Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Malcolm Jolley: ‘Drugs for plants’: The cutting-edge science to save Canadian wine from climate change

Commentary

Jim Willwerth is a biologist at the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University. He studies grape vines, and specifically the ones that grow near the institute in the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. He has some ideas about how climate change is affecting the Canadian wine industry.

The Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute in St. Catharines, like its Western Canadian analogue, the University of British Columbia Wine Research Centre at Kelowna, was set up in the 1990s to focus Canadian research on Canadian growing conditions. Inniskillin winery founders and Canadian wine pioneers Karl Kaiser and Donald Ziraldo were leaders in its establishment.

Before CCOVI, Niagara vintners relied on research from long-established institutions like UC Davis in Northern California or L’Institut Agro Montpellier in the south of France. Three decades on, CCOVI academics like Willwerth, who is also a teaching professor of biological science, engage in both what he calls the “fundamental research of what’s going on in the vine” as well as “applied research with direct results for the Canadian wine industry.

Willwerth came to my attention recently when I was tipped off to a YouTube video of a talk he gave for the 2023 CCOVI Lecture Series. The title of the lecture is a little dry: “Improving resiliency in grapevines to avoid freeze damage in a changing climate”. But the content is interesting because it offers a well-educated guess at what Canadian wine might look like in 10, 20, or 30 years from now.

I spoke to Willwerth last week on Zoom, and he explained his expertise lies in cold climate vine hardiness. “When I was originally hired at Brock,” he explained, “my mandate was to try and improve and optimize cold hardiness in vinifera vines.” Vinifera, or fine wine, vines are thought to have originated around the Black Sea and proliferated most successfully around the Mediterranean Basin. There’s lots of work to do to see how they adapt to Canadian winters.

The problem with Willwerth’s original mandate is the problem grape growers around the world are struggling with: climate change and increasingly warm average temperatures. Willwerth realized that many of the aspects of viticulture that he was studying and monitoring in Niagara vineyards, like the selection of clones or rootstocks, were applicable to defending vines from climate change and weird weather events.

Since the shift to vinifera grapes in the Niagara wine industry in the 1970s and ’80s, a number of varieties, like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Gamay, have established themselves as calling cards to the region. Willwerth makes a comparison with Bordeaux, where he notes consumers expect the wines to be made from the five dominant grapes, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the leading positions.

“You don’t want to make Bordeaux with Syrah,” he jokes, making the point that replanting with warmer weather grapes isn’t a popular or viable option with producers or consumers alike. So, ways to adapt to climate change that preserve the vineyard mix as it has evolved to date, like rootstocks and clones, are of key importance. Vermentino isn’t going to replace Riesling on the Beamsville Bench.

Willwerth explained that while the EU is rushing to fund projects to research how traditionally grown grape varieties can be made to adapt to the new climate reality, it’s important that Canadian research be tailored to Canadian conditions. “We know we have a changing climate, and we know we’re going to have more extremes, so we better be ready for it,” he says.

In cool climates, the greatest threat to vinifera vines is an early thaw and spell of warm weather followed by a freeze. The danger is that the plant will come out of winter dormancy and grow buds. Those buds which would have matured into grapes will be lost with the return of cold weather, and a year of production with it.

This is where Willwerth’s work gets particularly interesting: his research on “drugs for plants”. Willwerth is studying the effects of spraying abscisic acid on vines to keep them in a state of dormancy until the beginning of a continuous growing season.

But isn’t spraying things on plants bad? I asked Willwerth if consumers should be concerned about abscisic acid. “No,” he replied, “there’s no concern at all because it’s a naturally occurring hormone in the plant, and if anything abscisic acid may have health benefits to it.” After stressing he is not a (human) health expert he referenced some research that suggested it may be beneficial in controlling diabetes.

It turns out abscisic acid might be a perfectly Canadian solution to a Canadian wine problem. Willwerth explained that the plant hormone is found in some of the highest concentrations in Maple syrup and wild blueberries.

If the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute was founded with the idea that Canadian wine industry challenges ought to be met with Canadian-focused research, Willwerth is pleased to be in the middle of it. He said, “We have very unique conditions here,” adding, “if you can grow grapes here, you can grow grapes anywhere in the world; we have mildew pressure, cold winters, we can have drought, torrential rains during harvest, we can have everything.”

Willwerth sees a parallel between his work at CCOVI and that of the wine growers and makers he collaborates with. Just as wine itself is an expression of terroir, of the place it’s made, so is his science.

Opinion: Organized labour’s unlikely new alliance could shift Canada’s political landscape

Commentary

It’s time to confront and break down the barriers between conservatives and organized labour and foster closer cooperation and the adoption of public policies based on shared values and interests.

We conservatives are strongly pro-free market and pro-wealth creation. Markets will only work well and deliver widespread prosperity if they have the support of strong community institutions. Among them are labour unions which provide workers with power in the labour market and representation in the workplace. They afford solidarity, mutual aid, bargaining power, and workplace representation, all of which can benefit workers, their families, and communities—both economically and socially. Especially for conservatives, who understand better than anyone the importance of institutions, unions are worth defending. 

Unfortunately, the labour movement has faded toward irrelevance and alienated many of its members with an excessive focus on identity politics and social justice activism. On the other side, conservative hostility to organized labour remains stubborn, rooted in political and historic rather than differences in principle. Many conservatives are simply triggered by language like “solidarity,” “mutual aid,” and “bargaining power.” How many times have we heard, “why bother reaching out to unions, they hate us implacably?”

In their exhaustive study, “Canada’s New Working Class,” authors Sean Speer, Sosina Bezu, and Renze Naute say, “If the working class was a singular voting bloc, it would have won the popular vote in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.” The greatest challenge facing many conservative parties in Canada, especially the Conservative Party of Canada, is a stagnant, inefficiently distributed voter base. Finding and motivating new conservative voters—especially in battleground ridings and regions—is a strategic imperative. Working-class Canadians, with shared values and alienated by the frivolity of progressive politics, are a natural source of new conservative voters. 

The political pay-off for the conservatives in overcoming their aversions and forging bonds with the labour movement is immense, supported by research and obvious anecdotal evidence, none greater than the most recent Ontario general election in which Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario PC Party received the endorsement of every major building and trade union. 

Premier Ford has shown us the way. At the forefront of Ford’s effort to build bridges with labour is Monte McNaughton, minister of labour, who has been at the helm of the PCs’ “Working for Workers” agenda including an increase to the minimum wage, an introduction of the “right to disconnect,” and efforts to ensure trades unions are overseen by a body that represents them through Skilled Trades Ontario.

McNaughton’s playbook is clearly based on the Jason Kenney outreach model that made the federal conservative party so successful with new Canadians during the early and middle years of the Harper government. This strategy recognizes that the workers represented by these unions demographically and attitudinally look a lot like conservative voters. The Ontario PCs have turned large numbers of potential voters into actual voters through targeted policy announcements and a significant amount of time spent talking directly to these voters and their leadership.

Small c-conservatives too often cede economic policymaking to our libertarian cousins. The “unions are bad” opinion that is pervasive in the conservative movement and parties is a great challenge. Overcoming it is the mission of the Common Good Project. It isn’t easy to change long-held opinion, but recent history proves it can be done through disciplined effort over the long term. The starting point is the recognition that conservatives and labour are aligned in their values and interests, especially the belief that everyone who wants to better their lives through hard work should be given a fair chance to do so.