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The University of California and Early Wine Research

Aug 28, 2008
The University of California began to take a serious interest in viticulture. In the fall of 1880 the legislature appropriated $3,000 for research in enology at Berkeley, including the construction of a brick cellar on the campus.

An early report to the president of the university by Dean Hilgard, Professor of Agriculture, is filled with timely advice to vintners even now, more than fifty years after its writing:

"I have heretofore suggested that this peculiarity (high alcohol and less acid) might, in a measure, be modified by not allowing the grape to become as 'dead ripe' as is usually done. This would tend to increase the acid at the expense of the sugar, which is in excess at best, thus producing the excessive headiness for which California wines are thus far noted. The vintners object to this course on the ground of the European precedent, according to which every additional day of sun is accounted so much gain to the quality of the wine. But what is true in the cloudy climate of Europe is not, therefore, necessarily true in sunny California."

Continuous research in both field and laboratory was conducted and annual reports were issued by the university, which was constantly enlarging its scope of activity. Phylloxera, the plant louse that had killed the French vineyards in the fifties and sixties, attacked California vineyards in the eighties. Native American root stock had been shipped to France because it was phylloxera-resistant; the more delicate vitis vinifera European species there were grafted onto our hardy native vines. And now we had to do the same thing here, with the vitis vinifera species Haraszthy and others had imported and planted.

This was the time when California's wealth was beginning to assert itself in the vineyards, when Stanford and others of his prestige took personal concern in the future of this particular agricultural endeavor. In 1880 a special agency was created in the State government, a Board of Viticulture Commissioners. The Commission undertook experimental work with vines to determine adaptability of climate and soil to various species. It established a special Department of Enology and Viticulture in the College of Agriculture at Davis, where research and teaching continues to the present day.

It is possible to see how each event is linked to the next only in viewing the parade of history from a distance. The fine wines that are made in California today, though in a measure dating back to Cortez, in truth come from the personal efforts of Col. Haraszthy. He is justly known as the "father of California viticulture" and if he had a symbolical "son", that son is Dr. Maynard Amerine.

Ever since his student days at the university's experimental station Dr. Amerine has rushed from one end of the State to the other, at harvest time, collecting all the principal species of wine grapes. From wine made of them he and the other members of the staff finally arrived at the results Col. Haraszthy knew could be achieved so long ago. Dr. Amerine's report first appeared in 1943, with further findings detailed in a university publication in 1944.

The vine cuttings that Col. Haraszthy secured in Europe for "experimental, supervised planting in various sections of the State" had come from vineyards where they had been propagated for thousands of years. Each of those famous wine communities had learned which varieties produced, in their soil and climate, the best wine. They specialized in that particular species. Bordeaux is known to everyone as the home of fine Claret and the finest Clarets are invariably made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The celebrated Cote d'Or of Burgundy, which boasts of Romanee Conti, Richebourg, Clos Vougeot, and Chambertin, is planted with the black and velvety Pinot Noir species. The experimentation that brought these vines to these locales antedates any recording of agriculture in those lands.

"It may take us," Col. Haraszthy had said, "a hundred years to find out where these vines should be planted in California."

To that task the University Of California Department Of Viticulture has been pledged for many years. A vine must be at least five years old before it bears a proper crop. Some species do not mature or show their full quality until they are eight or ten years old. A minimum of three years must elapse before a wine can be judged for its qualities as a beverage. Seasons vary. Some red wines, such as Tempranillo, require at least three years in wood and two in glass to round out their full virtues. Thus a minimum of from eight to fifteen years is required to test the value of one planting.

Now the right vines and the right places have been matched. But like anything new or revolutionary, general acceptance must wait. Change is not accomplished merely through the knowledge of the benefits that may be derived. Change in vineyard planting involves sacrifice of income from bearing vines. Not every vintner is impressed with the idea of quality or of an ultimate destiny for California as an incomparable wineland. "What was good enough for my father . . ." keeps many a vineyard in the mediocre category of wine production.
About the Author
Sarah Martin is a freelance marketing writer based out of San Diego, CA. She specializes in all things wine, from the history of California wines, new and interesting varietals, to what makes the perfect Tempranillo . For an excellent selection of fine wines, please visit http://www.wineaccess.com.
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