Harold Olmo: The Spirit Behind California Wines

Grape breeder Harold Olmo helped make California's wine region prosper. Professor Andy Walker of the University of California, Davis, tells Debbie Elliott why Olmo, who died recently at 96, was such an important figure.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. If you've ever enjoyed a nice, chilled glass of California Chardonnay, you have Harold Olmo to thank. Mr. Olmo was a grape geneticists and breeder, and his work helped bring about the success of California's wine industry.

Mr. Olmo died recently at the age of 96. For this weekend's food moment, we toast Harold Olmo, and raising a glass with us is Andy Walker. Professor Walker teaches viticulture, which is to say grape growing, at the University of California, Davis, where he was a friend and protégé of Harold Olmo. Thank you for talking with us.

Professor ANDREW WALKER (University of California, Davis): Hello.

ELLIOTT: Before we get to the technical stuff of his viticultural innovations, let's start with this nickname he earned, the Indiana Jones of wine.

Prof. WALKER: Yes, Hal was quite an explorer. He searched for grapes through the Middle East, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq, some into Pakistan, the first trip in 1948. And he was shot up by bandits and thrown in jail at one point and hanging off of cliffs at other points. So his tremendous expeditions really brought back quite a bit of knowledge of the table grapes and some of the ancient origins of wine grapes in that region.

ELLIOTT: You wouldn't think finding grapevines would be a dangerous job.

Prof. WALKER: Yes, well, when I do it, it's not dangerous, but when you thrust yourself in the Middle East, it's something entirely different.

ELLIOTT: I understand he'd found what he considered the original grapevine?

Prof. WALKER: Well, grapes are thought to have evolved in the Middle East, probably in the Afghanistan area, perhaps Iraq. I don't think he found the original one, but he was searching for the wild pipes, wild forms of ancient cultivated forms in that area.

ELLIOTT: Did he find them?

Prof. WALKER: Yes. Uh-huh. They were hidden away in valleys and little river courses that exist out of the mountains in those regions. They were found in little villages as well, where people had been cultivating them probably for a millennia in some situations.

ELLIOTT: So he gathered up these grapevines from the Middle East, brought them back to California, and what did he do with them?

Prof. WALKER: He used them in his breeding program, to some extent. He developed better forms of table grapes with a few. Mostly they sit in a collection, like a library, on campus, and we use them in genetic studies, tracing the evolution and roots of (unintelligible) the cultivated grape.

ELLIOTT: Now, Prof. Olmo made this discovery in the 1940s, but he actually began creating varieties and teaching in the 1930s. What would you say were his main contributions to California grape growing?

Prof. WALKER: His main contribution was probably, beyond the development of new varieties, was the establishment of clean stock programs where he would go through and evaluate materials for their quality, their fruit quality, and then he made sure they were free diseases. And this really set up the basis of what we now call clean stock programs around the world, certification programs, and they allow the universities and other government organizations to provide clean and well-characterized plant materials to nurseries who then supply it to the growers.

ELLIOTT: Why do we have him to thank for Chardonnay?

Prof. WALKER: Well, when he first began working on Chardonnay, he'd been working on quite a few varieties, he and a German Professor Allabelt(ph) devised a means of clonal selection, where they would go out and look for variance in vineyards. For instance in pinot noir, you can frequently find pinot blanc grapes, white varied grapes.

And that sort of careful observation found that there were better forms of Chardonnay growing in California that weren't widely utilized, and he selected those and eventually characterized them more fully and over the years doubled and tripled the production of Chardonnay. So when he first began working on Chardonnay, it was probably about 50 acres in California in the early '60s, and now we have almost 100,000 acres of it.

ELLIOTT: Did he love a glass of wine or was this more about the science for him?

Prof. WALKER: No. He loved a glass of wine, certainly.

ELLIOTT: What kind of a teacher was he?

Prof. WALKER: I never had him as an instructor. He retired in 1977. He still came into the department every day. I first met him in 1981. He was a wonderful mentor and very engaging, quite secretive on occasion and very probing. He would ask you more questions than - than he would answer, which made you think a lot and probably learn more in the process.

ELLIOTT: Andy Walker, professor of viticulture at UC Davis. Thank you for speaking with us about your mentor Harold Olmo.

Prof. WALKER: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Mr. Olmo died recently at the age of 96 from complications of a hip fracture.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.