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Winemakers

Grape Geneticist Dr. Carole Meredith On Her Life Among the Vines

For 22 years, Dr. Carole Meredith was a professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis. And for 22 years, Dr. Meredith and her team at UC Davis pushed the limits of our understanding, responsible for ground-breaking research on and a newfound appreciation for the parentage of grape varieties. Used DNA typing, her crew identified the lineage of previously underknown grapes — including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah and Zinfandel.

Right: The Professor at work. (UC Davis)

he evolved how we thought about wine, how we viewed the vines. Retired, she continues her work in the field, toiling away with her husband Stephen Lagier (formerly a winemaker for Robert Mondavi) on their winery located at the top of Mt. Veeder. Stephen and her Lagier Meredith Wines produce a range of varietals, from Syrah and Monduese to Malbec and Zinfandel.

Her contributions — then and now — to wine are so undeniable that in 2009 she was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame.

Christopher Barnes: Carole, tell us what does a grape geneticist do?

Dr. Carole Meredith: What a grape geneticist does has changed a lot over the years. When I took my position at UC Davis 34 years ago, it was to fill the shoes of Professor Harold Olmo who was a grape geneticist. What he did back then was with the tools that they had back then. The tools you had back then were, at the most, a microscope. His most important tool was his own eyes and his vineyard boots.

He would go out and look at vines and he did also study their chromosomes. Mostly, what Harold Olmo was interested in doing was trying to breed better grape varieties for California that he thought would be well suited to the climate here and to the needs of the industry, especially in the Central Valley where the heat can sometimes make it difficult to produce wine grapes of the highest quality.

Harold Olmo thought that perhaps he could combine varieties of different types to produce some new varieties that could produce high quality with good acid in the fruit in a very warm climate. He was quite successful in developing some of those. At the same time, he was also a plant explorer.

While at Davis, Harold went to Afghanistan and other places in the Middle East looking for wild grapes. He brought a tremendous number of seeds and other acquisitions back to Davis where they became established in a germplasm repository which is used today. His old work back in the early decades of the 1900’s... it's very valuable today. Because we now have a germplasm collection at Davis that is just awesome.

By the time I came along, genetic tools had changed a lot. Biotechnology was emerging as a new way of looking at plant genetics at the cellular and molecular level, it was just getting started. The idea when I was hired was that perhaps I could do the job using a lot less land and a lot less money than Professor Olmo had. Because he had these vast plantings of seedlings that he was evaluating from the crosses that he made. Maybe I could do the job faster, quicker, cheaper. As it turns out, that's not the case.

As I started, it was with the idea of using genetic engineering on grapes, which in the end I did not do. What happened with me is that some of the new tools that emerged from our knowledge of grapevine DNA and also some of the unifying principles that apply to all plants and all organisms at the DNA level enabled us to learn so much more about grapevines. Today, a grapevine geneticist learns about the genes of grapes, learns about how those genes make the grape the way it is, both the green parts of the vine and the fruit of the vine. How those genes might interact with the environment, which I think is a huge — it's going to be hugely important in the future. Because what makes terroir so important is how a grapevine produces fruit that is reflective of its place. Isn't that what we're all so interested in?

Genetic tools may allow us — I don't mean me, because I'm not going to do it anymore, but people who have followed me — to have the tools now to ultimately answer, how is this grapevine reflecting its place when it gives you fruit that is so distinctive and makes a wine that is so distinctive. Why is it different than the wine from that other place? That is because this vine, its genes are turning on and off all the time and it's making different stuff in response to signals it's getting from its environment. Also, signals that it's getting from underground, signals it's getting from the farmer, and what the farmer does to the vine, and to a small extent what the winemaker does in the winery, and what the microbes do, but largely because of what's going on in the vineyard, in the environment above ground and below ground.

In the future, a grapevine geneticist will be working much more in that regard. In learning about which genes are key, which are the individual little components of that huge genome that grape has. What are the components that are responding to the environment. I think that is the frontier — and that's fantastic.

What I did was kind of a sideline. Because I ended up kind of following my own nose. I got so curious about the history of wine grapes and the opportunity, the tools that we had would enable us to answer all these cool questions about where did this come from. I often wish I could have been back there to see that first Cabernet Sauvignon seedlings sprout. Because we don't really know where exactly, but we have kind of a good idea. The work that's going to follow me really won’t take off so much from what I was doing. I did a little branch, it didn't really dead end, but it's not as important a branch as I think this branch about understanding the genes and how they help the vine respond to it's environment. I think that's really going to be where it's at.

Tell us a little bit about how the Napa Valley has changed since you've lived here.

I've lived here in the Napa Valley since 1986. Most of my UC Davis career, I was commuting from here. We moved here in 1986, Steve and I. That’s Steve Lagier, my husband, who is a winemaker and made wine at Robert Mondavi Winery for a number of years until he left there in 1999. Now we're full time on our property. We make our living here growing grapes, making wine.

When we moved here, of course Napa was full of vineyards. There's more vineyard since, but it looked pretty full of vines then, too. There were a few restaurants — Mustards was here. But there wasn't much else. The French Laundry wasn't here. There were a number of wineries on Highway 29.There were a couple of wineries up here in the Mt. Veeder area. Mt. Veeder Winery for one. There was a winery that's now known as the Hess Collection Winery, but back then it was the Christian Brothers Winery, and the Christian Brothers still have their retreat and retirement home back up in the forest up behind us here. We see it from here on a clear day.

I think one of the most important things that has happened in Napa is a lot of money has come into Napa. A huge amount of money has come into Napa. Some of it has come in with big wine companies that were already in the business and they have brought more money in. Certainly, the very big companies like Constellation, they have brought in a tremendous amount of money. There has been some consolidation as some smaller wineries have been acquired. There's good and bad to that. I think you always lose a little something of the character of a place when some of the old timers disappear, and that's just natural. I think it's not necessarily bad. I think it's just evolution. It's like with climate change, it's an inevitable adaptation. I think with Napa, it did change, but that was inevitable. We all adapt.

Has the community here changed?

The community has changed. I think the injection of money has changed it a lot. The money from the very big companies. There's a money from wealthy individuals who have purchased small properties and have turned them into real show pieces. That has made it a little difficult for a very small producers like us who don't have a lot of money, but it's assumed that we do.

If we need to buy something, I think some of the prices are higher in Napa for something that we may want to buy for our business. Because there are small properties that are owned by wealthy people who can afford to buy those things like expensive fancy tractors, we can't afford that.

It's about the big company money, it's about the private property owners, wealthy people, and then it's about the tourism (which is also money). It's another kind of money that had a huge impact. From that we have a tremendous number of fantastic restaurants. We don't need to leave Napa for the best restaurants in the world. It's just awesome, it's just amazing.

We have the restaurants, the hotels, the traffic. In fact, all of these things have led to the money from the big companies, the money from the wealthy individuals, the money from tourism... I think has all resulted in a rather polarized Napa Valley. You have the people who are more interested in economic development which here means vineyards, and wineries, and tourism — those are the three big drivers.

Then you have the people who are very weary and not at all pleased with further economic development. They see land being developed although that's not so much the case. Because the valley floor has been developed completely for many decades now. The hillsides are so steep that to a large extent they cannot be developed. There's just a few places, you find little pockets, like the mountain vineyards. You don't find vast expanses.

There is a real polarization between the pro-wine-business and not-so-pro-wine-business people. I think the polarization has been one of the biggest things that has arisen in Napa since I've been here.

Carole, tell us about the grapes that you grow here. What is the soil type? What is the climate like here and what sort of wines come out of the ground?

This particular site, it's a little bit unusual in that we are sitting on an old sea floor. This was an old sea floor that was elevated. It's part of what's called the Great Valley Formation — it was an old inland sea, as opposed to the old sea floor to the west of us, which is the Franciscan Formation and was from a different sea. These sea floors kind of bumped up against each other.

Anyway, this old sea floor was uplifted and eventually there were some volcanic deposits, there was a whole volcanic era that covered many of the mountains that the Napa Valley is bounded on the east and west by. The east is the Vaca Range. The west is the Mayacamas Range. They both were covered with volcanic flows many millions of years ago.

However, the volcanic flows managed to miss a couple of spots and this is one of the spots. We never got a volcanic flow here, and you see that if you look at a geologic map of the Napa Valley. There is an excellent one in a book called The Winemaker’s Dance, which discusses the geology of Napa, that shows that this southern part of the Mt. Veeder Appellation is still largely old sea floor. So that's what we are.

If you walk out in the vineyard, look at the rocks: they are all sandstone and shale. We have no volcanic rock right here. The sandstone and shale are really important in that they fracture, and those fractures hold water. If you drill down and find one of those fractures, you find water of the highest quality, it's what we drink. We drink it untreated. We get it out of the ground and we drink it untreated. It's a little hard because it's coming out of the ground. It has got a lot of minerals, but a lot of people like minerals in their water. Some people pay big money for minerals in their water that’s flown over from France.

We just get it right out of the ground here, so it's excellent water. We have a good, high-quality water supply. Some of the mountains have a harder time getting water if the bedrock underneath you is volcanic. If that is the case, then you often have some geothermal activity under you: your water can be hot, your water can contain a lot of sulfur, it can contain a lot of iron, and it can have a lot of methane in it — I'm sure you've seen the anti-fracking films where you turn on the faucet, light a match and you get flames.

We have a friend who was trying to drill a new well and it had flames coming out of the ground from the methane that was down there. We don't have any of that where we are.

Tell us about the terroir here on Mt. Veeder.

Although our property is 84 acres, it's mostly just native forest, and you may be able to see a little bit of it behind me. Here, this whole area, we're in the Mt. Veeder Appellation. If I can just say a couple of words about Mt. Veeder Appellation, it's a wonderful appellation. It's the best appellation in Napa of course.

We're on the western side of the Napa Valley. The Mt. Veeder Appellation, its native vegetation is redwoods, Douglas firs, oaks, madrones, bays, it's a high rainfall area in the winter time. Of course, we get no rain in the summer. Historically, it was a place that people went for retreats. It was called The Napa Redwoods. It was a place people went to find peace.

It still is that way for a lot of people today. There are a lot of people who live up here in my neighborhood because they want to get away, and they want some peace, and they want to be surrounded by just beautiful forest, and animals, and birds. We have mountain lions here, we have bobcats, we have foxes, we have fantastic birds, it's just a wonderful place. It's quite cool.

From our place — in fact from where we're sitting right now — if this was a more clear day, you would be able to see behind me over my left shoulder, you would be able to see the San Pablo Bay. So that's how close we are to the coastal influence. The coastal air flows in through the Golden Gate and it bathes the Mt. Veeder Vineyard District with cool coastal air.

Not only do you have the shallow mountain soils that have a profound impact on the vines, but you also have the cool coastal air which brings out a lot of complexity in just about every variety. Some varieties won't do all that well down here at the southern end of Mt. Veeder because it's a little on the cool side, but other varieties like the ones that we've chosen to grow are all really enhanced by a cooler climate. It brings out so much more than just fruit flavors, we got a lot of spice, floral, meaty, gamey characteristics, so we think it's an ideal place to grow the varieties that we have chosen.

Mt. Veeder generally is a cool grape growing area. We are the southern end of it which is the cooler end of it. Our property is about 84 acres, but it's mostly this forest that we see behind us here. Our planted area is only four and a half acres. When we initially planted it, it was not with the plan to produce Lagier Meredith wine and to make a living off of it, which is what we do now.

It was with the idea that we would grow a little bit of vineyard to make wine for ourselves and our friends because we both had our day jobs. We planted our first vines in 1994. When we moved here in 1986, the place was a little bit of a mess. The previous owner had removed the forest on part of the property, but it needed a lot of clean up. There were a lot of tree roots still in the ground, which is a problem.

You don't plant vines directly into a place that had just recently been forest. Because here we have a disease called Oak Root Fungus, which is a fungus that grows very happily on the tree roots and actually helps the trees acquire nutrients. If that fungus gets on European grapevines, it kills them. That's Oak Root Fungus Disease, so it's a problem.

We had to do a lot of work for a number of years to get the roots out of the ground and then wait for a number more years for all of those little root fragments to die off. In 1994, we planted our first vines and they were Syrah. We chose to plant Syrah because we really liked it. We loved the flavors, we were becoming interested in some California Syrah, Phelps from here in Napa, but also some from down on the central coast. We really like them.

Also, at about that time, at Davis, we had a lot of international students coming to study with us from every wine producing country in the world including France. Some people would think: Europeans wouldn’t come to Davis but yes, they do.

Tell us about the varieties that you’ve planted here.

We had a lot of European students coming to Davis at the time including a young fellow named Jean Louis Chave. He had come to Davis. His father, Gerard Chave, was a very open minded guy who realized full well that there were people outside of France who perhaps had something to teach his son. Jean Louis Chave was a student of mine and we became friends. He came over here before we had ever planted anything — this was in the early 90s. We stood on the deck of the original house that was here, and we overlooked the Napa Valley, and I said, "Jean Louis, we're thinking of planting Syrah here. Maybe you know a thing or two about it." He looked out the area that we're proposing to plant and beyond at the Napa Valley bellow, and he says, "Carole, you know, Syrah will do very well here — because Syrah loves a view."

That was it, that clinched it. We planted Syrah. The first thing we planted was Syrah on a very small scale. We were working our day jobs, we didn't have a lot of time, it was nights and weekends, so we planted some Syrah. A couple of years later, we made our first wine from that Syrah and it was good. Some friends of ours who had tasted our wine, convinced us that we would be stupid not to sell the wine that we were making from our fruit. We began to sell Syrah from the 1998 vintage which was the first vintage made in bond legally that we could sell. We sold that in 2000. We made wine, our first wine in 1996 and 1997, and began to taste it with our friends. When we decided at their urging that we should produce a commercial wine, we then did all the legal things to make the 1998 vintage a legal vintage. That then was ready to sell in 2000.

In the fall of 2000, we released our very first wine 74 cases, it was a big release. We decided it was better to start small and learn how to do it before it got out of hand. Then we planted a little bit more in 1999, and a little bit more in 2000. It was still Syrah, but then as the years went on we kind of realized, Okay, we know how to do Syrah. It was getting to be, not so much monotonous, but we began to realize that there were other things we might like to grow too.

Then the next thing that we planted was Mondeuse, which is what you see directly behind me. These are Mondeuse vines that we planted in 2007. We planted Mondeuse because of some research I had done at Davis. Just about every variety choice that we've made here has a connection to work I did at Davis. The initial choice of Syrah maybe not so. That was because we really loved the flavor, but in the end I also did do some work with that. We did a lot of work to try to uncover the origins of important European wine grapes. To try to trace them back to their roots not only geographically, historically, and also to figure out what other varieties they came from. It turns out all grape varieties have parents, real parents.

The first one that we discovered is the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon, which we have never planted here, but we discovered that its parents are Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, and that kind of opened the doors for us to start trying to delve into the genetic origins of other grapes. We did discover the genetic origins of Syrah, and they are French. Syrah did not come from Persia, it came from France. Mondeuse is related to Syrah in that one of the parents of Syrah is a white grape called Mondeuse blanche. Just like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah has one white parent, one black parent so does Cabernet Sauvignon. Mondeuse blanche has a very close relative called Mondeuse noire. Mondeuse noire is used primarily in the Savoie region to make red wine. They also use Pinot Noir and Gamay, but the three red grapes they have there include Mondeuse noire and they make varietal red wine from Mondeuse noire in some villages in the Savoie. We had tasted it and it makes typically quite a light bodied, but very aromatic wine and very long lived wine in the Savoie.

Steve and I were thinking, What other red grape could we plant that would be interesting. Why don't we plant Mondeuse. Because nobody else has it. Hey, let's try it. It might do well here. We certainly know what the Mondeuse wines from the Savoie taste like. Let's see what it will taste like here. Because one thing we had noticed was that the Savoie wines from the Northern Rhône were very different in flavor than the Mondeuse wines from the Savoie. Yet these grapes are very closely related genetically.

The Syrah and Mondeuse wines from France, they're made in different regions, so that's a factor. The grapes are grown in different ways, because they have different farming traditions, that's a factor. They're treated differently in the wineries, so that's a factor, and then they're different grapes, so that's a factor. Those are four factors. Are they all contributing to the big differences we found in the wines, or is it primarily the location that's the difference? How are we going to figure out which is the most important factor?

If we were to plant Mondeuse here, we would eliminate the difference in place. Because it's the same place. We'd eliminate the difference in farming because it's the same farming. We'd eliminate the difference in winemaking because we'd make the wines exactly the same way. Then the only factor would be that they’re different grape varieties. Let's do that and then compare the wines and see whether they're as different as we had encountered in the French wines, or do we actually then taste the genetic relationship between these grapes.

What we have found, to make a long story short, is Mondeuse wine that we make from this property is vastly different than the Mondeuse wine from the Savoie. That tells you that place is very important. First of all, this is warmer place than the Savoie, which is a short season, a cool climate place. The Mondeuse wines that they produce, they tend to be quite light-bodied, more Pinot like in body and color. They have a wonderful aroma.

What we get here is a wine that is every bit as rich and deep colored as our Syrah, but more spicy. The Mondeuse wine is spicy, it's intense in warm years. In 2009 and '10, which were not warm years, but they were warmer than '11, so the '11 has been a real interesting year. The '09 and the '10, the Mondeuse was very rich and spicy and perhaps even darker than our Syrah.

In '11 though, because 2011 was such a cool year here in Napa, everybody got wines that were a little bit more to the European end, at least the northern European end of the spectrum. We got wines where the Syrah was a little bit more Northern Rhône-ish and the Mondeuse was a little bit more Savoie-ish, but it's been very interesting.

 

So that's been an experiment for us. It has told us that Mondeuse is really an excellent variety. I think it's generated some interest among other people that has never been very much Mondeuse in California. We've had people express interest in getting some budwood from us, so maybe we'll see a little bit more in the future.

The other two varieties that we have here are Malbec and Zinfandel. The Malbec doesn't really relate to my genetic research. We planted that because we have a neighboring vineyard just a mile behind us here, which is to the southeast, and that's called Brandlin Ranch, which is a historic ranch here in this area. There is some Malbec on that ranch that we have really enjoyed the wines from, they are really excellent.

We thought that we could probably grow really good Malbec here. Some of our other Mt. Veeder neighbors I think have been coming around to the same idea. There have been a few other Malbecs produced on Mt. Veeder that are really good. We're thinking maybe Mt. Veeder might be an important spot for Malbec in California. We've got Malbec, a few other people have Malbec, and we've been really happy with our Malbec.

Then the last grape that we have here is Zinfandel. That relates a 100% to my work. Because one of the last big projects that I worked on before I retired from UC Davis, which is 11 years ago now, was Zinfandel.

I had always been interested in the origin of Zinfandel. Zinfandel had been such an important grape in California that it became known as a Californian grape. It had no European connection, there was no grape in Europe called Zinfandel. People came to think that it was an American grape, and it made sense because there was nothing in Europe named Zinfandel. For Cabernet Sauvignon we looked to Bordeaux, for Pinot, we looked to Burgundy, for Sangiovese we looked to Tuscany. For Zinfandel we looked to California because there was nothing else.

I had always been interested, and other people that Davis before me had always been interested in, where does Zinfandel come from. A colleague of mine in the 70s at Davis had encountered Primitivo in Southern Italy, which we came to learn is the same grape as Zinfandel, but did not originate there. The Italians would be the first to tell you that Zinfandel, which they call Primitivo, was introduced to Italy probably 200 to 300 years ago. It didn't come from there.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist or a plant geneticist to look at the map and tell you to look across the Adriatic. It's not very far to go to the Dalmatian Coast of what is today Croatia. I decided I wanted to look there to see if that maybe was the home of Zinfandel.

Through my work, and that of a number of my other contemporaries working in grapevine genetics in several countries around the world, in Europe, and Australia, and other places, we were developing DNA tools that really would enable us to answer conclusively these questions about where our grapes come from. I was interested in applying these tools to try to find the home of Zinfandel. I wanted to look in Croatia. I didn't know anybody in Croatia, and you can't just march into somebody else’s country and go tramping through their vineyards and grab stuff, that's just not the way it works.

At that time, I had no Croatian connection. I contacted Mike Grgich, Miljenko Grgić, who is Croatian and who has become famous here in California for his Grgich Hills Winery. I contacted him and told him I was interested in looking in Croatia for Zinfandel. He had always been of the mind that it was the home of Zinfandel. Because he had tasted it here and he knew that it tasted similar to the wines from his homeland. What he had in mind was Plavac Mali, which is the predominant red grape grown today on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. He thought that they tasted very similar and what we know now is that they taste very similar because Plavac Mali is the direct offspring of Zinfandel, but it is not Zinfandel.

Mike was willing to help me, but he really didn't have the scientific connections that I needed, but he was really willing to help. Serendipitously, and serendipity plays a huge role here, because in the fall of 1997, I'm trying to figure out, okay, Mike Grgich wants to help, but then what? What's next? So he could introduce me to people he knows, but they're not the people I need. I need scientists there who can help me. Who would understand my question and how we want to go about answering it.

I get an e-mail in December 1997, "Dr. Meredith, My name Ivan Pejic. I am a professor of plant genetics, University of Zagreb, Croatia." He says, "My colleague Edi Maletic and I are trying to understand our indigenous grapes here in Croatia. Because we think they are at risk from modern development and globalization. We want to understand them and to preserve them. We think that the DNA tools that you have been using would be really helpful to us. Could you help us?"

I said, "Could I help you? Yes! And I'm looking for the home of Zinfandel and you could help me." He says, "What is Zinfandel?" Because they've never heard the name. To make a long story short, we began to work together and within a few months I was there. I went there several times. Ivan and Edi also came here, they’ve played ping pong right underneath us here in our garage. They love Steve. We worked together for a number of years and we eventually found Zinfandel in Croatia in a couple of different places. What we learned though is that it was almost gone. Talk about on the verge of extinction. A handful of vines left in the entire country. Because it turns out that modern grapevine diseases that have come in from other countries, well, Zinfandel wasn't very tolerant of those.

It was being called Crljenak Kaštelanski, Pribidrag, Kratosija, all different names, local names. Anyway, it almost died off, mostly because of disease, and its direct offspring Plavac Mali came to replace it. That's why most of the red wine vineyards on the coast are Plavac Mali. What we eventually learned was that Zinfandel did come from Croatia. Then as we began to trace back the history, with the help of some museum specimens which my colleagues in Croatia were eventually able to get DNA from, we found that the stuff in the museum that was old and dead, it was Zinfandel. Then we got a historian interested. He traced it back to the 1300’s and found that Zinfandel was one of the most important wine grapes and wines in the Adriatic Wine Trade. It's not just some little local grape that the peasants grew, it was important. Back in the Middle Ages, when there was a lot of trade going across the Adriatic to Venice and other city states, one of the most important wines was Zinfandel, but then it was called Tribidrag. That was the name, if you look back through history that is the name, Tribidrag. To bring that all the way back to here and now, today on my property, our Zinfandel down there, when we put it into the bottle, we don't call it Zinfandel, we call it Tribidrag. We have a label that I developed to try to give it a historic look. It has kind of a sepia tone look to it and the name Tribidrag.

The Zinfandel research was my final project. It was immensely satisfying because it helped the Croatian wine and grape industry to advance. The research made an important historical connection for us, and for them, and for me it helped relate what I do here today with what I did then.



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