Bob Dickinson’s Climate Consultancy Is Preparing California Wineries for an Uncertain Future
In the summer of 2011, heavy rainfall battered Thailand, leading to flooding in 65 of the country’s 77 provinces and paralyzing Bangkok and its vicinity for two months. As the news played out, Bay Area-based tech executive Bob Dickinson watched on. He knew that the economic impact of the floods — one of the costliest natural disasters in history — would send ripples throughout the global economy, halting exports and affecting various industries ranging from tech to auto.
It was the catalyst for the launch of Argos Analytics, a California-based climate consultancy that Dickinson founded in 2011 to give businesses and municipalities the insights and data they need to prepare for an uncertain climatic future.
Since its founding, Dickinson and his team have worked on a range of projects, from analyzing future flood risks for the city of Del Mar, to helping a Northeastern hospital chain anticipate the effects of heat waves. But in recent years, Argos has become somewhat of a secret weapon among top wineries — including Napa Valley’s Gamble Family Vineyards and Silver Oak|Twomey, which has vineyards in California’s North Coast and Willamette Valley — where Dickinson and his team provide the data needed to develop climate adaptation measures tailored to specific sites. These insights can be used in the design of new or redeveloped vineyards, the management of existing vineyards, or to assess the long-term viability of current properties and potential acquisitions.
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“Farsighted growers and winemakers see the effects of climate change in their vineyards and in the wine,” says Dickinson, a co-founder of the (now inactive) Climate Readiness Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. “They want to understand what they’ll be dealing with in the coming years.”
We sat down with Dickinson to learn more about the origin story of Argos Analytics and the services it provides — plus, the challenges California winemakers are facing and why “going sustainable” isn’t enough.
1. You have 45 years of experience in the computer and semiconductor industries. What led you to launch a climate consultancy business?
“The 2011 Thailand floods were the impetus for Argos. That event had tremendous ramifications on various industries, and I knew that technology company managements didn’t recognize climate change as a strategic challenge. And while my career has mainly been in tech, my training is in physics, and I’ve tracked the dialogue around climate change since the 1970s.”
2. When and how did you start offering consulting services to wineries?
“In my previous role as a CEO for a public semiconductor company, I banked with Silicon Valley Bank, a big technology-oriented bank in the Bay Area whose second-largest business is lending to winegrowers and wineries. In 2012, I met with the person who started the bank’s wine practice, which is headquartered in St. Helena, and described what Argos could offer winegrowers. He told me, ‘Wineries won’t be interested in that; they’re thinking about this year’s growing conditions.’ Thankfully, Elizabeth Marston of Marston Family Vineyard agreed to have us do a pilot project for their estate Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in the Spring Mountain District. And David Graves, cofounder of Saintsbury in Carneros, and Roger Boulton, professor (now emeritus) of viticulture and enology at UC Davis, have both been extremely generous in introducing us to winegrowers.”
3. What’s been the response from winegrowers? Are they generally enthusiastic about what Argos can do for them?
“We get several reactions. There are people in the minority like Tom Gamble [of Gamble Family Vineyards] who are early adopters. On the other end of the spectrum are people who don’t see it as a priority. Then you have the folks in the middle who say, ‘I realize it’s an issue, but I’ve got it under control.’ In response, I’ll say, ‘What you’re doing is like driving on a windy mountain road by looking in the rearview mirror.’ People need to realize that what’s happened in the past isn’t what’s going to happen in the future. You need to understand where the climate is going in order to stay ahead of the curve.”
4. What do you make of the reluctance to take action?
“Winegrowers are farmers, and farmers tend to be conservative. Plus, farmers are used to changeable weather — they’ve dealt with it their entire lives — so there’s a tendency to say, ‘I don’t know that the climate is changing, the weather always changes.’ But I do think it’s sinking in. Grapevines are the agricultural crop that are most sensitive to climate, so they’re like the canary in the coal mine.”
5. What services do you offer wineries?
“We offer insights into future climatic conditions and what effects these changes will have on grapes. We start by looking at temperature, as that has a major influence on how the vines and the grapes develop. We model how higher temperatures lead to earlier bud break and ripening, paying particular attention to the conditions between veraison and harvest. Warmer temperatures during this period raise sugar levels in the grapes and alcohol levels in the wine while lowering acidity. Heat spikes can interrupt the ripening process and even damage the grapes. We’ve recently developed projections of how the amount of water needed for irrigation will change with more variable rainfall and higher temperatures. Gamble Family Vineyards is our first client to make use of these projections.”
6. What analysis does Argos carry out in order to deliver insights?
“The first step is to visit the vineyard to get an understanding of the topography and local weather patterns. The climate projections we use need to be adjusted for local factors such as marine influence and wind, based on historic local weather data. We also use historic bud break and harvest data to calibrate our phenological models.”
7. What are the biggest climate-related challenges in California today?
“In California, everybody’s focused on water because we’re in the third year of a very severe drought. And in 2020 and to a lesser extent, 2021, the focus was on wildfires. These are certainly important challenges, but the bigger picture also includes rising average temperatures, which have implications for phenology and grape composition, as well as longer and hotter heat spikes.”
8. What do you make of sustainability initiatives like “green” wine packaging, using renewable energy, and capturing carbon from fermentation?
“These practices are important. However, the reality is the climate is changing and nothing we’re doing on the mitigation front is going to change that for at least several decades. We’re simply going to have to deal with different conditions. You can either choose to anticipate what’s coming and prepare accordingly, or try to react to it as it happens. And reacting is rarely a winning strategy.”