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Dave Erickson

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Harold Olmo, Godfather of Cali Chard, RIP

by Dave Erickson » Wed Jul 12, 2006 10:24 am

From this morning's New York Times:

July 12, 2006
Harold Olmo, 96, Who Created Many Grape Varieties, Is Dead
By FRANK J. PRIAL

Harold P. Olmo, a world famous grape breeder and geneticist who helped to create the modern California wine industry, died in Davis, Calif., on June 30. He was 96.

The cause was complications of a hip fracture, according to the University of California, Davis.

Dr. Olmo served on the faculty at the university’s department of viticulture and enology from 1931 until his retirement in 1977, but he continued his research there until shortly before his death.

He first gained wide recognition in California for developing grape varieties that tried to combine the elegance of noble grapes like cabernet sauvignon with tougher varieties, like carignane and grenache, capable of thriving in the furnacelike heat of the vast Central Valley where, traditionally, most of California’s wine was once produced.

Among the hybrids he created were grapes with names like ruby cabernet, carnelian, centurion, emerald riesling and rubired.

In 1971, after 35 years of study and experimentation, he produced a sweeping study of the chardonnay grape.

“The whole basis of the chardonnay industry, going from being an insignificant grape to the most important variety in California, is his work,” one of his successors at the university, Dr. Andy Walker, told The Associated Press.

In his book “The Wines of America,” the historian Leon D. Adams wrote that in 1933 Frederick Bioletti, then head of the university’s wine studies, “chose from among his graduates a tall, blond, green-thumbed young geneticist named Harold Paul Olmo and gave him a lifetime project — to breed better grapes from the unique climates of California.”

Dr. Olmo, Mr. Adams said, became “the Luther Burbank of the grape.”

A native of San Francisco, Harold Paul Olmo earned a degree in horticulture at the University of California, Berkeley. A doctorate in genetics followed in 1934.

Beginning in 1935, much of Berkeley’s wine research was moved to the Davis campus, 75 miles east of San Francisco, which until then had been an experimental university farm.

Primarily an academic, Dr. Olmo was also an adventurer. Setting out from Davis in 1948, he traveled 7,000 miles, by ship, plane, train and mule and on foot, to find the origins of the vinifera grape vine, the source of all the world’s best wines.

In the mountains on the border of Iraq and Afghanistan, he found what he considered to be the original vinifera vines growing wild. He brought seeds back to California and in Leon Adams’ words, “began the ages-old evolution of the wine grape over again.”

He is survived by a daughter Jeanne-Marie Olmo of Davis; two sons, Daniel Martin Olmo of Davis, and Paul Stephen Olmo of Port Orford, Ore., and six grandchildren. His wife, Helen Miller, died in 2000.

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