Eater features Milea’s Heritage Grape Project

Will Climate Change Help Hybrid Grapes Take Root?

Winemakers around the country are working to bring back indigenous and hybrid grape varieties that are better adapted to extreme weather

by Julia Fine

In his almost 50 years in the wine industry, J. Stephen Casscles has watched the weather in New York’s Hudson Valley become wetter, hotter, and more humid — the perfect environment for fungal diseases and pests to thrive. Facing everything from black rot and downy mildew to stink bugs and spotted lanternflies — invasive insects that feed on plant sap — winegrowers across the region have been more frequently and liberally applying pesticides and fungicides, including the copper-based alternatives used in organic viticulture.

“I’m the one spraying these things, [so] I just would rather not use things that are highly toxic,” Casscles says. “Or, if I am, I’d rather use them three times a year rather than 12.”

And yet, even copper poses potential health risks, and researchers have found that it can build up in vineyards over time, negatively impacting soil health. For these reasons, Casscles and other winemakers are hoping to spray less overall by growing grape varieties better suited for an increasingly unstable climate.“People who are leaning into these grapes are doing so out of a concern for soil and for laborers — often because they themselves are much closer to the labor.”

Together with Milea Estate Vineyards, Casscles recently launched the Heritage Grape Project, a line of wines that aims to conserve and promote hybrid grapes, which are crosses between indigenous American grapes and the European varieties that most wine drinkers are familiar with. Once shunned as “foxy,” “musky,” or “unidimensional,” these hybrid grapes are being re-evaluated as the climate crisis stands to reshape vineyards across the world…