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Wine Talk: Francisco Ayala

UC Irvine biology professor applies his knowledge to grape growing in a "vineyard designed in Hollywood"

Jennifer Fiedler
Posted: March 13, 2009

Spaniard Francisco Ayala is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Ayala publishes frequently on the topics of evolutionary genetics, the philosophy of biology and bioethics, and the teaching of evolution in schools. His most recent book, Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion, was published by Joseph Henry Press in 2007. When not on the road lecturing or doing research, he tends to the nearly 2,000 acres of Lodi vineyards he has acquired over the past 27 years. Ayala recently talked about testing new grape varieties and the health benefits of wine with Wine Spectator.

Wine Spectator: You're a scientist. How did you end up with vineyards?
Francisco Ayala: In 1981, I was looking for a place that wasn't far from UC Davis, where I was at the time on the faculty. My real-estate agent told me that he had found a "vineyard designed in Hollywood." It was losing money, so I decided to learn about winemaking and grapes and discovered we were planting everything wrong. By the early '90s, it was making me money. In 1995, I saw 400 acres of land that was scheduled for developing. So I got that and planted that vineyard. That same process happened a few more times. My wife says—and it is some exaggeration—that every time she goes on a long trip, I have another vineyard.

WS: What kind of grapes are you planting?
FA: I have all the big ones, and then other varieties as well, like Perot Lego, Petite Sirah, Touriga Nacional. I am experimenting to see how well they grow. People said you could not grow Pinot Noir [in Lodi], but going toward the foothills, where I thought the climate was right, I planted Pinot Noir for the first time eight years ago. I sent the grapes to six wineries, and they said it was just about the best Pinot Noir they've ever had. Now people in that area are all planting Pinot Noir.

WS: And where do you sell your grapes?
FA: Probably the largest amounts go to Mondavi. McManis Family Vineyards, a small winery, gets a fair amount of my grapes, maybe 2,000 pounds a year. I do some special things for Gallo. I grow emerging varieties for them that they use for blending.

WS: Have you ever had any wine made from your own grapes?
FA: I have 50 cases of a different variety made for me each year to give to charities or my friends.

WS: Do you have any plans to start your own winery?
FA: If one of my two sons decided to get seriously involved, I would do it tomorrow. As it is, I'm a scientist.

WS: Do you drink other types of wine besides the ones made from your grapes?
FA: I'm very fond of old Robert Mondavis, not Opus One, but the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves. I still have some of the 1992 Robert Mondavi Reserve. If they make wine in heaven, that's the kind of wine they drink. I have liked Heitz Martha's Vineyard, and I have other favorites, Stag's Leap and the like.

WS: Do you ever travel to other wine regions?
FA: About 15 years ago, the province of Rioja established something called the Rioja Distinction Award. The second time, the prize was awarded to me, and they invited me to lecture at the university. They wanted me to speak about genetics or evolution, but instead I lectured about wine—to their surprise. I lectured again about wine at a program run by the National Academy of Sciences. It was a lecture called "Elixir of Life: Wine and Health," in which I talked more about wine than health.

WS: Care to offer any take-home lessons to our readers?
FA: The cultures that realized the interesting diversity of grape varieties, and that grapes were different from place to place and year to year, were not the cultures that people think of, but the Egyptians. By 3,000 B.C., they already had 250 different varieties of grapes, which they were using for making wine. The Greeks started to make wine around 700 B.C. at the earliest. That was the main point of my lecture, and then I talked a little bit about health. More and more studies are accumulating that drinking wine in moderation is just the best thing that you can do for your heart—other than love [laughing].

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