An Interview with Dr. Carole Meredith

In November 2011, we had the opportunity to interview Dr. Carole Meredith, Professor Emerita in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis.  We discussed her work in the field of grape genetics, the recent history of ampelography, and her own project, Lagier Meredith Vineyard in Napa Valley, which she owns with her husband Steve Lagier.


Guild: Dr. Meredith, as a professor at UC Davis, you were actively teaching and doing research until 2003 in the field of grape genetics.  Tell us a little bit about your career.  Over the course of your 20 year-long tenure what were some of the major accomplishments and findings in your field?

Dr. Carole Meredith: I joined the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis in 1980.  Prior to that time I had never worked with grapes; my training and experience was in plant genetics—which is pretty much applicable to any plant.  I worked with tomatoes, soybeans, corn, and other major agricultural crops.  An opportunity to go to Davis arose: Professor Harold Olmo, a really prominent grape geneticist with worldwide renown, retired and I got his position.  I had to hit the ground running, because in addition to developing a research program I was also expected to teach in the Viticulture and Enology program and of course if knew nothing about it.  So for the first year or so I sat in on a lot of classes and tried to soak it all up.

As you may know, at a major research university you “publish or perish”, so for my research program I started doing a little work with grapes, but also continued some of the work that I had done on another crops.  I wanted to develop a productive research program as soon as possible, because you are evaluated on your productivity and the grape was at that time a very challenging plant to work with genetically.  I wasn’t expecting to make any quick progress on grape, but I did gradually develop a grape program and my main interest was the possibility of applying genetic engineering techniques to grape.  This was in the early 1980s, when plant genetic engineering was just getting started, and every scientist working with any crop was wondering if this new technology might be useful. 

One of the early things that we had to develop with grape was a good tissue culture system, so that we could grow grape cells and tissue in the laboratory.  In genetic engineering you are not throwing genes at a whole plant, you are trying to get those genes incorporated into individual cells from which you will then generate a whole plant.  At that time no one had regenerated a whole grapevine from cultured grapevine cells—that was the big obstacle.  After a few years we got that working rather well, and then started making a stab at putting genes into grapes.  We never had any big successes in that area, and I was starting to lose interest.  However, in the late 1980s a new technology for using DNA markers came along.  DNA fingerprinting for humans had developed in the early 1980s, and we were looking to see if a similar application could be useful with grape.  Grape is such an international crop; the major varieties have moved around the world so much that there is a lot of confusion regarding their identities.  Varieties have acquired new names in new places; for example, here in California where for a long time we called Mélon (de Bourgogne) Pinot Blanc, and we called a Pinot Noir clone Gamay, and of course in Chile they were calling Carmenère Merlot, and on and on.  We realized that by using DNA fingerprinting techniques we might be able to address some of those identification issues.

We begin using some of the DNA profiling tools that existed at that time, but it was very challenging to get DNA out of grapevines.  Grape is not an easy plant to work with—tobacco is simple; grape is really challenging.  In the early days we solved some simple identification issues: we showed that Pinot Blanc in California was really Mélon, and a variety we called Pinot St. George was really Negrette.  We just matched the California grape to the DNA profile of candidate European grapes to correctly identify the California grapes.  

I the early 1990s there was a big breakthrough in genetics—it happened in animal and human research, where all the big genetic breakthroughs occur.  Often people wonder why a grape geneticist would be interested in rat genetics or human genetics, but at the DNA level it all works in the same way.  There is so much interest and financial investment in human genetics that the tools tend to emerge the fastest there, and plant geneticists always look to human genetics first to try to see what might be on the horizon for all of us.  So, in human genetics there were some new DNA markers called microsatellite markers that enable you to do identification and to develop a DNA profile, but these DNA markers are also a much more direct reflection of the real genome of an organism, of the genes themselves.  You can actually determine inheritance in this way.  If you look at a human child and his two parents, you can look at the profiles of the parents and profile of the child and see which markers the child inherited from which parent.  Therefore, you can statistically prove parentage by ruling out other individuals.  This technique of course became useful for paternity issues, for immigration issues, for a lot of issues where the actual inheritance of DNA was important beyond simple identification.

I was introduced to these new human DNA markers while attending a seminar on the inheritance of hypertension in rats with a former Ph.D. student of mine, Dr. John Bowers.  A light bulb went on: we realized that if we could get these kinds of markers working with grape then we might not only be able to correctly identify varieties, but also ask much more interesting and far-reaching questions about genetic relationships between varieties.  Where did a variety really come from, how did it move, and so on.  But we couldn’t just jump right in to it, because none of these markers existed in grape—they are species-specific.  We would have to develop a whole tool kit, an expensive, lengthy process for a small laboratory.  There was no way that we could develop the tool kit of dozens and dozens of required individual markers—simply looking at the inheritance of a single DNA marker statistically doesn’t really prove anything, you really need a lot of markers for this to work.  So I began to wonder whether other research groups working on grape around the world might want to cooperate.  We could work together to develop the necessary tool kit.  I started to contact other grape geneticists in labs all over the world—initially 10 or 15 different research groups in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa—and proposed that we form a consortium to develop these markers.  Each lab would try to develop a few markers and then contribute those markers to the general pool that we would share.  We formed the Vitis Microsatellite Consortium.  After a couple of years we had developed several hundred markers.  We were able to make some interesting discoveries by just using a couple of dozen markers, because that is enough to prove statistically whether one variety is related to another variety.  But once several hundred markers existed it was then possible to develop a genome map of grape, a project that was really just starting around the time that I retired from UC Davis.   

The highlight of my career was using these DNA markers to reveal genetic relationships among classic wine grapes and to then elucidate from that something about the history of wine.  When I reflect back on working with grape, I realize how lucky I was to end up working on a crop plant that not only presents really interesting scientific challenges, but, as the most widely-grown temperate fruit crop, is so important to the economies of a number of countries, particularly in Europe.  Grape is part of the history of western civilization: grape-growing and winemaking have been around for thousands of years, and they moved across the world with people.  It has enabled me to learn a lot about science, history, culture, and food; and a lot about people.

Guild: How do you think DNA and genetic research changed the study of ampelography?

Dr. Carole Meredith: If you break the word down, ampelos is the Greek word for “vine”, and graphos is the word for “picture”, or “description”.  Ampelography originally implied the description of a grape variety.  Every grape variety is a little bit different than all the others.  Now, there are thousands of grape varieties and if you look just at their fruit they’re very hard to tell apart, but if you look at their leaves, there are so many subtle differences in their shape, in their surface texture, in the kinds of teeth they have around their edges and the kind of hair they have on the upper surface and on their lower surface.  It may be downy hair or upright hair; the leaves may be kind of folded or kind of bulging.  You can look at young leaves: when the shoot tips first come out they can be white, they could be pink, they could be bronze.  So many subtle morphological characteristics can be used to distinguish grape varieties.  Lots and lots of little details about what a grapevine looks like, particularly the leaves, but also the shoot tips, the buds, and the fruit itself—that is classic ampelography, and the way in which grapevine identification was performed prior to the last twenty years or so.  It was a powerful tool, but it relied on a tremendous amount of expertise on the part of the individual.  It took many years for an individual to develop this skill—my predecessor at Davis, Harold Olmo, became quite good at this—and in each country there was usually someone who could be identified as the preeminent expert on the varieties of that country. 

With the emergence of the molecular DNA techniques for identifying grapes ampelography has become objective.  In the past, UC Davis would periodically invite European experts to inspect our vine collections and confirm the identities of the vines.  Some of these vines were used as mother vines from which grapevine nurseries would obtain their cuttings, propagate them, and sell them to growers; so it was very important that these vines be correctly identified.  These Europeans would make their pronouncements, and every year we would pay a different set of experts—from Italy, Germany, Spain, France—who would not always agree with each other.  One expert would challenge another, and identification became a matter of opinion.  Today we can express a DNA profile as a series of numbers.  You can compare many different DNA markers, resulting in a set of numbers that you can compare to a database that has the numbers for thousands of varieties.  In this way you can objectively make a match.  Ampelography is no longer a matter of opinion and it can be done on a much larger scale.  No longer do we have to rely on the expertise of a single individual.

When I first became interested in using the new DNA tools to identify grape varieties, I wanted to resolve questions that the traditional ampelographers had addressed.  For example, when Primitivo was first recognized in the late 1970s for its similarities to Zinfandel, traditional ampelographers decided that, yes, they look alike; perhaps they are the same.  That was one of the early questions we talked about: if they look alike then let’s see if their DNA markers match up.  There were cases where the results were ambiguous, or there was simply a lack of expertise—there was no expert on Portuguese varieties, for instance.  Once we began using the new DNA microsatellite markers to determine identity objectively, we no longer had to have varieties growing side-by-side in the vineyard for comparison; instead, it became routine to extract DNA from grapevines and receive samples of DNA from other countries.  We could build a database of DNA profiles without ever having to grow the grapevine in our vineyard at all.  Now we could compare an unknown or a questionable California vine to thousands of varieties from across the world.  Our database eventually grew to contain 600-700 varieties during my tenure.  My assistant at Davis, Jerry Dangl, has taken over the DNA profiling program and now has around 1200 varieties in the database.  If a grower in California sends him an unknown variety, he can compare that variety against every variety in the database.

Guild: Let’s talk about some specific varieties.  You mentioned Zinfandel, so let’s settle this once and for all: What is the relationship between Zinfandel, Primitivo, and Crljenak Kaštelanski?

Dr. Carole Meredith: Those are all just different names for the same variety, just like Syrah and Shiraz.  They are just synonyms, like Thompson Seedless and Sultana.  It is said that there are 5,000 grape varieties and 15,000 names for them.  Zinfandel is just one of those cases.  What we now know is that Zinfandel originated in modern-day Croatia along the Dalmatian Coast.  Croatia is a relatively young country, but grapevines have been grown there for a long, long time.  It is an ancient wine-producing region.  Croatia is right on the Adriatic, and it has shared in the Mediterranean wine culture for thousands of years.  A lot of people get this garbled and it used to bother me but I’ve learned to live with it.  Primitivo is not a “cousin” of Zinfandel; Zinfandel did not “descend” from Crljenak Kaštelanski; they are all the same variety.

Guild: This is a good opportunity to define a couple of terms.  Sometimes we use “selection” and “clone” incorrectly; for instance, a lot of people refer to Primitivo as a “clone” of Zinfandel.  What, from a scientific perspective, is a clone and what is a selection?

Dr. Carole Meredith: I’ll first talk about “selection” because the term has no strict scientific meaning.  If somebody gets a cutting from someone else’s vineyard (X) and then propagates it, it will then informally become known as the X selection.  For instance, there is Syrah grown in California called the Durell Selection.  There is nothing formal about the name, it simply implies that the original cuttings of this Syrah came from the Durell Vineyard.  People tend to call them clones, but its just some wood that has been taken from a vineyard source; people favor it, it makes good wine, and so it then becomes known by the name of that original vineyard. 

“Clone” has a more rigorous definition.  We don’t have a formal clonal selection program here in California, but in Europe, where they have government-funded, highly structured, formal selection programs, I think that you will see what a clone really is.  In France—the system that I know the best—there is a quasi-governmental organization called ENTAV that is responsible for the evaluation and distribution of clones.  ENTAV will go to the supposed historical home of the variety—where they are most likely to find old vineyards—and start talking to the older growers.  Who has some interesting vines, something a little bit different, and so forth.  By walking old vineyards—prospecting—they’ll identify individual vines that growers in the area agree are a little different.  Maybe some vines have a bunch that is looser, maybe they have a little deeper color, maybe they aren’t as badly affected by mildew as the others, or maybe they set more crop.  They identify these vines and take cuttings from them, and then from one original vine they may plant five or ten or twenty vines.  They repeat this process with all of the interesting vines they identified in the vineyard, and grow each of these interesting curiosities for several years so that they can get several crops, make wine, evaluate the wine, and try to determine whether the distinctive characteristic that was observed at the original vineyard site is due to the plant material or to an environmental factor such as the vineyard location.  By planting the vines of interest side-by-side they can determine if some of them really do have some distinctive attribute.  Those that seem to have such an attribute will be planted on a larger scale and evaluated some more.  After the process is over—it may take twenty years—scientists can identify four, five, ten subtypes of a variety whose distinctiveness is stable across different environments and throughout different years.  Each of those subtypes will become a new clone.  Each is registered, given a number, and maintained at the ENTAV site in Southern France.  The new clones are made available to commercial grapevine nurseries, who then sell them to growers who want to plant them. Several grapevine nurseries in California have developed contractual agreements with ENTAV and are able to sell some of the registered French clones to growers here.  Italian and German programs are similar, wherein numbered clones have been proven across time and space to be distinctive.  A vineyard selection, on the other hand, is anecdotally thought to be distinctive but has usually never been proven to be so and may actually be a mixture of types since it may have originated from more than one vine in the original vineyard.

Guild: Let’s talk about some more specific varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon.  What is your history of working with the grape, and what did you discover about its genetic identity?

Dr. Carole Meredith: Our first big discovery about relationships among wine grapes came in the late 1990s with Cabernet Sauvignon.  My student John Bowers had been using a relatively small number of DNA markers—we had about 25 at the time—to examine varieties that were growing in the vineyard at UC Davis.  He was developing a database of DNA profiles of the most important grape varieties in California, including most of the classic French grapes, and he started to analyze the accumulated DNA data.  He would ask questions: Let’s take variety A, variety B, variety C, and look at every possible combination… could variety A and variety B be the parents of variety C? Or could A and C be the parents of B? And so forth.  By developing a computer program, he could ask this question of all the possible combinations in his small database.  Remarkably enough, we found a trio of varieties wherein A (Sauvignon Blanc) and B (Cabernet Franc) turned out to be the parents of C (Cabernet Sauvignon).

I’m not sure that we ever expected to find such direct relationships like this.  Of course, knowing that something is possible does not mean it is probable, so we had to prove statistically that not only was it possible that Cabernet Sauvignon was the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, but that it was also highly probable that no other two varieties could be the parents.  The statistical tools we used had already been developed by human geneticists for use in paternity cases and forensics cases, and it was not too big a leap for us to use them with grape.  However, prior to this time, no one had ever really known the origin of any classic wine grape, and this new finding suddenly told us a number of things: we now knew that Cabernet Sauvignon was younger than both Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc; we understood that a really high-quality red grape could have a white grape as a parent; and we could ascertain that Cabernet Sauvignon was most likely from France, rather than Albania or some of the other places speculated as its original home, because its two parents were strongly associated with Western France.

This opened a window for us, but there were a number of people, including some of my colleagues at Davis, who couldn’t quite grasp the power of the genetic tools we were using, and almost refused to believe it.  There was a bit of a generational difference.  But it was our big breakthrough; it put my group on the map and other grape genetics groups began to realize that these tools could not only be used for pure genetic studies, but in light of the history, geography and culture associated with grapes we could use the DNA tools to study history and geography in a way that did not really apply to other crops.  In corn genetics or rice genetics, you are trying to feed the world.  You are not trying to feed the world with grape, but for history and culture its profoundly important, and we suddenly had a scientific tool that could reveal that kind of insight. 

The Cabernet Sauvignon leaf


Guild: Did French ampelographers suspect that Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc were related?  One might guess that, in looking at the names alone, someone had a hunch about their possible relationship.

Dr. Carole Meredith: Well, a number of people over the years have said to me that it should have been obvious, with the names!  It had long been suspected that the two Cabernet grapes had a relationship, but no one knew exactly what that relationship was.  The relationship with Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, was a surprise; no one had ever suspected that a prominent red wine grape had descended from a prominent white wine grape.

Guild: Is there any way to track down when in history the moment of parentage occurred?  Do you suspect that this is something that was intentionally provoked by farmers in the field, or did it simply happen naturally?

Dr. Carole Meredith: We can definitely say that it occurred naturally because making deliberate crosses with plants did not develop until the 18th century.  Plant breeders could not develop that insight and skill because nobody knew anything about genetics until that time.  The first deliberate crosses in grapevines were not made until the 19th century.  We know that Cabernet Sauvignon has existed for several centuries, so it’s virtually impossible that it was a deliberate cross.  Also, making crosses with grapes is a real bitch!  If you want to cross-pollinate tomatoes, it’s easy and the flowers are fairly large; but with grapevines, the whole cluster is full of these tiny, tiny flowers and you need a magnifying glass and tiny forceps…its very, very difficult to make grapevine crosses.  On the other hand, natural cross-pollination among grapes happens all the time, as pollen from one variety growing next to another in the vineyard is carried by the wind.  What doesn’t frequently happen, however, is that we get a new plant from the cross-pollination.  In a single cross-pollination event, there may be a single seed developing in a single berry that represents the crossing between two varieties.  That seed has to then sprout somewhere in order for that new plant to exist.  So, cross-pollination occurs all the time but the emergence of a new plant as a result is rare.

The event that produced Cabernet Sauvignon was a single event.  A single pollen grain landed on a single flower and a single seed grew into a single plant.  Every Cabernet Sauvignon vine across the world comes from this one original vine.  There are not multiple sibling seedlings that gave rise to Cabernet Sauvignon, and the same can be said for every other variety we have. 

The first documented mention of Cabernet Sauvignon as a distinct variety came in the 17th century.  People didn’t pay as much attention to individual varieties then as they do now, so it can be hard to track down records of grapes.  Mixtures of varieties in vineyards were common.  So, we believe that Cabernet Sauvignon originated sometime in the 17th century, which makes it relatively young compared to some of the other varieties that we have studied.

Guild: Speaking of other varieties, can you talk about the family of Pinot grapes, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay, and other related varieties?

Dr. Carole Meredith: A lot of our work revolved around French varieties, and we could not have had the access to them, nor could we have delved into their history, if we did not have good collaborators in France.  When we made our Cabernet Sauvignon discovery in 1996, we were working with a limited number of varieties in California.  We understood that we needed to have access to a greater number of varieties if we wanted to discover more relationships, and there was a good chance that some of today’s important grapes may have very obscure grapes for their parents.  Perhaps some of these grapes are no longer commercially cultivated, or at the very least not cultivated in California.  I had been developing a friendship with several French researchers, and I was also involved in the OIV, an inter-governmental organization of grape- and wine-producing countries that is headquartered in Paris.  The OIV hammers out regulatory issues, economic issues, and some technical issues; and I was fortunate for a number of years to represent the United States in some of their expert committees.  We met a couple of times a year—I was forced to go to Paris!—and I got to know my counterparts in other countries pretty well.  At a Greek restaurant in Paris, I broached the subject of the collaboration with Jean-Michel Boursiquot, a very prominent researcher and ampelographer in France, and his colleague Patrice This, a grapevine geneticist.  Jean-Michel Boursiquot was the overseer of the French national vine collection, maintained near Montpellier, a collection established around 1900 or 1910 on a plot of sandy, phylloxera-free soil.  Back then, phylloxera was raging through Europe, and some very far-sighted people realized that as many vineyards were already lost, some varieties might be irrevocably lost.  The national collection was a way to preserve their heritage, a living library of French varieties.  There are about 5,000 varieties in this collection today, and Jean-Michel, intrigued by our Cabernet Sauvignon discovery, was eager to participate.

We wanted to study major varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but we also wanted to look at other varieties that might possibly be related to them.  So we looked at other varieties historically associated with northeastern France; my student John Bowers spent a lot of time amidst the vines of the Montpellier collection, taking samples, extracting DNA, and then returning to Davis to analyze it.  After a couple of years, John crunched all of this information in a computer program that he had developed, and a lot of fascinating relationships were made apparent.  One of the most interesting relationships we discovered was that Chardonnay was the direct offspring of Pinot and Gouais Blanc.  Everyone always asks, “Was it Pinot Noir, or Pinot Gris, or Pinot Blanc, or Pinot Meunier?” but we can’t say because all of these grapes have the same DNA profile.  They are clones.  They are very distinctive clones, but they are clones nonetheless.   In botanical terms they all represent a single variety.  So we cannot say which clone of Pinot is the parent of Chardonnay, but we do know that it is the father, the pollen parent.

We discovered a total of 26 varieties that have Pinot and Gouais Blanc as parents.  Chardonnay, Mélon, Auxerrois, Gamay, Aligoté, and many others, including some varieties that are no longer planted anywhere, but still exist in the collection at Montpellier.  26 varieties were the offspring of the same two parents.  26 individual cross-pollination events gave rise to 26 individual seedlings.  In the area of Burgundy and Champagne, the two parent varieties were widely grown.  Pinot was the grape of the nobility and the Church in Burgundy, and it was cultivated on the better sites, on the slopes.  Gouais Blanc, on the other hand, was the grape of the serfs.  Gouais Blanc was reliable, easy to grow, and it produced a heavy crop; the serfs that worked the Pinot vineyards of the nobility grew Gouais Blanc in their own vineyards in the villages below.  The nobility disdained Gouais Blanc, and there were several attempts to ban it, but it persisted due to its popularity with the serfs.  Pinot and Gouais Blanc were widely distributed over a large area, so there was ample opportunity for cross-pollination to occur.  Where did Gouais Blanc came from?  Well, by digging into its history, we discovered that Gouais Blanc is the French name for a central European variety known as Heunisch Weiss, well-known in Hungary and some other countries in that part of Europe.  So how did a Hungarian grape get to France?  In the 3rd century, France, or Gaul, was part of the Roman Empire.  The Roman Emperor Probus, who was originally from Dalmatia, had a fondness for the Gauls.  Supposedly, Probus gave the Gauls a gift of a grapevine from his homeland, and we speculate that this grapevine could have been Gouais Blanc.  There are some gaps in the story, but I like to believe it because it’s a good story.

In genetics, there is the term “hybrid vigor”: two parents that are genetically quite different can have an offspring that is particularly robust.  This may have been the case with Gouais Blanc and Pinot.  Because the two grapes are so genetically different from one another, they were able to create so many offspring that survived and thrived.  With offspring from closely related grape varieties, you have the same problem you have with humans: inbreeding.  Just look at some of the royal families!

 Guild: Are there other varieties that you have explored, other relationships you have discovered?

Dr. Carole Meredith: The one that is dearest to my own heart is Syrah.  In our work, we found that Syrah’s two parents are two other French grapes, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche.  Mondeuse Blanche is of course a white grape, so here we have another example of an important red wine grape with a white grape as a parent.  It has been so widely held that Syrah originated in Persia, near the city of Shiraz, or that it perhaps it came from Syracuse; but by finding that its two parents are French grapes, we can now conclude that Syrah was born in France.  The overlap between the historic growing areas for Dureza and for Mondeuse Blanche, a grape of the Savoie, is just east of Hermitage.  I conclude that Syrah was born there. 

Mondeuse Blanche is basically a sibling to Mondeuse Noire, one of the major red grapes grown in the Savoie today.  Mondeuse Noire is the genetic equivalent of Syrah’s uncle, and this is interesting because there is not much similarity between Northern Rhône Syrah wines and Savoie Mondeuse Noire wines.  I began to wonder, if you were to grow Syrah and Mondeuse Noire in the same environment and with the same farming methods, would their fairly close genetic relationship become more apparent?  A few years ago, my husband Steve Lagier and I planted a small plot of Mondeuse Noire.  It was very hard to find the plant material; I finally found two vines in the collection at UC Davis, and I bought all the budwood they had.  We have about 400 vines here (at the Lagier Meredith estate on Mt. Veeder –ed.) and we made our first wine from Mondeuse Noire two years ago, in 2009.  We now have the opportunity to examine our question: is the family relationship apparent?  And yes, we have found that the Mondeuse wine has many of the same aromatics as the Syrah.  It is a little more tannic, a little heavier, but I think the relationship is evident. It certainly has the same peppery flavor as Syrah; in fact our Mondeuse may be even more peppery than our Syrah.

Guild: So tell us more about your project, Lagier Meredith.

Dr. Carole Meredith: Our vineyard is on top of a ridge on Mt. Veeder, at 1300 ft.  We have five acres of vines; mostly Syrah, but we also have a little Mondeuse, a little Malbec, and a little Zinfandel.  My husband, Steve, and I bought our property in 1986, and I commuted to Davis for most of my career there.  We planted a few vines, just for ourselves, and we chose Syrah—not because we had a business plan, but we wanted to drink Syrah and we thought it was the best match for the site.  This is a quite a cool site, we can see the bay, and we get some coolness from the elevation and the sea breeze.  Some friends—winemakers—tasted our wine in a blind tasting of California Syrah and liked ours the best.  That was a turning point for us, and we produced our first commercial wine in 1998.  It was all Syrah until we planted the Mondeuse, Syrah’s crazy uncle!  We’ve just started making Malbec and Zinfandel.  We’ve been at this for twenty-five years now.  Steve kept his job at Robert Mondavi at the beginning, but as it became more corporate and less and less of a family-owned winery, I encouraged him to leave.  I left Davis in 2003, because we were finally able to make a living selling wine, and I was stretched very thin.  Two sixty hour-a-week jobs, plus the commute to Davis, were difficult to maintain.  After twenty-two years at Davis, and twenty-five years as a scientist, I was ready to move on to a new challenge. 

By word of mouth, we sold our wine easily.  We now produce about 800-900 cases of wine a year, and we sell most of it direct to consumers.  We have a mailing list, and we ship wine all over the country.  Our wine is in China, Japan, and Denmark.  The internet and the development of online wine discussion groups has really enabled us to build our small business.  Twenty years ago this would not have been possible: we would have had to sell to a distributor, and we would not have been able to make a living.  Direct sales make this achievable because word spreads so quickly through the internet.

An aerial view of Lagier Meredith Vineyard on Mt. Veeder.


Guild: How does your background in grape genetics inform your winemaking?

The most significant carryover from my background to Lagier Meredith—and this applies to Steve too, who has a technical background in chemistry—is that experience has made both of us pretty cynical toward “wine b.s.”: hype, marketing, and the superstardom of winemakers.  We know that our wine is a reflection of the place, and we are fortunate to have the right place, and the right grapes for this place.  The winemaking is a fairly simple thing.  If you are a competent winemaker, and you practice good sanitation—if you don’t screw it up—you can make good wine.  We don’t put a lot of emphasis on winemaking.  My scientific background has enabled me to be pretty objective and rational about wine. 

Guild: What is your take on the future of grape genetics?  Do you see grape genetics affecting viticulture in the same way that genetic techniques have affected crops like soy and corn?  Do you think that the genetic modification of grapes is compatible with the romance and soul of what we consider to be fine wine?

Dr. Carole Meredith: Genetics has been used as a tool for a long time with grapes.  But in the modern sense of genetic engineering and modification, I think that it will be a significant tool, particularly in the area of disease and pest management.  We will see new varieties that are more resistant to fungal diseases, particularly in Europe, where I foresee a more positive attitude toward genetic engineering as an alternative to chemicals.  In the field of pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering is used to produce a lot of drugs, which people take willingly.  In grape, a wine produced from genetically modified vines will not contain modified genes—wine doesn’t contain any genes.  I would be receptive to that if it means using fewer pesticides, and that is where I think the application has the most potential.  However, I do not think that genetic engineering will enter the small realm of extremely distinctive, site-specific winemaking; even if it does become a part of large-scale commercial production.  Public acceptance is the biggest issue, but I think that resistance will wane over time as people become accustomed to the fact that half the items in the grocery store are the result of genetically modified organisms.  Fine wine is another issue: this wine is culture and place and history, and I think that genetic engineering is an intrusion into that world.  Would I plant genetically engineered vines in my own vineyard?  No…unless there was no other alternative.  If Pierce’s Disease destroyed my vineyard, and I could either plant genetically engineered, resistant vines or no vines at all, well, I would consider it. 

Thankfully, I’m not confronted with that choice today.   

Dr. Carole Meredith spent over twenty years on the faculty of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California,Davis, pioneering the use of DNA typing to analyze relationships among Vitis vinifera grape varieties.  She and her research collaborators determined the genetic and geographic origins of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah.  This research shed new light on wine history and dispelled long-held myths about the origins of classic wine grapes.  Her discovery of the European home of Zinfandel in Croatia has provided California growers with a source for new clones.  The international cooperative consortium that she founded led to the development of a grape genome map that has become the basis for identifying genes that control disease resistance and fruit quality in wine grapes.  Professor Meredith was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1990 and Chevalière de l’Ordre du Mèrite Agricole by the Republic of France in 2000.  She retired from UC Davis as Professor Emerita in 2003.  Since 1998, she and her husband have operated Lagier Meredith Vineyard, which produces world-class Syrah and other wines.

  • My question was, if Durif is a synonym for Petite Sirah, as in they are the same grape, and this is what Dr. Meredith discovered via isozome "fingerprinting", then how could she be simultaneously discovering that 2 of the 7 vines at Davis are Durif, and not Petite Sirah?- As the note in the new timeline is Sotheby's suggests.  It seemed to me it had to be inaccurate, and as it's a new section in a huge reference book that is unsurprising, but I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing something, as synonyms for grape varietals can be extremely confusing.  The link was very helpful though!

  • Thomas, I'm not sure I totally understand your question.  Keep in mind that what you may take as common fact--Petite Sirah is Durif--was really just speculation until Dr. Meredith came along.  That is what makes her work, and the work of others in the field, so groundbreaking.  

    The problem with Petite Sirah is that the grape name was applied in California to a number of different grapes.  Dr. Meredith and her team conclusively proved via DNA markers that most Petite Sirah in the state was genetically identical to Durif, but that some of what was called Petite Sirah was actually Peloursin.

    This may shed some light on the subject for you:

  • Nicole,

    I passed your question along to Dr. Meredith, and she had the following response:

    "I think that terroir includes all the physical aspects of a vineyard site (including high and low temperature, daylength, light intensity, fog, wind, soil structure, soil composition, soil depth, slope, aspect, etc.). They all contribute to the ultimate composition of the fruit. Of these, temperature is the most significant factor. Cool temperatures can result in fantastic flavor development but there may not be enough heat to fully ripen the fruit. High temperatures can result in lots of sugar but not much flavor and can also lead to raisining and sunburn. Of the soil factors, the structure of the soil (e.g., proportions of sand, gravel, clay, etc.) is the most significant because that determines how much water the soil can hold and thus how much is available to the vine. Vines that get too much water produce large flavorless grapes and also produce excessive foliage that shades the fruit and results in vegetative flavors. Vines that get too little water can produce too little foliage so they can’t produce enough sugar to ripen the fruit and the over-exposed fruit can also get sunburned.

    In my vineyard, the two most important physical factors are the afternoon temperature during the summer and our shallow mountain soil. Our afternoon temperature is lower than the temperature in the Napa Valley below us because we are bathed by cool air coming through the Golden Gate and up the canyon through which we can see the bay. And our shallow soil (less than 2 feet) cannot hold much water, so the vines never get overly vigorous and the berries are always small. It’s ancient soil that’s has been depleted of nutrients (as opposed to the deep, rich alluvial soil on the valley floor), so that also restrains the growth of the vines. Self-managing vines – we don’t have to do much summer hedging or green harvesting."

    --Carole Meredith

  • While reading the new "Chronology of Wine" in Sotheby's 5th Edition - 1997: Professor Carole Meredith uses DNA "fingerprinting" to determine that only four of the seven Petite Sirah vines in the UC Davis collection are in fact Petite Sirah.  Two are Durif and one is pure Syrah."  I can no where find anything that indicates Durif as a separate grape from Petite Sirah including the ABC's of grape varietals in the same book, which merely mentions that Durif is sometimes used as a synonym for Mourvedre (saying Durif the primary name for Mouvedre, although under the listing for Mourvedre, Monastrell is mentioned as the primary name for that grape).  Perhaps some light can be shed?