February 28, 2024

The Legacy of Wine

I’ve noticed the passing of several large names in the wine world over the years. Among them are a few the average person may know: Julio Gallo and Robert Mondavi, as examples. There have been many others that professionals in the industry know as familiar names. This thought was brought to a head for me recently as a legend in wine education and research from my alma mater passed away after a battle with cancer.

Lesser Known Wine Giants

I’d like to take a few moments to pay remembrance to a pair of significant names I’ve personally known in the world of wine research who passed recently, and pay tribute to their legacy.

Ralph Kunkee

As his passing was only a couple days prior to my writing this, I’ll begin with Ralph Kunkee. He was a Professor Emeritus of Enology at UC Davis, and in short was a giant in the field of wine research. Ralph was a child of the Roaring 20’s who grew up during the Great Depression. His personality was by far akin to the former, not the latter though. He was a graduate of UC Berkeley and specialized in microbiology. Ralph joined the faculty of UC Davis in 1963 and taught full time until his retirement in 1991.

Even after retirement he remained active in wine education and consultation. Ralph was a pioneer in studying wine fermentation, and was a leader in discovering the sources and control of wine spoilage. His research led to the classification and characterization of numerous yeast strains. His work on malolactic fermentation significantly progressed the world’s understanding of the process, as well as how to

control it. Ralph’s work resulted in the publication of nearly 150 scientific articles and two texts on the science of winemaking. Ralph was a catalyst in the switch from California producing nondescript sweet dessert wines in the middle of the century, to the world renowned dry table wines it’s known for now.

More than anything, Ralph Kunkee was a warm and friendly person whose playful mischief always left you with a great story to tell. And there were many people around the world that had a great story courtesy of Ralph.

Harold Olmo

The second person that deserves paying respect to is Harold Olmo. Harold was a huge name in the world of viticulture, grape breeding, and grape genetics, and arguably is the most influential person in the field from the 20th century. He died a few years ago at the robust age of 96, and to the end loved walking his vineyards.

Harold was born when Howard Taft was President of the United States. He grew up during the WWI era and the booming 1920’s. He received his higher education through the Depression, and joined the faculty at UC Davis in the year 1938; not retiring until almost 40 years later in 1977. Harold recorded his first grape breeding cross in 1931 pairing Muscat of Alexandria with Black Corinth. He recorded 76 more crosses that year, and maintained that pace every year until he retired. Harold’s breeding efforts led to the commercial release of 29 grape varieties and 2 rootstocks including the names Rubired, Red Globe, Ruby Seedless, and Symphony. Harold’s efforts in collecting germplasm material and in grape ampelography laid the foundation for the current practices of clonal selection in grape breeding to improve wine grape cultivars, and the current popularity of Chardonnay in particular owes a great deal to that effort. His work on disease and pest resistance for vinifera grapes using introgression of the resistant native American species rotundifolia is still relevant in current research.

The accomplishment he was most proud of though was the establishment of the plant materials foundation that allowed for the proper identification and distribution of clean, disease free grape vines to nurseries and growers around the country, which is a system that was copied the world over. However, he’ll be most remembered for his mentoring of countless students, colleagues, and viticulturists around the globe.

In the time of year we give thanks and show remembrance, I just wanted to salute two people that the modern wine industry owes a great deal. Ralph Kunkee and Harold Olmo were brilliant men who were passionate in their field. The knowledge they discovered will continue to fuel the science of wine for years, and their legacy in the field can be called timeless.

Drink responsibly.

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