Climate Change on Long Island: Fears of Flooding and Pierce's Disease

The wildfires, floods and heat waves that have killed people and wrecked communities and ecosystems across the globe seem biblical. And a just-released report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that global warming will – not may, but will--intensify over the next 30 years because nations have failed to cut their fossil-fuel emissions. These emissions trap heat that humans create and heat means, among other things, melting glaciers and rising seas, and heated waters that are even now killing coral reefs and other organisms that support aquatic life. Meanwhile, the Delta variant is doing its part in this seemingly never-ending and expanding apocalyptic scheme. 

There is much to mourn. Lives lost and upended, forests and vegetation, and water and wildlife -- Nature’s great gifts -- destroyed or gravely threatened. We’ve followed the desperate attempts in this country and around the world to save communities of all manner of species and to shield crops that we all eat, agricultural products that sustain us, including those that merely delight, like wine. 

This led us to wonder how climate change was playing out closer to home, in wine regions in New York, albeit a snapshot of an infinitesimally small speck in this globally transformative rolling disaster. Closest to us are the wineries on Long Island, in Suffolk County, 57 of them now. Long Island is the longest and the largest island in the contiguous United States. Situated in the southeast part of New York state, it extends east into the Atlantic Ocean. At Riverhead, Suffolk County’s seat, Long Island splits into two peninsulas: the North Fork, where most of the wineries and farms are, and the South Fork, home to the Hamptons, playground of the rich and famous. 

In addition to the Atlantic Ocean, there are numerous bodies of water that thread their way through and around this region, including the Peconic River that cleaves the two forks. There’s also Long Island Sound to the north; the Peconic bays among the bays, and numerous canals. Between the North and South Forks are other islands like Shelter Island, Robins Island, Gardiners Island, and tony Fire Island. Beaches stretch for miles and miles. These areas are vulnerable to disastrous nature events. On Oct. 29, 2012, Super Storm Sandy killed 13 people on Long Island and left 90 percent of households without electricity. 

“Sea levels off Suffolk County, Long Island, for example, are rising at a rate of around 3.23 mm/year, which is up from 2.78 mm/year just one decade ago,” according to the Tipping Point, a Georgetown University project that studies climate change.

“New York State is in fact sinking relative to the sea, owing to a combination of human activity and the slow rebound of the landscape following the retreat of the great glaciers that covered the state during the last ice age,” its report from 2017 continues. “If emissions of greenhouse gases continue unabated, and average global temperatures rise by around 4° C (roughly 7° F) relative to twentieth-century averages, then the entire southern coast of Long Island, including that of Suffolk County, will eventually be inundated. Montauk, the tip of Suffolk County, will then become its own island.” Dire predictions.

On the North Fork of Long Island, no other current winemakers have a longer view of the climate over several decades than the Massoud family, owners of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue, established in 1983. Hurricane Gloria, in 1985, greeted their first harvest. We met Charles and Ursula and their three sons in the early 1990s, years before we began writing about wine. While other pioneers have died or sold their wineries, the Massouds and their growing family have expanded, buying nearby Palmer Vineyards in 2018, after its founder, their friend, passed away. Charles helped found and led many times the Long Island Wine Country (formally Council), an advocacy group for the region’s wineries. Son, Kareem, 47, and now Paumanok’s winemaker, is the council’s current president. 

Charles, 77, is level-headed and imbued, as many good winemakers are, with a seriously scientific bent. He is from Lebanon and is also, like Ursula, 74, who is from Germany, among the sweetest people we know. They have seven grandchildren. Paumanok is the name Indigenous people in colonial times gave to Long Island. It means “the island that pays tribute,” and the family’s wines certainly pay tribute to the land from which they come. But changes have come and are coming and the Massouds are taking note and action.

“I was just telling some friends that down the road my grandson will have waterfront property here,” Charles told us when we talked on the phone recently. “It is disquieting. Politicians have been talking about it for the last 20 years and they’ve hardly done anything other than talking.” 

Charles worked for IBM in marketing for 22 years, first in Beirut and then, after marrying Ursula, in Kuwait, an Islamic country where alcohol consumption is forbidden. That led them to become home winemakers “out of necessity,” Charles told us for a section about Paumanok Vineyards and Long Island’s wineries in our memoir, “Love By the Glass: Tasting Notes From a Marriage.” 

In 1978, back in the States in Connecticut, they read about Louisa and Alex Hargrave starting a winery in the North Fork and decided to have a go at it. They flew one of Ursula’s winemaking relatives from Germany to advise them on the land and the spacing of the vines. First, they sold their fruit, and by 1991 they had decided to open their winery. Their first release was 1989. Back in the ’80s harvest “typically began on Columbus Day,” Charles told us. “The harvest of 2000 was the first one when we ended up harvesting in late September and ever since it’s been pushing back. I believe it was 2010, which was a hot and dry season, where we harvested for the bubbly [Chardonnay] on August 28.

“Imagine that from Oct. 8, Columbus Day, to August 28 for the bubbly. That’s easily almost 45 days. So since then, typically, now we say harvest starts in the first 15 days of September,” Charles told us. 

We’ve read about the killing heat waves and how vineyards in California have been suffering with the heat and lack of water. That so far has not been an issue at Paumanok, Charles said, but warming winters are an area of concern. 

“More important than the summer is the winter. It used to be that the winter would get so cold that the bugs would be fried by the cold weather so there would not be such a large volume of bugs in the spring or summer. But not anymore,” he said. 

“We used to get temperatures easily in the teens and sometimes in the single digits in the winters. I don’t remember a winter recently when we went down below minus. There’s significant change happening.”

Charles said the Historical Society in Riverhead has pictures of people driving across a frozen Long Island Sound to Connecticut in Ford Model Ts in the 1920s and 30s. “The old timers here will tell you that in the old days temperatures would drop to minus 20-25, which is what you need for the Sound to support the weight of the vehicles. Will we see minus 25 today? Forget it. Even the North Pole is melting,” he added.

One possible outcome of the warmer winters, he warned, might be the appearance of the bacteria that causes Pierce’s Disease, PD, which has devastated vineyards in California and Southern states. It is transmitted by the Glassy Winged Sharp Shooter, GWSS which in inspect-speak is a vector, a host that transfers the bacteria to another host, in this case, a grape vine. 

“Aggregating the costs of vine losses, industry assessments, compliance costs, and expenditures by government entities, we estimate the cost of Pierce’s disease in California is approximately $104.4 million per year,” according to researchers at the University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension service in 2014. 

“The glassy-winged sharpshooter doesn’t make it on Long Island because it gets fried by the cold weather,” Charles told us. “But all of a sudden, we are at risk of seeing Pierce’s Disease emerge out here because if the winters don’t get back to getting colder that insect may end up surviving the winter and maybe end up presenting yet a new problem for us.”

That was an alarming prospect to hear so we tracked down Dr. Greg Loeb, Professor of Entomology at Cornell AgriTech at Cornell University in Geneva, N.Y., what used to be known as the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. “We have at least one species of sharpshooter in the Finger Lakes that is competent to vector the bacteria. However, if something like GWSS was able to become established this far north, that could significantly increase risk of PD, assuming the bacteria was able to survive the winters in the vines. Long Island has species of sharpshooters that could vector PD but not GWSS.

“I am not sure of the temperature constraints on the bacteria. It seems to be limited by freezing temperatures during the winter,” he wrote us in an email. “As for GWSS, it is a more warm temperate species so it seems limited to southeastern US and southern California with occasional findings further north in California. I think we will need to see quite a bit of warming in upstate NY before they could survive and multiply. Hopefully we don’t get to that point.”


Other winemakers on Long Island share Charles’s concerns. This past March, a not-for-profit organization called the New York Wine and Grape Foundation sponsored a webinar,, “Climate Change and the Future of Sustainable Farming,” featuring Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, Director of Climate Science at the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She’s the scientist CNN’s Jake Tapper had on to fact-check then President Donald Trump on the existence of climate change and global warming. She said of the former president’s doubts, “That’s like asking if you believe in gravity.” 

The science is there. “Scientists say the Long Island of the future will have shorter, wetter winters and oppressively hot summers, with seas rising and storm surges so strong they will threaten beaches, salt water marshes and infrastructure. The warnings are familiar, but after Superstorm Sandy, policymakers are listening -- and the experts’ predictions are helping define what needs to be done,” according to a 2013 report on Weather Channel News.  

We reached out to Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, who in 2020 sponsored legislation creating the Suffolk County Coastal Resiliency and Sea Level Rise Task Force to develop strategies for dealing with severe storms, rising sea levels, and coastal erosion.

Krupski’s resolution said, “Sea level rise has led to accelerated coastal erosion worldwide and is of particular concern to Long Island, with threats of destruction to Suffolk County’s 980 miles of coastline.” 

“You’ve got areas that are flooding regularly. We need to look at it comprehensively or you find that we’re spending $10 million for sand on a beach and it’s gone the next day,” he told the Riverhead Local online newspaper’s Denise Civiletti. 

“Municipalities are struggling with the significant challenges climate change presents, as more and more applications are coming for bulkheads and other structures which could have significant consequences to the long-term viability of our beaches,” Krupski wrote to us in an email.

What are other wine growing regions in New York seeing? “What we see with climate change is a trend towards increased temperatures coupled with increased humidity and irregular or prolonged precipitation patterns,” Whitney Beaman, Sustainability Program Manager for the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, wrote to us. “As the saying goes ‘grapes don’t like wet feet,’” she added, explaining that humidity and persistent rains during the growing season can mean more weeds and plant diseases that have to be controlled. So the foundation has a new sustainability program that gives winegrowers information to help them deal with climate change.

Humidity is a serious issue. “My two biggest concerns with regard to the immediate and short term impacts of climate change on our growing conditions are increased average levels of humidity and increased average low (nighttime) temperatures,” Kareem Massoud wrote us.

One benefit of some warming, at least for now in some areas, is earlier ripening of grapes and different grapes. “Rising average temperatures will benefit some of the late ripening varieties we grow such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. And it will complicate the ripening of others such as Riesling which performs well in a cool climate,” Kareem added.

Bruce Murray, owner of Boundary Breaks Vineyard in Lodi (photo right), along Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes, agreed. “We are experiencing more extreme and erratic weather patterns. That means more significant rain events and more extended periods without rain. This will likely mean slightly more vintage variation in the wines we make here in the historically cool climate of the Finger Lakes…We will be able to make a much broader range of Riesling styles by varying the picking schedule to a greater degree,” he wrote to us.

“Today, certain varieties of grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon have struggled to ripen in our shorter, cooler seasons. Other varieties that are sensitive to extreme cold, like Malbec or Syrah, do not tolerate our winters. A warmer climate might make it possible to grow these varieties someday. But these are minor considerations compared to the other, more severe consequences of a warming climate,” Murray added.

One of Ursula Massoud’s great cousins, Dr. Jürgen Oberhofer, is director of the School of Viticulture in Neustadt on the German Wine Route.“

They tracked harvest data from 1980 until last year and established that on average the grape harvest is three weeks earlier,” she reported to us. “Also they plant now red varieties such as Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc and Merlot which were not there in my childhood. Now they ripen well.

“Luckily, the catastrophic floods were not in the southwest part of the Palatinate,” she explained. “Still they had a lot of rain and cooler temperatures."

In July, citing climate change’s effects on California’s vineyards, Warren Winiarski, the Napa wine pioneer, conservationist and philanthropist, donated $450,000 to the University of California, Davis, to update the Winkler Index, which was created in the 1940s to help winemakers decide which grape varieties to plant in certain regions.

While some friends with beachfront property have gotten bulkheads to help stop soil erosion, the Massouds have begun doing what they can to conserve energy. “We have installed about 60 kilowatts of sun power on our roofs. Kareem bought a Tesla for the company,” Charles told us. “ And believe it or not, there’s a company that’s now producing electric tractors. They’re still prototypes but we’ve ordered two of them for delivery next spring. If it turns out that they are good, we are going to convert all of our tractors to electric power.” 

“There are ways to help mitigate the problem,” he added. “What we do personally isn’t going to do anything; it won’t even register or make a difference but if everyone starts doing it we may end up contributing to potential solutions.”

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010. Dorothy and John have been tasting and studying wine since 1973. In 2020, the University of California at Davis added their papers to the Warren Winiarski Wine Writers Collection in its library, which also includes the work of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. Dottie has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald, The New York Times, and at The Journal. John was Page One Editor of The Journal, City Editor of The Miami Herald and a senior editor at Bloomberg News. They are well-known from their books and many television appearances, especially on Martha Stewart's show, and as the creators of the annual, international "Open That Bottle Night" celebration of wine and friendship. The first bottle they shared was André Cold Duck. They have two daughters.

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