Acclaimed American Viticulturist Harold Olmo Dies

The UC Davis professor and grape geneticist made extensive contributions to winegrowing in California and around the world
Jul 5, 2006

Harold Olmo, perhaps the most influential viticulturist of the 20th century, died on June 30 in a convalescent hospital in Davis, Calif. He was 96.

Beginning with his first grape crosses in 1931, Olmo helped grow the U.S. wine industry after Prohibition, and for much of the century, he was the leading expert on identification of grape varieties in California. As a professor at the University of California, Davis, he also taught many of the people who would become prominent growers and winemakers across the state and in other countries. The depth and breadth of his intellectual curiosity carried him to every corner of the world where grapevines were grown, ultimately earning him the reputation of being the Indiana Jones of viticulture.

"Olmo was the quintessential viticulturist, an icon, but only those of us on the inside knew that," said Nick Dokoozlian, viticulturist at Gallo and former UC Extension Farm adviser. "He just quietly went about his business of being the greatest viticulturist in the world. There isn't anything he didn't work on because it all related to his passion: improving California vines, down to the cellular level."

Born in San Francisco in 1909, Olmo got his early education in horticulture at the University of California, Berkeley. He then earned his doctorate from Berkeley in what was, at the time, the young science of plant genetics. From his mentors there, he developed a lifelong passion for grapevine genetics and evolution.

Olmo began his career as a grape breeder in 1931, when his first crosses were made. Over the course of his life, he developed more than 30 new wine, raisin and table grape varieties. His Redglobe is among the most widely grown table grapes in the world, while Rubired is commonly used as a blending grape to add color to wines. Varietal wines have been made from his Ruby Cabernet, Emerald Riesling, Symphony, Flora and Carmine.

Royalties from most of Olmo's grape varieties, now in excess of $2 million, were donated back to the UC, Davis, department of viticulture and enology, where the endowment is used to assist new faculty and graduate students.

Olmo traveled the world as a consultant and researcher.
Olmo joined UC, Davis, as an assistant professor of viticulture in 1938 and remained there until his retirement in 1977. Soon after joining the faculty, he began clonal selection work on Cabernet Sauvignon, long before anyone else had formally begun the process of selecting the best, most productive vines for propagation. Before Olmo began his clonal selection work on Chardonnay in the 1970s, there were fewer than 300 acres planted in the state. He painstakingly ferreted out the most flavorful, productive and disease-free examples of the variety he could find. Today, Chardonnay is the most widely planted white wine grape in the state.

He was particularly proud of having established the first grapevine quarantine facility at Davis in the 1950s--thus allowing California growers and viticulturists to import new vines from foreign venues without endangering local agriculture--and a grapevine certification program to ensure the distribution of clean stock within the state.

Olmo traveled and consulted worldwide, both as a university researcher and a United Nations consultant to countries and grapegrowing regions around the world, touching down in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and South America.

"Everywhere I go in the world today, people ask me if Olmo is still alive," said Dokoozlian. While the names of other prominent American viticulturists are not always recognized in other countries' wine regions, he added, "they all know Olmo."

Among Olmo's travels, he spent seven months in 1948 as a Guggenheim Fellow traversing Pakistan, Afghanistan and northern Iran--a rigorous journey over bad roads, by car, by horseback and on foot--in search of the origins of many popular fruit, nut and grain species.

In 1951, at the behest of the Wine Institute, Olmo traveled to Europe's major wine regions, collecting vines from the sites where they grew best, to supply California growers with the finest possible selections. Some, such as the famed Pommard clone of Pinot Noir, are still widely used in California today.

In the mid-1950's, he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in Western Australia and is generally credited with giving impetus to the fine-wine industry that now exists there. Frankland Estates owners Judi and Barrie Cullum dubbed their Bordeaux blend "Olmo's Reward" in his honor.

Olmo's wife, Helen, traveled the world with him and often entertained international visitors on a moment's notice in their Davis home. "I remember one Thanksgiving when I counted 21 guests from 12 different countries gathered around our table," said Olmo's daughter, Jeanne-Marie.

He also made many friends closer to home, where among his students were many future California winemakers of note, including Silver Oak founder Justin Meyer; Paso Robles pioneer Gary Eberle, who credits Olmo with having pinpointed the region as being particularly suitable for red wine; and Sonoma vintner Merry Edwards, who says Olmo sparked her interest in Chardonnay clonal selection.

Olmo is survived by his sons, Paul and Dan, and his daughter, Jeanne-Marie Olmo.

The public is invited to both the rosary--which will be held at Davis Funeral Chapel, 116 D St., Davis, Calif., on July 6 at 7 p.m.--and the funeral services, being held at St. James Catholic Church, 1275 B St., Davis, Calif., on July 7, at 1 p.m. A celebration of his life will immediately follow in the St. James Fellowship Hall.

A memorial service is scheduled for July 30, the eve of Olmo's 97th birthday. The service will be held at the University Club, on Old Davis Road at 2 p.m. Attendees are requested to call 530-754-8368 or email vljohnson@ucdavis.edu. Donations to support a planned vine named after Olmo (the university already has a huge vine named after late professor Albert Winkler under which it holds special events) may be sent to Andrew Walker at the Department of Viticulture and Enology, University of California, 1 Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616-8749.

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