The University of California, Davis (UC Davis) has played a significant role in the evolution of California’s wine industry. Once considered subpar, California wines are now celebrated as some of the world’s finest, thanks to the pivotal role played by UC Davis.
The Early Beginnings: Spanish Missionaries and the Mission Grape
The story of California wines traces its roots back to the Spanish missionaries who first planted vineyards in the region in 1769. The Franciscan missionaries, led by Father Junípero Serra, introduced the Mission grape, which became the dominant variety until the 1880s.
A Turning Point: Desalination and Fertile Grounds
In the 19th century, UC Davis soil scientists embarked on a groundbreaking project to desalinate alkaline soil, transforming barren land into fertile ground. This marked a turning point for California’s agriculture, paving the way for the cultivation of various fruits, including grape varieties that would eventually produce some of the finest wines in the state.
The Birth of Viticulture and Oenology Research at UC Davis
Recognizing California’s potential to produce world-class wines, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 374 on April 15, 1880. This bill mandated UC Davis to establish a research and instruction program in viticulture and oenology, the science dedicated to the study and knowledge of wines.
Eugen Hilgard: A Pioneer in Soil Science and Grape Varieties
Eugen Hilgard, a professor at UC Davis and director of the first State Agricultural Experiment Station, made significant contributions to soil science and studied California soil for suitable grape varieties. He developed phylloxera-resistant grape varieties and considered the California climate ideal for wine production.
The Prohibition Act: A Major Setback
However, the burgeoning wine industry in California faced a major setback with the passage of the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, on October 28, 1919. This act banned the production, transportation, and sales of alcoholic beverages, leading to the replacement of vineyards with fruit trees and the near destruction of the wine industry.
The Rebirth of the Wine Industry and the Role of Maynard Amerine
The repeal of the Prohibition Act on December 5, 1933, marked a new beginning for the wine industry. In 1935, the Department of Viticulture and Enology was established at UC Davis, with Maynard Amerine as its first faculty member. Amerine, a researcher in the sensory evaluation of wines, fermentation, and cultivation, wrote 16 books and 44 articles that significantly contributed to the development of California wines.
The Appellation System: A New Approach to Wine Classification
Amerine and his colleagues conducted research to determine the best grape varieties for different climates. In 1944, they published a detailed study on suitable regions for various types of wines, initiating the appellation system that is still used worldwide.
The Judgment of Paris: A Landmark Event
A landmark event in the history of California wines was the Judgment of Paris on May 24, 1976. Organized by British wine merchant Steven Spurrier and his colleague, Patricia, this competition saw California wines competing against French wines, which were considered the best at the time. Despite the judging panel being entirely French, California wines ranked highest in the competition, marking a turning point in the global recognition of Californian wines.
California Today: A Global Wine Powerhouse
Today, California is a major player in the global wine industry, competing with France, Spain, and Italy in terms of quality wine production. As the fourth-largest wine producer in the world, California accounts for 90% of American wine production and contributes up to $35 billion to the state’s economy. The journey of California wines from being considered faulty to being recognized as some of the finest in the world is a testament to the relentless efforts of institutions like UC Davis and individuals dedicated to the art and science of winemaking.
Bev Sykes from Davis, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons