Wednesday, January 16, 2002

California college changed wine quality forever

By John Vankat
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Do you recall your first exposure to wine? Mine came nasally, when I was a graduate student at the University of California, Davis. One morning, I walked past the back of a nondescript building and WHAM, I was overwhelmed by aromas unlike anything I'd experienced.

        I remember thinking to myself, “Far out (OK, it was the '60s), something special goes on in there.”

        In the front of the building, a sign read simply: Viticulture and Enology.

        I didn't know it then, but I had stumbled across the world's pre-eminent university program for grapes and wine, and I was smelling aromas emanating from the department's fermentation room where students were learning their craft.

        The UC Davis viticulture and enology program was created in 1880 by the California legislature to spur improvements in the state's fledgling wine industry. Research began on a branch of UC Berkeley located near Davis, a small town west of Sacramento. Known as University Farm, it later was a cornerstone in the founding of UC Davis. The first practical short course in viticulture was offered in 1908.

        Thousands of students later, walk into any California winery and you'll find nearly everyone in charge of growing grapes and making wine is either a UC Davis graduate, has learned from graduates or has taken short courses at UC Davis.

        It's difficult to overestimate the impact of the department. Robert Mondavi, who recently gave $35 million to the university, acknowledged his success was due to a book written by a UC Davis professor.

        “I learned to make wine only because I followed that book so religiously,” said, Mr. Mondavi, who became a leader in the development of the modern California wine industry and sent his son, Tim, to UC Davis (Class of '74) to study grape growing and wine making.

        In the Tristate, few wine lovers recognize the importance of UC Davis. But pick up a bottle of California wine and see for yourself. Stated on the front label is an appellation, such as “Carneros,” designating the region where the grapes were grown. Carneros, a cool region in southern Napa and Sonoma counties, is known for its wonderful chardonnays and pinot noirs.

        The relationship between particular grape varieties and particular sites was discovered, not by centuries of trial and error as in Europe, but by climate research at UC Davis in the 1930s. Without this knowledge, there would be no meaningful appellation system.

        Check out the back label, too. If it gives information on the winemaking process, it likely says something about malolactic (or secondary) fermentation, a chemical process developed at UC Davis to soften the harshness of wines. For example, the smooth, buttery flavors so admired in some California chardonnays result from “malo.”

        And even in buying the bottle, you were influenced by UC Davis. Before 1950, “good wine” merely referred to wine that hadn't spoiled. Today, thanks to the successful application of UC Davis research that determined how to manage the bacteria that spoiled wine, wine buyers safely assume nearly all bottles meet this standard and employ much higher standards in selecting “good wine.”

        Yet another product of UC Davis deserves to be almost as well known as the appellation system, malolactic fermentation and “good wine.” It's a small disk called the wine aroma wheel. It can be useful to any wine lover, and I'll write about it in my next column.

       Contact John Vankat by mail: c/o Cincinnati Enquirer; fax: 768-8330.


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