Person of the Year: Climatologist Greg Jones
Story by Janet Eastman
From his modest office on the Southern Oregon University campus in Ashland, Dr. Gregory V. Jones is quietly plotting how to change the world. While the media spotlight still lingers on the climate change discussions that came out of the Copenhagen summit, Jones is thinking beyond talk and politics, and about specifics:
How is climate change impacting the global wine industry? How can we make the best of it? What can we do before it’s too late?
It’s a field of research that barely existed when Jones began to dig into it two decades ago. Since then, he’s dedicated his career to focusing on the entire climate puzzle for winegrape production, from defining what the climate is in a particular place to what cultivars will thrive there, and, of course, the outcome of all of this: the wine that’s produced from a less mysterious terroir.
Jones’ groundbreaking work is not just theoretical science or academic ponderings. It brings awareness and informs hands-in-the-soil decision makers here and around the world, and has changed the way government officials view the climate crisis and chart the future.
His understanding of the big picture of global climatology benefits everyone, from large commercial grape growers to the smallest hobby farmer. For them, Jones spends many lab hours and field time to provide reliable information on site and climate characteristics that translates into better decisions by growers, which increases grape and wine quality and, ultimately, sales. And he does it all with a quiet enthusiasm.
No one has ever heard him brag, even after he was named to the U.K.-published Decanter magazine’s “2009 Power List” of the 50 most influential people in the wine world. Locally, he’s credited with enhancing the quality and reputation of Southern Oregon wine.
“If part of the result of my work is that the region grows, gains recognition as a fine wine-producing region and people are successful, then I have succeeded in being a scientist,” Jones said, modestly.
Ted Farthing, executive director of the Oregon Wine Board and Oregon Winegrowers Association, is bold in his assessment of Jones’ contribution, saying he “catalyzed Southern Oregon’s exponential growth in wine quality.”
Farthing added: “As climate change emerges as a top threat facing the global wine industry, we’re most fortunate to have Dr. Greg Jones right here in Oregon.”
These, of course, are remarkable accomplishments and good reason to name Jones the Oregon Wine Press 2009 Person of the Year.
But there is one fact Jones hesitates to tell and yet it is an accomplishment that this renowned academic should brag about: He didn’t finish high school until he was in his late 20s, after enjoying several lucrative careers.
This former chef and entrepreneur now spends rainy days in vineyards collecting data on climate, landscapes, soils and cultivars, and nights sharing his research with scientists, industry insiders and most important, muddy-handed growers, all to boost Oregon’s growing wine industry.
“It’s been an interesting path to where I am today, that’s for sure,” Jones said.
WHO IS GREG JONES?
It was a winding journey, by way of seven other states, before Jones landed in Ashland in 1997 with his wife, Liz.
Jones, now 50, was born in Kentucky, and raised in Hawaii and California. At 29, he had been a chef, managed multimillion-dollar restaurants and owned two golf retail stores in Denver that he built with a partner “by the scratch of our backs.”
His father, Earl Jones, a dermatologist at the time, suggested that Jones go back to school. Greg did, first by passing the GED, then earning a B.A. and Ph.D at the University of Virginia, which was founded by another wine enthusiast, Thomas Jefferson.
Originally, Greg wanted to study hydrology, but shifted to climatology to better explore how weather and climate influence agriculture.
During this time, Earl asked his budding scientist son a seemingly simple question: Where’s a good place to grow Spanish grapes on the West Coast? Earl wanted to produce wines from grapes he’d grow. With some guidance from his son, he landed in Roseburg in the early 1990s and began what’s now the highly regarded Abacela Vineyard & Winery.
But his father’s original question wasn’t easy to answer. “I tried to help him,” Greg said. “But each answer I found wasn’t very complete or definitive. I kept saying, ‘someone should do research on that.’”
At the time, no scientist was known to be looking at viticulture in depth and only a few viticulturists were analyzing climate comprehensively from a climate scientist’s perspective.
“I married the two of them and began telling an important story about the research that needed to be done,” Greg explained.
He spent years huddled over reference books and scientific studies, and compiled research for his dissertation on the climatology of viticulture in Bordeaux, France.
“The key was that the French took time to open their doors, data and information on winegrapes to an American, like they did for Thomas Jefferson hundreds of years before me,” Jones said. “Their collaboration also opened doors to many other places.”
Jones’ research is now in libraries all over the world and is used by people whose families have been growing grapes for centuries.
“Professor Gregory Jones is the greatest and best connoisseur and historian of vine quality in the world,” said Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, a professor at the University of Paris and a famous wine historian and author.
From the beginning, Jones has served the role of a unifying scientist. He continues this by collaborating with people working in other wine regions, facilitating parallel research projects and finding ways to get the information out.
“Sometimes it seems overwhelming,” Jones said. “But mostly I appreciate how fortunate I am to be in this position. It’s like what everyone’s grandfather tells you, including mine, that hard work pays off. I guess I saw a need and stepped in to assume the role. But I can assure you I was not expecting that it would lead me to where I am today.”
SOUTHERN OREGON VINES BEFORE GREG JONES?
When Jones accepted the position as a professor in SOU’s Department of Geography (what is now the Department of Environmental Studies) in 1997, the region had a more-limited, less-defined wine scene. There were about 120 growers in what would later be designated, with Jones’ help, as the Southern Oregon AVA.
“Most growers were concentrating on a mix of varieties that did not fully capture the region’s diversity and potential,” Jones said.
Oregon State University Professor Porter Lombard conducted grape variety trials at the OSU Experimental Station in Central Point in the 1970s and ’80s. When he retired, it ended most of the local ongoing research until Jones stepped in. Jones discovered through his analysis of existing sites, climatic conditions and the length of the grape-growing season that the region could support a broader range of varietals.
“I would say that much of my research has been about bringing awareness of what growers have done historically, what varieties do best and where, and how all of this relates to other wine regions worldwide,” he said.
Don and Traute Moore were typical growers at the time. Don, a retired internist, and his wife had moved to Southern Oregon in 1990 to plant what would become the expansive Quail Run Vineyards. Years into their project, they attended one of Jones’ popular lectures. They stayed after the talk to get more specifics from the serious-looking scientist.
Emboldened by Jones’ credentials and exacting data, the Moores decided to shift their focus from Pinot, Chardonnay and Riesling grapes to warmer weather Merlot, Syrah and Viognier. Then they planted even later-ripening grapes—Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Mourvedre and Petite Sirah—all with considerable success. Today, the Moores farm 22 varietals that have been specifically matched to sites in the Bear Creek Valley.
“We have had the courage to introduce many of these varieties to this area with thanks to Dr. Jones,” Don Moore said. “His verification of our good growing conditions in Southern Oregon has led to predictions that in the next 10 to 15 years this will be the fastest growing industry in our area. I cannot too strongly emphasize his key role in encouraging this growth to our economy.”
Jones set up weather stations at one of the Moores’ 11 vineyards and at 28 other sites in the Umpqua, Applegate and Rogue valleys. From these sites, he collects data on climate as part of his Reference Vineyard Research Project. He correlates this with phenological data—bud set, bloom, veraison and fruit composition during ripening—to develop an understanding of climatic differences among varieties, sites and regions. The goal of this research, says Jones, is to “understand the wine production and quality potential, and helping achieve it.”
Says Moore, “With this information, he has helped the Southern Oregon wine industry more than any other single individual that I know because this data helps new growers decide what grapes will do well on their land.”
Since Jones arrived, the number of vineyards in Southern Oregon has increased to more than 200, the area planted to more than 3,000 acres, producing more than 6,000 tons of fruit with a total crop value of $5 to $6 million, according to recent reports.
The biggest differences in the last 13 years, however, have been the wider diversity of grapes grown here and the recognition that the wines have garnered. Again, many experts credit Jones for helping to expand the region’s offerings and reputation.
Laura Lotspeich of Trium winery in Talent calls Jones “one of the best world ambassadors that Southern Oregon and Oregon has.”
The SOU professor has been quoted in so many books, scientific journals and consumer articles that he’s lost count. He continues to present his original research at global conferences. And when he travels, which he does often, he brings along wine produced here and then has the best palates of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal test the complexity of this New World wine region.
“I have found that Oregon is either largely unknown as to where it is and what grapes are grown here, and it has somewhat of a mystique that it’s too cold and wet,” Jones said. “In nearly every talk I have given, I make a point to present an overview of the Oregon wine industry. This always leads to more conversation from other scientists and wine industry members everywhere on wanting to learn more about Oregon.”
This wine scientist has a lot on his 2010 to-do list.
In his personal life, he plans to go camping and traveling with his wife, Liz, and their 10-year-old twins, Adam and Curtis. And he’d like to fix the roof on his Ashland home.
Professionally, this year’s main goal is to finish a book on Oregon’s terroir begun by the late OSU Professor George Moore. The book, which is more than halfway completed, will detail Oregon’s landscape, climate, soils and the history of grape growing from 1800s to today. To do so, other projects around the world—Canada, Italy, Hungary, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand—will have to wait.
Jones has already traveled to most of the world’s major wine regions—“something I would have never dreamed possible 15 years ago,” he said. He was in Portugal in November 2009, giving the keynote speech at the Iberian conference on viticulture and enology and working with a government-industry organization to better characterize the country’s centuries-old winemaking terroir.
He makes his travel plans around his family and teaching time. “Most of it is a management and planning issue, which I am fairly good at,” he said.
This year, his speaking and research collaboration schedule leads him to Paris in January, New York in February, Washington D.C. in April, Brazil in May, Italy in June, France in July and Portugal in August. In between, he’ll be at the Oregon Wine Industry Symposium in Eugene in February, representing Oregon. Otherwise, he’ll be in his SOU office, quietly changing the world of wine.
Janet Eastman is an Ashland-based journalist who covers Southern Oregon wine for Examiner.com and other media.
Hats Off to Jones
“Greg Jones, through his expertise, energy and insight, has become the modern champion of the climate and wine terroir, and the potential impacts of changing climate on these old relatiaonships.”
Snow Barlow, foundation professor of viticulture and horticulture at the University of Melbourne as well as an international researcher on the impacts of climate change on the wine industry
“Dr. Greg Jones is one of those special individuals who possess an inquisitive mind capable of understanding the theoretical sciences tempered by practical experiences as someone involved in developing vineyards and winegrowing. He is able to look at the big picture of global climatology and explain it in a way that is accessible to his undergraduate students and winegrape growers alike. He is energetic, willing to share what he knows, and is a treasure to both Oregon and all of the wine-growing community throughout the world interested in the implications of climate change and weather patterns. We are lucky to have him as a contributor to the broad body knowledge of climatology and viticultural science.”
Glenn McGourty, viticulture and plant science advisor at UC Davis Extension
“When he began pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, Greg noted (correctly) that our level of sophistication in understanding climate and climate variability had not yet translated to the global wine industry. This was odd, especially given the importance of yearly climate variations in influencing vintage quality and production. In the process of pursuing this research over the past 10 to 15 years, Greg has brought a level of advanced understanding of climate to the wine industry and, in the process, has become one of the global leaders in this issue.
“At a more personal level, Greg has always been a joy to work with. He has a great attitude and a joie de vivre coupled with an outstanding work ethic. I know he is a popular and demanding teacher, a parlay that is not very easy to pull off. I have always been proud of what Greg has accomplished in his academic career.”
Dr. Robert E. Davis, professor of climatology at the University of Virginia
“Greg is well known everywhere in the world where grapes are grown. There is no wine conference that does not want to get Greg Jones as a keynote speaker. While his research is high powered and path breaking, he has always worked closely with the Oregon wine industry.”
Karl Storchmann, professor in the economics department at New York University and managing editor of the Journal of Wine Economics
“Greg has made a huge contribution to the understanding of the role of geology and climate for our region and how that impacts site and varietal selection. This work has led directly to improved grape growing and winemaking, helping to enhance the image and reputation of our area. He has voluntarily administered our ongoing Reference Vineyard Research Project that has given all of us here invaluable data, racking up tons of drive time and lab hours. When I get inquiries from folks interested in purchasing property for grape growing or planting land that they already own, the first piece of advice that I always give them is to contact Greg for site assessment. He is a heck of a nice guy, always very generous with his time and expertise.”
Terry Brandborg, co-owner and winemaker of Brandborg Vineyard & Winery in Elkton
“Dr. Greg Jones is one of the best world ambassadors that Southern Oregon and Oregon has. He is respected and recognized the world over for his climatologic work and in depth studies on wine regions and varieties appropriate for them. He has spent countless hours in the field accumulating data and compiling it for our benefit. Greg’s warm and user-friendly approach to his presentations and scientifically sound information has improved our ability to produce better grapes, hence better wine. I truly appreciate his dedication and how easy he is to work with. A true asset for Oregon and, especially, Southern Oregon.”
Laura Lotspeich of Trium Winery in Talent
“As climate change emerges as a top threat facing the global wine industry, we’re most fortunate to have Dr. Greg Jones right here in Oregon. His matchmaking work between grape varieties and vineyard sites catalyzed Southern Oregon’s exponential growth in wine quality. Greg’s considerable expertise will be essential as we chart the course ahead amidst rising temperatures.”
Ted Farthing, executive director of the Oregon Wine Board and Oregon Winegrowers Association
“I feel both personally and as an industry that we are fortunate to have such a dedicated person provide us with an ongoing unique and valuable perspective of the world we grow our grapes in.”
Joel R. Myers of Vinetenders Vineyard Management in McMinnville
“Greg Jones has done more to influence and direct viticultural direction in Southern Oregon than any other person I know. His work to map vineyard plantings and categorize micro-climatic differences throughout the area has given current and future growers valuable decision-making tools.”
Randy Gold of Pacific Crest Vineyard Services in Talent
“I am sure that others will attest to Greg’s vast knowledge and ability. Perhaps more importantly, Greg is a fine person, a gentleman who is compassionate and kind, qualities we need more of on our little planet.”
Steve Girard of Benton-Lane Winery in Monroe
“Greg has been a wonderful global ambassador for Oregon wines. What’s more, his climate work has been invaluable in the expansion of vineyards and varietals throughout Oregon.”
Kevin Chambers, CEO of Oregon Vineyard Supply/Results Partners, LLC, and owner of Resonance Vineyard