Palmer & you

Carole Meredith

Professor Emerita of the University of California and Winemaker
Napa Valley, Calilfornie
She revealed to the world the origins of our principal grape varieties. Over the course of nearly 23 years in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis...

...this American researcher scientifically established the parentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, Gamay, Aligoté, and found the European home of Zinfandel… Today, with her husband, she runs her own Napa Valley wine estate, Lagier Meredith, in a spirit of tradition and eco-responsibility. A journey between science and empiricism…

How did you get interested in genetics?

As a child I was always interested in biology, and over time my interest focused on plants. I got my university degree in biology, and having no particular career objective, I started working at a retail plant nursery. I became fascinated by the great diversity of flowers, the myriad varieties of petunias, marigolds... So I decided to enroll in a graduate program to become a flower breeder. There, I became intensely interested in the applications of plant breeding and genetics to agriculture. So I switched to a PhD programme in plant genetics. First I worked on tomatoes, then maize, cotton and soybeans. Then in 1980, I joined the faculty at UC Davis, and I began to work on grapevines.

How does one research the origins of a grape variety?

DNA markers can be used to investigate genetic relationships between grape varieties just as they can with humans. We now know that most grape varieties, like humans, have two parents. Using DNA markers, in 1997 we discovered that the mother and father of Cabernet Sauvignon are Sauvignon blanc and Cabernet franc. Natural cross-pollination between two varieties can occur only if they are growing in the same place, which in this case was southwestern France, so that must be the birthplace. And since a child must be younger than its parents, we deduce that Cabernet Sauvignon probably originated in the 1600’s because that is when the earliest mention of a new variety similar in appearance to Cabernet franc is found in historical documents.

Why did you leave the university and become a winemaker?

We did not originally plan it that way. In 1986, my husband and I moved to the Napa Valley so he could be closer to his job. We bought a piece of land high up in Napa’s Mount Veeder district with a fantastic view and a small house – but no vines. For our own use, we decided to plant some Syrah vines. The wine we made for ourselves was very well received and we decided to offer it for sale in 1998. As our production increased, we realized we could make a living by selling our wine, so we both left our jobs.

"We’re very traditional in our farming practices. You could say we are “sensibly sustainable”. We don’t use herbicides and we apply only sulphur to our vines."

Carole Meredith, Professor Emerita of the University of California and Winemaker, Napa Valley, California

Does your scientific knowledge inform how you manage your vineyard?

Not really. It helps me to understand what is happening in the vines and in the soil, but it doesn’t influence our viticulture. We’re very traditional in our farming practices. You could say we are “sensibly sustainable”. We don’t use herbicides and we apply only sulphur to our vines. We don’t use any modern technology to monitor them. We just use observation, good judgement and experience. My husband and I do not have any employees. We do the vineyard work ourselves, and like it that way. So we must keep the vineyard area small. The rest of our property not planted to vines is beautiful, natural forest, with large redwood and oak trees. We enjoy being surrounded by this natural world.

Sounds a bit like Château Palmer…

I have enjoyed Château Palmer’s wines several times. Each time, tasting it makes me visualize that unique Bordeaux landscape, a terroir which is so different than ours here in Napa.