Growing Grapes: University of California at Davis

To some, scientific saviours, to others, an institution that caused severe problems in the California wine industry. To all, it is clear that the University of California at Davis (UCD) runs a highly-regarded enological program which has brought modern science and technology into the process of making wine. Find their excellent web site at http://wineserver.ucdavis.edu/. The school, as was explained to me by a graduate of the program, provides higher education in enology (wine chemistry) and viticulture (grape horticulture) and not, specifically, in the art of winemaking. Most students opt to pursue careers in the wine industry and take "Planned Educational Leave" to obtain first hand experience with a winery. Nevertheless, some criticize that the wines created by UCD graduates are all the same, "text-book chemistry" wines. They claim the UCD learning experience produces predictable, "inoffensive" wine (and, for example, shies away from wild yeast fermentation, a way to make wines, it is said, with "more character"). All I can say is that I have had truly magnificent wines from UCD graduates and from people who started making wine in a garage without any formal training at all. Wine making is an art, not an exact science. In the end, it will be the skills, taste and artistic expression of the winemaker that is crucial. As told to me by the Davis graduate, it is ironic that a great number of the Davis "bashers" are quite willing to contact the school whenever they have a problem their "art instinct" can't solve. All the arguing hardly matters, if you don't like a particular wine, vote with your pocketbook!

Why did the debate about Davis come about and why it is so volatile? What follows is a rough summary of one person's opinion (not my own, as I have no true knowledge at all, at this point). Other people in the know, feel free to contact me with their views!

A Graduate's Opinion of Davis From the Repeal of Prohibition through the 1960's

"Davis excelled at bringing modern science and technology into the process of making wine. For example, Davis promoted the use of stainless steel tanks, proper sanitation. controlled temperature fermentations, and provided a better understanding of malolactic fermentation. In short, along with the University of Bordeaux, UCD led the world in improving wine making and answering all the straightforward questions.

At the same time the wine boom came to Napa, bringing a number of new persons (into a formerly family oriented industry) who wanted answers to the harder questions. Davis-trained enologists were trained in a more food-processing approach to winemaking. No doubt some of them also went out into their profession with a 'superiority' complex for having 'gone to university' when the apprentice approach had previously been the standard. It is probably no surprise that Davis began to get a reputation for sending out young bucks who didn't know the first thing about the practical aspects of winemaking. The result was a backlash against the University.

Whereas once a Davis degree was a ticket to success (and certainly Davis graduates occasionally got positions solely due to their degree, not their abilities) as the industry slowed and jobs got more difficult to find the Davis degree didn't work the same magic. Some winemakers then discovered that they could make a name by Davis bashing (their wines weren't just cookbook science, so to speak). About the same time the continuing crisis involving AxR #1 began.

Davis bashers would point to the European traditions and enjoy reveling in the grand reputation of that tradition and tossing off names of certain selected great wines from certain selected great years (and ignoring the fact that the bulk of European wine tends to be plonk--like U.S. jug wines--and not first growth Bordeaux). Some winemakers had great success with the so-called 'wild' fermentations and accused (with some accuracy) Davis of resisting this method. However, for every successful 'wild' fermentation which gained notoriety there probably was a poorly produced wine.

In the end, the science that Davis contributes to the field is a vital and important factor in the growth of the wine industry. It can smooth out the rough edges foisted on the winemaker by variables which are all or part out of his or her control (weather, pests, soil depletion, etc.). Innate intuition may make good or even great wine, but science isn't going to hurt, especially when the winemaker is open to all ideas.

As has been oft stated, a consumers pocket book should make the judgment. UCD makes recommendations based upon the best scientific evidence it can accumulate. This might run counter to the anecdotal results of a single winemaker's recollection or to the idea that a winemaker is an independent iconoclast, unfettered by 'rules.' Free spirits may make good wine, so can science.

The chemistry of wine is extremely complex and a great deal of ego is involved on both sides of the Davis debate. One thing is, however, certain. Davis does not dictate winemaking. Davis is merely a tool to be used by people who want to make wine. How they use that tool is up to them and to their abilities."