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Copyright © 2012
by Fred McMillin
They Have the Smarts
"It has been said that the scientific knowledge of grapes and wines advanced more in the three decades after World War II than in the preceding 2,000 years. During those 30 years, the University of California at Davis became the world's leader in the acquisition of this knowledge."
Charles Sullivan's California Wine Companion
Let's see how it happened.
1861—The flamboyant official "father of California viticulture, Count Agoston Haraszthy, points out that the rapid, uncoordinated development of California viticulture is creating chaos. At his suggestion, Governor John C. Downey appoints a State Commission to study European methods and collect samples of their vines. Count Haraszthy is one of the three members, tours Europe, brings back 100,000 cuttings, and publishes in 1862 a detailed description of European methods.
1880—A Department of Viticulture is created with state funds at the University of California, Berkeley. Prof. Eugene Hilgard undertakes "a systematic investigation of grape-varieties with respect to their composition and winemaking qualities in the different regions of the state." Many vintners were not enthusiastic: "Chemical analysis of any kind is a mere impertinence. It is a waste of time and distracts the industry..." But Hilgard persisted and soon produced an impressive body of objective, useful data. (see Prof. Thomas Pinney's History of Wine in America)
1905—The state legislature funds the purchase of 779 acres at Davis, just west of Sacramento, which ultimately leads to the establishment of a Department of Viticulture at Davis.
1933—REPEAL! Wine research had been suspended for over a decade. The department had no basis for recommendations. Winkler, Amerine, Olmo and others raced into action. The number of discoveries were breathtaking. Grape clones, cold fermentation of white wines, detrimental effect of metal contact, etc. were examined in great detail. Consider the latter. Work at the Beaulieu Winery indicated contact with iron reduced quality, so Dr. Emil Mrak studied 46 metals; stainless steel proved to be superior.
The Berkeley campus also contributed; for example, Peter Mondavi (Charles Krug Winery) did his cold fermentation work there. But Davis came to dominate. Amoung its first students was one of the Wente brothers. Louis P. Martini was graduated in 1940.
1944—Perhaps the most important work in the history of California wine is published. The title is "Composition and Quality of Musts and Wines of California Grapes", Winkler and Amerine. They had made over 500 lots of wines using different varieties from all the grape regions of the state. Then they characterized each region by the amount of warmth it received during the grape- growing season...from April 1 to Nov. 1st. It assumed that grape ripening starts as the temperature rises above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If the average temperature was 55 on April 1st, it contributed 5 degree-days. If April 2nd averaged 52 degrees, it added 2 more degree-days for a total of seven. California was then divided into five different heat summation districts, The coldest districts (coastal) had something like 1,500 degree-days, the Cental Valley more like 4,000. Wine quality was correlated with heat summation, and voila! The authors could recommend what to plant in each region. It took something like 15 years for the value of the heat summation concept to be recognized. Today, it's a viticulture fundamental, applied world-wide. For more about its value, see the recent Annex article titled, "The Great Grape Goof."
1999—Dr. Carole Meredith's DNA analysis of 300 varieties shocks the wine world. One of the two parents of the world's greatest white wine grape, Chardonnay, is the lowly Gouais Blanc. Gouais wines are so poor, the grape is nearly extinct. The Associated Press: "It's like discovering a grand champion show dog was sired by a mutt from the city pound." DAVIS CONTINUES TO CONTRIBUTE!
Back to Prof. Winkler and Heat Summation. In the late 1930s for the first time he included a grape rare in California, CHARDONNAY!
Credits - Bottled Poetry, James T. Lapsley, U.C.-Davis.
This page created August 2000