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Tasting Wine with Dr. Olmo: Dry Finish

Back in my grad-school days, I loved hanging around the lab to watch Dr. Olmo taste wine. I spent so much time there that his technician said he should charge me an amusement tax!

Dr. Harold P. Olmo started working at U.C. Davis shortly before the end of Prohibition and retired as Professor of Viticulture in 1977. Retirement, however, was mostly a change in title — Dr. Olmo kept doing almost as much as a Professor Emeritus as he did in his full-time days.

In addition to enology, Dr. Olmo was knowledgeable in grape culture, varieties and history and his grape research sometimes took him to other countries. He once told me of being chased by bandits in Afghanistan when he went there to collect wild, ancestral forms of Vitis vinifera. He made it sound like a trip to the corner store.

Grape growers everywhere know  Dr. Olmo’s creations. He bred the wine varieties Ruby Cabernet, Carmine, Centurion, Calzin, Flora, Helena, Symphony, Emerald Riesling, Rubired and Royalty. He also bred some varieties of table grapes, including Perlette, which was the first seedless grape produced by breeding.

Dr. Olmo’s lab technician, Albert T. “Al” Koyama, and others did most of the hands-on vineyard work. To give an idea of how much work there was, new blocks of seedlings with 500 to 1,000 seedlings were planted nearly every year, and older blocks had to be observed and worked with for several years. As a graduate student in plant breeding under Dr. Olmo, I found that field work and lab work provided a better education than most of my regular classes.

Dr. Olmo evaluated the wine samples. The only way to know if a seedling wine grape is any good is to make wine from it. Each wine sample was only a “split,” four-fifths of a pint. However, if you make 1,934 samples, as I did one summer, it adds up.

Sitting all summer at a small stemmer-crusher, pulling out stems and squeezing juice from excess pulp, puts you on very intimate terms with a grape. A lot of times I said a prayer that, for the sanity of future winemakers, the wine from a particular grape would not be any good. Some grapes had clusters with more stem than berries, or types with berries so small and pulpy it was hard to squeeze the juice out. Some whites oxidized so fast that the juice looked like caramel even before fermentation started. One really memorable seedling had orange berries, and the juice from it was actually fluorescent orange! It could have made a great novelty wine, but the chemistry was all wrong. It wouldn’t ferment no matter what we did.

Dr. Olmo did the wine tasting, with Al Koyama backing him up. They tasted 20 samples in the morning and 20 samples in the afternoon. The samples were scored on a scale of zero to ten. A rating of five or better for three years in a row sent a selection on to advanced testing.

The fun was watching Dr. Olmo evaluate. His reactions were so precise you could call the score from them before a word was said. A wrinkled nose and a closed-eyed grimace would accompany a zero. A quick sniff and  a perfunctory sip were all a low-scoring wine would get. Dr. Olmo could tell if a wine was a bummer in an instant. A wine that scored around five might rate a long pause and a thoughtful expression with one eye closed.

Every once in awhile, though, it would happen. A sniff. A thoughtful look. Another sniff. Then he’d look at it again with light through it, swirl it and sniff it again. Suddenly everyone would be on alert. Al would already have poured a sample for himself. A wine sample that commanded this much attention would score big.

A single high score, however, did not guarantee that a grape would  proceed to advanced testing. Inconsistency was one of the big sins of a selection.  Inconsistency meant a grape wouldn’t adapt well to different soils or climates. It was better to score a five for three years in a row than to post one great score and two low ones.

With the ability to smell and taste so important to Dr. Olmo, it was ironic that his wife Helen’s sense of smell and taste were switched — she tasted what others smelled. Once I took them a bottle of strawberry wine that smelled heavenly, but tasted like old socks. The two disagreed about the quality of the wine. It tasted like fresh strawberries to Helen, but to Dr. Olmo it was “Essence du Catpisse.” I’d have to say that Dr. Olmo won that argument by a nose.