenge they are presented with and continue to serve their flavorful wines.

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