Indiana Jones and the Grapes of Olmo

Photo of Dr. Harold Olmo via the Archives of UC Davis: http://news.ucdavis.edu/search/news_detail.lasso?id=8037

The other day I was doing some quick research on Ruby Cabernet. The first result (via Wikipedia, no less) introduced the grape as such: “Ruby Cabernet is a red Olmo grape variety…” As these things go, my interest quickly changed from the parentage of Ruby Cabernet to the Olmo grapes. It sounded familiar, yet only vaguely familiar.

The Olmo grapes it seems, are the creation of Dr. Harold Olmo, a former UC Davis professor with a long list of viticultural (and other) accomplishments. In total, Dr. Olmo served on the faculty of UC Davis for over 60 years, including 29 years as a Professor Emeritus.

Dr. Olmo began his studies and research at the University of California at Berkeley (he had a PhD in genetics), but moved to the Davis campus along with the rest of the University’s wine research program in the 1930’s. There he embarked on his grape breeding program, attempting to create grapes of great flavor and structure that could be grown in the warm, dry climate of California’s Central Valley.

Of the dozens of grapes he created, Dr. Olmo’s best-known grapes include the following:

  • Ruby Cabernet—a Cabernet Sauvignon X Carignan cross, often used for blends but also made into varietal wines, grown throughout Central California, Australia, South America, and South Africa
  • Emerald Riesling—a Riesling X Muscaelle cross bred for use in warm climates; it is grown in some parts of California and South Africa and is used quite extensively in Israel
  • Symphony—a Muscat of Alexandria X Grenache Gris cross, grown in some parts of California and used to produce slightly spicy white wines with citrus–peach–apricot aromas
  • Rubired—a hybrid of Tinto Cão (vinifera) and Alicante Ganzin (a vinifera X Vitis rupestris hybrid), Rubired is a teinturier with deeply-colored red juice used primarily in blends and fortified wines in California and Australia

.

Dr. Olmo was known not only for his grape breeding program, but his swashbuckling adventures in pursuit of wild grapes, grape archaeology, and viticultural consultation.  These adventures included (as reported by his daughter, Jeanne-Marie Olmo, via an interview on Uncorked: The Blog), being arrested and jailed in a chicken coop (as a result of the death of a donkey), harvesting ancient vine seeds on the Iranian border, and attempting to deliver grape cuttings to the  ambassador of Afghanistan. These escapades earned him the nickname of “the Indiana Jones of Viticulture.”

Dr. Olmo created the first grape quarantine facility in California, allowing hundreds of European varieties to be imported into and planted securely in the United States—many people consider this his greatest contribution to California wine. Dr. Olmo also created an in-depth study of Chardonnay in California that resulted in an increase in California Chardonnay from less than 300 acres in the 1970’s to the powerhouse grape that it is today.

Dr. Olmo was a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, and received the Medal for Outstanding Contributions to World Viticulture by the Office of International de la Vigne et du Vin in 1965. He was a consultant to the United Nations for over twenty years and was named, in 2007, as an “Icon” in the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame. These are just a few of the dozens of national and international awards and recognition he received over his career. Dr. Olmo passed away in the middle of an afternoon nap on June 30, 2006. He was 96 years old, and the world of wine will never forget him.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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