For 22 years Carole Meredith was a professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis. She conducted ground-breaking research in grape genetics, using DNA typing to discover the origins of some of the greatest old grape varieties, including cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, syrah, and zinfandel. Professor Meredith was named Chevalière de l’Ordre du Mèrite Agricole by the Republic of France in 2000. In 2009, she was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s “Vintners Hall of Fame.” In 2003, she retired from the University and joined her husband, former Robert Mondavi winemaker Steve Lagier, making wine under their eponymous Lagier Meredith label.
We interviewed Carole Meredith for WineSpeed in February 2020.
Karen MacNeil: You’ve said that when you joined the faculty at U.C. Davis in 1980, you were “filling the shoes” of pioneering grape geneticist and Professor Harold Olmo. Was he a mentor of yours? What was he like?
Carole Meredith: He occupied the “grape genetics” faculty slot in the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, as did I when I was hired after his retirement. But beyond the fact that we both worked on aspects of grapevine genetics, our interests didn’t overlap—nor did the types of genetic tools that we used. Harold had been interested in grapevine chromosomes and in using traditional plant breeding methods to develop new grape varieties. I was interested in applying newly emerging cellular and molecular research methods to grapes to better understand them.
KM: The famous Jean-Louis Chave, 16th generation winemaker from Hermitage, France, became a student of yours at U.C. Davis in the early 1990s, and a friend. What did he think when you asked his opinion on the suitability of your newly-acquired property for Syrah?
CM: When Jean-Louis and I stood on the front deck of our Mount Veeder house, overlooking the Napa Valley, and I told him we were thinking of planting Syrah, he said “Carole, Syrah will do well here because Syrah loves a view.”
KM: For your property on Mount Veeder in the Napa Valley, you left the majority in its natural forested state. I’ve heard stories of your encounters with wildlife and I’m curious about what wine you paired with the rattlesnake you once killed and ate?
CM: Rattlesnakes are part of our natural environment on Mount Veeder and we do not routinely kill them or harm them in any way. But a friend and neighbor told us they were edible and encouraged us to try one. We were curious and so, with his assistance, we caught and humanely dispatched one, cut it into segments, and fried the pieces in butter and garlic. It was sooo disappointing. It tasted only of butter and garlic and had more bones than flesh. I don’t recall what wine we drank with it. Probably something very ordinary. It certainly didn’t warrant anything good.
KM: When you purchased your property in 1986, it had no vines but there was a small grove of hundred-year-old olive trees. You’ve only described them as “very small, like Niçoise olives”. Have you been curious to seek their genetic DNA and identify the actual variety?
CM: Yes, of course I was curious! In our early years on the property, I spent some time looking at photographs of olive varieties in books but could never figure out what our trees were. Later on, my former assistant in my UC Davis research lab, Jerry Dangl, began working in another UC Davis program where he uses DNA testing to identify several other fruit crops, including olives. He tested my trees and found that they are a variety called Redding Picholine. It’s a variety that arose in California, probably from a European progenitor, and that was widely planted around the state in the 1800’s.
KM: Do you think your Welsh heritage and early childhood in Canada give you a different perspective on life and career than your American-born colleagues?
CM: I’ve lived in California since 6th grade, so culturally I’m pretty American. But there are a few carryovers from my British beginnings. When I’m speaking, I think I tend to articulate more clearly than many Americans because I started out with a British accent (for which I was teased mercilessly as a child). And I love Marmite, a British food spread that one either loves or hates, no middle ground.
“I always thought that my contributions to grape and wine knowledge were rather esoteric. But our work brought together elements of geography, agriculture, economics and biology. It opened a window into wine history.”
KM: In 2009, you were inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s “Vintners Hall of Fame” along with fellow honorees who founded wineries. You are one of the few scientists elected to the Hall. Was that a special honor?
CM: It was a surprising honor. I always thought that my contributions to grape and wine knowledge were rather esoteric. They didn’t solve any pressing economic problems in vineyards or wineries. But what we did was interesting stuff in that it brought together elements of history, geography, agriculture, economics and biology. Our work opened a window into wine history.
KM: What propelled you to a life in science?
CM: I was interested in science from my earliest days. My first focus was astronomy. I had The Golden Book of Astronomy and pored over it. Then I became more interested in biology. In high school I thought I would like to become a doctor. In college I majored in biology but had no particular career goal. (It was the 60’s and there were many non-academic distractions.) It wasn’t until after I graduated from college and got interested in gardening that I developed an intense interest in cultivated plants and the notion that humans had genetically changed them over time to suit their own needs for food and fiber and flowers. I went back to grad school with the plan to become a flower breeder. But once in grad school I became thoroughly fascinated by the emerging cellular and molecular aspects of genetics and left flowers behind.
KM: What is it about wine that you find moving and compelling?
CM: That it represents the integration of so many elements of human existence — history, geography, culture, economics. All that in a glass. No other food or beverage comes close.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
CM: In my academic life, it would be confirming that Zinfandel originated on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia and that it’s an ancient and important grape, on a par with other varieties that we consider “noble”. In my personal life, it would be having built an immensely satisfying life with my husband Steve Lagier on our Mount Veeder property and being able to make a living off our own land.