food / travel

As Drought Endures, Napa Wineries See A Glass Half Full

A persistent drought is threatening California's storied vineyards, which employ hundreds of thousands in the Golden State alone. But there is still water, for now.

Auction Napa Valley charity wine event
Auction Napa Valley charity wine event
Francesco Semprini

NAPA â€" The thick morning fog slowly lifts as we leave the Golden Gate Bridge behind us on Highway 101, heading northeast. We’re in the San Francisco Bay in northern California, and the landscape around us changes radically as we cross the long red bridge. The city's pleasant modernity and the enchanting atmosphere of Baker Beach give way to bucolic scenery that recalls the faraway countrysides of France and Italy. Generations of emigrants from the Old Continent made the Napa Valley the marvel that it is today, building America's wineries with their hard work and passion.

California produces 90% of American wine, and it's the world's fourth-largest producer after Italy, France and Spain, generating 250 million crates of wine a year (12 bottles to a crate). Production has risen by 22% over the last 10 years, and the state is now home to over 4,000 wineries, up from only 1,870 in 2003. Wine has fueled phenomenal economic growth, adding over $125 billion to national GDP and creating 330,000 new jobs in the Golden State alone.

The industry remains primarily a family-run affair, peculiar for a country built on economies of scale and large corporations. But much like every other Californian business, Napa's vineyards are facing serious challenges resulting from severe drought that has brought rainfall to historic lows and worsened the state's already hot climate. The drought's effects are visible as we follow the 101, the bright green vineyards bordered by fields of progressively intense shades of yellow. It's a sign that some crops have been abandoned in favor of grapevines and olives, northern California's other major agricultural export.

Self-imposed restrictions by California's farmers have added to the water-rationing regulations imposed by state and local authorities. Despite water-saving mechanisms such as crop rotation and the suspension of 25% of production, agriculture still comprises 80% of the state's annual water usage. But the vineyards have been left untouched by these provisions, and the industry has its own dedicated water supply.

The question is, what will happen to Napa's wineries when there's no water left? To find the answer we visited the Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, one of the most famous in the Sonoma Valley, home to California's most prized wines. Giovanni and Teresa Jacuzzi left Italy for the United States in 1921, and their passion and dedication to their work gave life to a cellar visited by thousands of tourists and connoisseurs.

It's here that we realize that Napa is home not only to cabernets and sauvignon blancs, but also to some of Italy's most prestigious grape varieties. Bob, a bearded veteran of the Jacuzzi estate, passionately describes the different types of wood used in the barrels to age the wine. He presents us with a 2011 Sonoma Coast Sangiovese and a 2012 Nebbiolo, which are among the Jacuzzi's best.

Vineyards in Napa Valley â€" Photo: Brocken Inaglory

"The drought? It's not a problem now, but it will be in the future," he says. "The grapes aren't suffering directly from the water rationing. In fact, the water shortage helps them develop properties that make for more full-bodied, fruity wines with a higher alcohol content."

Small producers in crisis

We ask him if this means that the state's wine producers aren't afraid of the drought. "No, problems will arise in the medium term, like a year or so from now," he says. "Grapes are undoubtedly more resistant than other crops, but they’re not invincible."

His opinion is shared by many other wine producers in the region, like the Sebastiani family. "The drought is hitting small producers of less expensive wine," the manager at this family estate explains.

Data from the Allied Grape Growers confirms this, showing that in the first nine months of 2014, sales of bottles costing less than $7 decreased by 2% to 3%, whereas sales of expensive bottles grew by double digits. The drought has also increased production costs, forcing producers to cut profit margins to keep their prices competitive.

This is also true for the most renowned wineries, and it risks derailing the tremendous growth of Napa's wine industry even as early as next year. Demand for wine has increased by 3% since 2008, and forecasts show it increasing further until at least 2019. With the drought's dangers apparent, producers must act quickly.

But some remain optimistic, including the Mary Madonna Estate, an organic vineyard in Napa. "We survived the phylloxera plague of the late 1800s and the prohibition era of the 1920s," the manager here says. "We'll get through the drought as well."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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