Where did you grow up?
I was born in Kentucky, went to school in New Orleans, Hawaii and San Francisco. I moved to Colorado and lived there through most of the 1980s.
Is it true that you did not complete secondary school until you were almost 30?
(Laughs) Yes. While I was in high school, I was working in restaurants as a sous chef in Sausalito. I was just making money, and high school felt less and less important. I ended up two credits short of graduating. I never looked back until I was 29, and then when I decided to go back to school, I completed my GED [secondary qualification], bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees all in seven-and-a-half years.
So you were a chef? That’s an unusual résumé for an academic.
I was a chef. After a few years I moved out of the kitchen and became a restaurant manager. Then I got a little burnt-out on that, and owned and operated two golf retail stores in Denver. That wasn’t so much of a career, but there was an opportunity to get into the business and so I did. I learned a tremendous amount in the business world that helped me in college. Then, eventually, I learned a lot in college that helped me today to be a better scientist.
What first drew you to wine?
The restaurant industry was how I developed my interest. Because in the study of cooking you have to understand how wine and food work together. I spent quite a bit of time in my career in restaurants learning the wine business in general.
So how did you make the leap to an academic career in wine climatology?
When I got into academics, I was originally going to study hydrology: water resources and that kind of thing. As I progressed into the academic side, I took a climatology class and just fell for it. I remember a professor telling me, 'A fluid is a fluid is a fluid. Water is a fluid, the atmosphere is a fluid. They both act the same.' And then I kind of keyed in on agriculture. And all of that fell into place when I started my Ph.D. program.
Your father and stepmother, Earl and Hilda Jones, own the Abacela vineyard and winery in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. Was it your father's search for the best location to plant tempranillo that made everything click?
Yes, it was about 1992 or '93. My dad was interested in getting out of the medical profession and growing grapes and making wine. He knew I had access to great libraries and information through my academics. He started asking me questions on subjects and I kept finding that, in viticulture, climate wasn't being studied in depth. I realized that it was a no-brainer for me to study viticulture.
I was potentially the right person, but definitely a lot of it was the right place at the right time. The other thing is, I think my business background put me in a situation where I could see an academic niche that wasn't being filled. I decided that this would be a great career.
You went to Bordeaux to write your dissertation. Why?
Because there is a great history there. Two professors at L’Université de Bordeaux provided data on plant growth and composition that went back about 50 years. It was extremely important for them to share that with me. Then I made some inroads with a couple of large landowners there, Bruno Prats of Cos d’Estournel and Jean-Paul Valette of Château Pavie, before he sold it. They opened other doors, at Château Margaux and so forth.
I was slowly able to piece together one of the most comprehensive pieces of data on plant growth and production. And then Météo France [the national meteorological service] finally helped in terms of getting together the climate data that I needed.
Tell us about some of your other work.
I spent a sabbatical year at Universidade do Porto in Portugal two years ago, and with some colleagues, investigated the whole issue of wine scores. There are probably a dozen different agencies that produce scores; we asked, 'Is there any consensus?' If you take Wine Spectator, Decanter, Wine Enthusiast and others, did they all agree that 1982 was the better Bordeaux vintage, or was it '61? We developed a statistical tool that takes as many rating agencies as there are, lumps them together and ranks them to reach a consensus.
It’s not that they will agree perfectly every time, but if 9 out of 12 agree that, say, '61 was a better vintage than '82, then that’s the consensus.
What have you discovered since starting your research that has surprised you?
When I started doing all this, it was amazing to me to find out how much we didn't know. For example: do we truly know what is the upper limit of the ability to grow any grape variety, anywhere in the world? Or, are we steadfast in the way that we look at this? For any variety, could we plant it somewhere where it has never been planted before and learn how to make it produce in a way that is suitable for a marketable product?
In what way do wine grapes tell the story of climate change?
Well, we have a keen interest in them. Wine is a beverage that has romanticism, art, history and alcohol in it, so we pay attention to it. There has been a long history of good data, good information. You can’t say the same thing about apples or pineapples or coffee. We have records of harvest dates going back hundreds of years. And it is a crop system that has been resilient.
The second piece of it is that, unlike some broader subjects – say, corn, soybeans or cotton – the climate niche for wine grapes is narrower. And you can make it really narrow when you start talking about different varieties: pinot noir or grenache or whatever it may be. So you have a fine-tuned ability to see how climate is changing and how people are managing that crop.
You frequently confer with international climate experts and speak at wine-growing conferences all over the world. How are wine-growers different in their outlook on climate?
You mean, do their climate understanding, and denial or support for climate change, vary? Of course they do, but mostly along political and religious ideologies. Most understand that more than seven billion people on this planet cannot help but influence our climate, but some will always be skeptical, always wanting 100-percent proof to be convinced.
This has been happening for centuries with other issues in science, including plate tectonics, the theory of relativity, gravity, the question of whether the earth is round, and so on. The problem with climate change is that if we wait for 100-percent proof, it may be too late for some aspects of our planet as we know it.
How do different wine-growing regions approach the climate-change problem?
There is a wide variation. I worked with an organization out of Italy, Vinidea, that did a large global survey of wine producers in different geographies. It’s clear that there are major differences in attitudes between countries. But this industry is still much more proactive [than others] in overall ecological, organic sustainability.
Could you elaborate on those differences?
Australia and New Zealand tended to have the greatest overall sense of ecological sustainability. Some European countries, like Italy or Portugal, they were more interested in looking at global economics in terms of sustainability. So a lot of times there was a little shying away from the issue of ecological sustainability and looking at economic viability.
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
Someone very lucky to have had the opportunities that I have had.
What has been the high point of your career?
Being recognized by the industry for the work I have done: by the Oregon wine industry for an Outstanding Service Award, and by Decanter magazine for being one of the top 50 most influential people worldwide.
How about the lowest point?
The lowest point in my career may be right now, seeing the state of higher education eroding in the United States. We are not funding education. We are not requiring kids to learn as deeply and broadly as kids are in the rest of the world. I love to teach and I am so hamstrung by this system. Kids graduate with a degree today and are $100,000 in debt because the government no longer subsidizes it.
What is in your cellar?
Mostly some unique wines that I have brought back from my travels around the world. Also, those special bottles from the first vintages of some producers in Oregon. I can't wait to see how they evolve over time.
What would make the world a better place?
No bad wine! Well, that would make it better, but only on a very limited scale. I guess I would have to say the tolerance of others. But also a more reliable, less environmentally damaging, and easily-distributed fuel source… I'm not sure which of these will be more difficult to achieve.