Climate Change Science: He’ll Drink to That

By: Andrew Freedman
Publisher: Climate Central
Published: April 17, 2012

Antonio “Tony” Busalacchi leads a double life — much of the time he’s a prominent climate scientist, investigating the potential impact of manmade global climate change, publishing studies, and teaching earth science at the University of Maryland in College Park.

But he has some other titles, all of which are singularly unique in the climate science world. How many climate scientists can say they are also a “Certified Specialist of Spirits?” Sure, climate researchers like to have fun at happy hour from time to time, but this is an actual credential. And how many other climate researchers can lay claim to holding a position as a visiting lecturer at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra, Italy?

Busalacchi is the real deal, both in the climate science world, where he directs Maryland’s Earth Systems Science Interdisciplinary Center, and in the wine community, within which he is well on his way to joining an elite fraternity of experts. There are only about 120 master sommeliers in the U.S., Busalacchi said, and he plans to take the master’s exam sometime next year.

“This is a hellacious exam; you have like three years to [try and] pass it,” he said.

Given his dual roles, Busalacchi is in an ideal position from which to advise wine makers about the actions they should consider taking to protect their businesses as the global climate continues to warm.

Although it’s certainly an unorthodox path for a climate scientist, Busalacchi’s burgeoning wine career has deep roots in his family’s history.

Busalacchi hails from a Sicilian family that has been in the restaurant business for more than six decades. In a telephone interview, he joked that in some locations, such as San Diego, his cousins run most of the restaurants in “Little Italy”.

Growing up in Milwaukee, his father operated an Italian restaurant, and Busalacchi said he has memories of his dad waking him up at 2 a.m. when he got off work, and sharing a fresh pizza he brought home with him. His dad instilled in him a dedicated work ethic, but also showed him how tough the restaurant business can be.

A child of the post-World War Two, 1950s-suburban boom, Busalacchi said he was encouraged to pursue a career outside of the traditional family path. “In some sense, I was given opportunities to go in the other direction,” he said.

Instead of running a restaurant, he studied physics and oceanography, earning his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Florida State University. Until 2000, he worked for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, before moving to the University of Maryland.

While the bulk of his scientific research career has focused on the role of tropical ocean circulation in the climate system, and improving scientists’ abilities to observe and predict the air and sea interactions, he has increasingly studied how climate change may alter the suitability of different wine-growing regions, from Napa Valley to the Champagne region of France. His consulting company, Vino Veritas, provides viticultural weather and climate forecasting services, within the U.S. and abroad.

Vintners need to know specific information about temperature and soil conditions in order to determine what kinds of grapes to invest in, and where to locate their prized crops. Because of the impact of climate change, some are already buying land in countries that are expected to become more hospitable to wine production.

Busalacchi said that wineries located at high elevations or surrounded by water would be relatively well insulated by the effects of climate change. This is one of the reasons why, when asked where he would invest in a winery, he quickly shot back: “Tasmania” — an island off the southeastern tip of Australia.

Take the case of two major wine-growing regions in California — Sonoma County and Napa Valley. Sonoma borders the Pacific Ocean, and breezes off the water keep it relatively cool, particularly at night.

Nighttime temperatures are crucial for winemaking, since they help determine the acid levels of a grape and set a wine’s balance between fruit and acid. “That’s what provides the backbone of a fine wine,” Busalacchi said.

Being farther inland, Napa is more susceptible to increasing temperatures, which may make it more difficult for vintners there to continue growing the types of wines for which they’ve become famous, such as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. In general, Busalacchi’s research and studies from other research groups have shown that the West Coast wine-growing regions are likely to shift northward with time.

Busalacchi said vintners have lots of options to try to adapt to climate change, from altering their grape varieties, such as by switching from a pinot noir to a warm climate variety like the main grape in port, to buying new land elsewhere or rotating their vineyards to minimize their southern exposure. According to him, several French Champagne makers have begun hedging their bets and purchasing land in southern England, due to a combination of climate factors and cost considerations.

As for which winemakers have been the most receptive to learning about the likely implications of climate change, Busalacchi said he consults mostly with vintners in Bordeaux and in northern Italy.

“They’re much more open to this. Maybe it’s because they have this longer time perspective where they’ve been working the same land in their country for hundreds of years,” he said.

In the U.S., where climate science is so highly politicized, the reception he gets tends to vary from one vineyard to the next. “It depends on the political persuasion of the owner, quite frankly,” he said.

But for a man who leads an atypical dual life, dualities are part of the challenge. And he’ll toast to that.

Reprinted from Climate Central with permission.