California wine country tempts visitors from across the globe with its famous fruit. But the Golden State wouldn’t be able to boast its world-class bounty without UC Davis wine scientist, Maynard Amerine. This Bonus Bite episode centers around the pioneering researcher and his contributions to the California wine industry. The former professor and viticulture chair passed away in 1998 but left behind a legacy of work including his co-development of the Winkler Index, which is still used to determine optimal wine grape growing regions. Amerine is also credited with helping develop an objective way of judging wine quality, elevating the market for wine.
In this episode:
Axel Borg, subject specialist librarian for Researcher Services at the UC Davis Library.
ALEXA: So let's jump right in and tell people what we're doing.
AMY: We are about to partake in a lovely glass of Zinfandel from Amador County.
ALEXA: I'm glad that you brought it from Amador County, one of my favorite places to drink wine and this bottle actually wouldn't have been possible without a man named Maynard Amerine.
AMY: Now that is a name that sounds familiar, so I guess I'm supposed to know who he is right?
ALEXA: Well to be fair a lot of people don't know who he is. I didn't even know who he was until I met Axel Borg who is a UC Davis wine librarian. He is actually the one who told me about Amerine and that he was responsible for putting California wine on the global map.
AMY: And he was a professor here at UC Davis? Yeah?
ALEXA: He was a professor, he was a wine scientist and I was instantly fascinated with this man because he was so much more than just a wine scientist in a lab. He was like a culture influencer and this is before social media, so if you can imagine the type of power that he had. He actually made it possible for wine to reach the levels of a full blown lifestyle here in the U.S.
AMY: Well, let's pour a glass and discuss more.
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ALEXA: I'm Alexa Renee.
AMY: And I'm Amy Quinton.
ALEXA: And it's time for a Bonus Bite or in this case it's a bonus sip because this episode revolves around the man that we know as the Father of Wine.
AMY: So before I drink too much of this Zinfandel let's get back to your visit with Axel.
ALEXA: Well I could tell Axel was excited to talk about Amerine, and I guess that makes sense when you're a wine librarian that you would know about wine legacies, but Amerine was also Axel's mentor.
AXEL: I consider him to be one of the most significant mentors I've had in terms of learning about the science of wine and just learning about all of the different facets of the California wine industry. I believe that he is the most significant wine scientist ever produced in the United States, although he's been deceased for almost two decades now.
AMY: The most significant wine scientist ever? It sounds like he really admires Amerine.
ALEXA: He also really admires California wine.
AXEL: It's hard to find a bad bottle of wine in California. That's been one of the problems that we have is there's so much good wine and good quality wine out there.
ALEXA: Honestly, I can't really disagree with Axel. When I go to the store, I spend so much time in the wine aisles because there's way too many good choices. And to understand how we got so spoiled we have to go back to the 1930s, when Prohibition had just ended.
AMY: Wine quality must have been terrible, right? I mean, I read they planted mostly table grapes or grew those thick-skinned grapes that shipped well but they made terrible wine.
ALEXA: Right. And Amerine, who was a plant physiologist, was one of the first researchers hired by the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology.
AMY: So we know what that is, but for our listeners who don't what is viticulture and what is enology?
ALEXA: Sure. So viticulture is the cultivation and the harvesting of grapes and enology is the science and study of wine and winemaking.
AMY: So back to Amerine.
ALEXA: So back to Amerine. He was hired by Albert Winkler, who was the head of the department at the time.
AXEL: The first question that Maynard and Albert Winkler addressed is, where should we grow what kind of grape in the state. So what grape grows best in what location in the state.
ALEXA: And that research, which led to the region classification system, is still used today.
AMY: Right, it’s called the Winkler Index and maps which types of grape varieties can grow within specific temperature ranges. For example Region 1 is the coolest.
ALEXA: Yes. So he helped map California's wine regions this way. I actually read that in one day- and this is crazy to me- he would go and pick the grapes at five in the morning in San Jose, which even without traffic is more than two hours from Davis, drive back to the lab on campus by 4 p.m., crush them, ferment them, then drive to Napa the next day and repeat the process until he had grapes from every region in the state. And he did this every fall for seven years.
AMY: That's amazing. Where did this guy come from?
ALEXA: From a different world apparently.
AXEL: He's almost like a character like Athena springing forth from the forehead of Zeus fully grown because he sort of emerges almost that way in the wine industry.
AMY: Leave it to a librarian to reference Greek mythology right?
ALEXA: I know. But Amerine actually grew up on a farm in Modesto here in California. He went to school with Ernest and Julio Gallo, who you know are now one of the biggest names in wine.
AXEL: One of the stories that I've heard is how much Ernest Gallo helped him afford to be able to do the traveling that he was able to do, which then made Maynard an internationally known person.
ALEXA: So he's visiting wine regions all over the world. He's visiting countries like France and other countries in Europe and he's trying to bring back that knowledge and replicate what was back then the standard bar for wine, back to California. And a lot of UC professors just weren't doing this back in the day.
AMY: They weren't traveling at all.
AMY: It sounds like there were many things that made Amerine unique, right?
ALEXA: Yeah I've read that he was always dressed to the nines. Like this man would wear formal clothes to the grape fields and things like that. And Axel actually told me that he was able to make his way into some pretty exclusive social circles.
AXEL: He gets involved when he's very young and things like the Bohemian Club, which is very influential.
ALEXA: The Bohemian Club is an invite-only men's club in San Francisco. You probably know names like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Those have been some of the members for this club, so it's pretty high up there, but it's not just limited to politicians. It includes famous writers and artists and other big players in society.
AXEL: Maynard was head of the wine committee. In fact many people said he was the wine committee for the club for many, many years. He also gave programs on educating members about wine and how to consume wine and how to think about wine.
ALEXA: Amerine was in with one of the most elite groups in the world. He was basically passing on his knowledge about wine to super powerful figures.
AMY: And he was doing it at a young age too right?
ALEXA: Yes. And in his next big act he decided to try and figure out what makes good wine and what makes bad wine. So he linked up with sensory scientists and statisticians to set up a way to evaluate wine.
AXEL: They figured out a way that they can rationally judge wine. They're going to try and move it away from being very, very subjective to being a little bit more objective in that- so they can tell, okay you've made it into wine is it in fact a good wine? Or are there defects to it? And if there are defects, how do we correct those defects? That's all part of raising the general quality of wine across the system.
ALEXA: And Axel also told me that Amerine dedicated time to educating the public about how to drink wine.
AXEL: Wine is not a beverage that is sort of a natural beverage for Americans in general. And so Maynard took all of the science part and figured out how to teach the public about what constitutes good wine, what should you look for in good wine.
ALEXA: So Amerine was so good at his job that he was actually able to change the way that American consumers tasted wine by shifting their palate to enjoy the style of wine that we have today, like this Zinfandel that we're drinking. By the time that he died in 1998 he had written 16 books and 400 scientific papers.
AMY: Four hundred?
ALEXA: Yeah, apparently that's a big deal. He actually would write down all the bottles of wine that he would drink and he would keep them like in a little booklet with wine labels and we still have that today here at UC Davis. And it's considered to be like a wine collection documentation of history.
AMY: Does it have his tasting notes?
ALEXA: I believe so. According to Axel.
AMY: So we really do have him to thank for this beautiful bottle of Zinfandel?
ALEXA: Well him and UC Davis. And for what is now a 57 billion dollar economic impact in California. He really was the Father of Wine
AMY: I’ll drink to that. Thanks for listening.
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