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Davis, California

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Local wine bar recognizes ‘Indiana Jones of Viticulture’

Vini Wine Bar has dedicated one of its walls to the achievements of the late Harold Olmo, a highly recognized viticulturist and UC Davis professor for 46 years.

Jeff Day, owner of Vini, said that the culmination of the wall in his wine bar began when he met the late Olmo’s daughter, Jeanne-Marie Olmo. Jeanne-Marie brought Day items that included diplomas that the late Olmo received in the ’50s from a university in Italy as well as an old, framed California Agriculture Magazine.

“Once I learned more about him, I thought, with his ties to the university, what a neat opportunity for me to do something neat here as somewhat of a tribute wall,” Day said.

According to Day, many people who visit his wine bar are very curious and have shown a lot of interest in his Olmo display.

Other items on the wall include a Carmine vine, which is a grape Olmo bred from his vineyard, his boots and a photo of him working in his living room when he was already in his 90s.

Day has plans to expand the wall by adding some stakes from the late Olmo’s vineyard and a couple more bottles of his wine provided by his daughter.

“A lot of people wouldn’t learn about him if it wasn’t for [Jeff’s] choosing to display it,” Jeanne-Marie said.

According to Jeanne-Marie, her father spent his life trying to improve the grape industry.

“I remember growing up, everybody asked me, ‘What does your father do?’ and I’d say, ‘My father’s a doctor of grapes — he fixes sick grapes,’” Jeanne-Marie said.

The late Olmo dedicated part of his research to the breeding of root stalks that could withstand diseases. He traveled to Afghanistan, where he sought out the oldest existing vines and took clippings, in hopes of finding disease-resistant genes.

Another focus of Olmo’s research was breeding grape varieties that could grow in all different kinds of climates.

“His goal was to make wine grapes that could grow anywhere in America so that wine could be as prolific [in America] as [it is in] Europe, and hopefully be, one day, $3 a bottle on a table,” Jeanne-Marie said.

Jeanne-Marie said her father was very active into his old age. She described an instance when her father took a group of UC Davis students into the vineyard, and they struggled to keep up with his quick pace.

“His mind was clear till the end,” Jeanne-Marie said.

What Jeanne-Marie said that she likes most about the display is that it promotes a professor from Davis, and she believes in promoting things that are local.

“Professors are so easily forgotten, not in the industry but to the people. People don’t hear about what saved the grapes,” Jeanne-Marie said.

Dr. Andrew Walker, a professor in the viticulture, enology and environmental science department, said that even after Olmo’s retirement in 1977 he was very active in the department.

“Harold was down working away in his office, he came in every day until he was in his early 90s — it was amazing,” Walker said.

According to Walker, much of Olmo’s research is being used today to create disease resistance in grapes, furthering his research in applying advanced technology.

Walker described him as the “Indiana Jones of Viticulture.”

“It wasn’t artifacts, he was looking for real plants [in Afghanistan],” Walker said.

According to Walker, the department just finished a large series of evaluations on over 500 of his materials from his trip to the Middle East. Through these evaluations, they discovered that some of his clippings were resistant to powdery mildew, the disease that has the greatest financial implications for California’s wine industry.

“He was on the path for breeding for resistance to it [powdery mildew] but he didn’t really know that he had already found it,” Walker said.

According to Walker, many of Olmo’s clippings from around the world were used to create plants that would grow in different kinds of climates, but primarily a hotter and drier one.

“Lo and behold, it’s going to be a hotter, drier California,” Walker said.

With the price of table grapes rising in the ASUCD Coffee House (CoHo) from $1.85 to $2.50, it would seem that the present would be a spectacular time to deploy Olmo’s research.

According to a press release from the CoHo’s food supplier, Trinity Fresh, production from offshore suppliers of table grapes is winding down, causing the price of grapes to go up.

“We’ve been forced to raise the prices of grapes because our cost has pretty much doubled,” said Darin Schluep, food services director for the CoHo, in an email. “Up to this point, as the prices rose we were able to absorb this cost, but it got to the point where we couldn’t afford to keep the price the same.”

Exports of grapes from Chile and Peru are expanding, and the fluctuation of cost could be attributed to demand shift, Walker said.

“The good prices will be back in June,” he said.

SYDNEY COHEN can be reached at city@theaggie.org.

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