Larkmead Vineyards honors influential viticulture researcher with $200,000 gift to UC Davis

Last year I was sitting with Cam and Kate Solari Baker at their Larkmead Vineyards estate in Calistoga, tasting new releases and discussing their history that dates back to 1895. One of the wines that we tasted was the Larkmead Dr. Olmo 2015, a 100 percent cabernet sauvignon release from the same vines that were planted and studied over 80 years ago by Dr. Harold Olmo, who was a professor of viticulture at UC Davis.

When Napa Valley icon, Larry Solari (Kate’s father) purchased the winery in 1948, he and Dr. Olmo became fast friends and they worked together on clonal research that led to the production of highly sought after grapes from their property.

Cam and Kate Solari Baker of Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga.

The Bakers initially honored the professor in 2015 with the release of the Larkmead Dr. Olmo 2013. Now, they are celebrating the winery’s 125th birthday with a $200,000 gift to the UC Davis Library to preserve and digitize the work of the late Professor Emeritus who is considered by many as one of California’s most prominent viticulture researchers. More than archiving Dr. Olmo’s work, they anticipate that much of the effort can open doors into the future.

In a statement about the gift, University Librarian and Vice Provost of Digital Scholarship MacKenzie Smith said, “As we preserve and increase access to these documents, we hope to uncover elements of Dr. Olmo’s research that could provide new insight into modern-day generations.”

Cam Baker added, “Napa Valley owes much of its success as a wine region to him. It’s our hope that through the digitization and analysis of Dr. Olmo’s research, more findings will come to light that will guide Napa Valley into its next chapter.”

Dr. Harold Olmo. (Courtesy photo)

Dr. Harold Olmo joined the faculty of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology in 1938 and over the ensuing years was not only instrumental in developing the finest university program of its kind, but also helped pushed the Napa Valley into one of the world’s top wine growing regions for cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.

During his lengthy career he introduced over 30 grape varietals, but it was his development of the Oakville clones that catapulted Napa into stardom. His worldwide travels and discoveries helped amass an extensive grapes collection that earned him the nickname, the “Indiana Jones of viticulture.”

Kate Solari Baker, who grew up on the Larkmead estate, has seen firsthand the sustainability of Dr. Olmo’s work. “The true effects of Dr. Olmo’s research are long term. Today, we actually have Dr. Olmo’s groundbreaking Oakville clones planted in the vineyard, meaning that our cabernet sauvignon wines are in part a direct result of his work and legacy.”

Larkmead Vineyards winemaker Dan Petroski. (Courtesy photo)

Larkmead winemaker Dan Petroski describes Dr.Olmo’s research as fearless and says that he was always motivated to do whatever work was necessary to find the answer. However, he is hopeful that preservation of Dr. Olmo’s research can provide future insights as he continues to help shape future discussions on climate change and wine.

Hosted by Petroski, the “Salons at Larkmead” are discussion-based forums for fellow winemakers, industry leaders, and journalists shaping the narrative on climate change.

Larkmead Vineyards has created a new three-acre research block on its property. (Courtesy photo)

To that end, Petroski and Larkmead are spearheading an effort similar to that recently implemented in the Bordeaux region of France, by dedicating three acres of the 110-acre estate to experiment with new grapes varietals that may be more suitable to warming temperatures. The plot will be planted with grapes like tempranillo, touriga nacional and aglianico that normally thrive in regions of Spain and Portugal where it is significantly warmer.

Petroski adds, “Climate change is very real and already affects vintners around the world. The fact is, cabernet sauvignon may no longer be well-suited to Napa Valley’s climate in 20 to 30 years. As one of the world’s top wine regions, we need to research and plan for inevitable warmer temperatures.”

The real story here is that Larkmead Vineyards is leading the effort to preserve the past and guide the future dialogue on one of the largest issues to ever confront, not only the wine industry, but the entire planet.

The menu of the estate wines, while elegant, remains narrow and consistent. The Larkmead Wines, released in the fall, include three cabernet sauvignon wines called “The Lark,” “Dr. Olmo” and “Solari” and a rare Italian wine called tocai friulano from a small patch on the estate.

The Vineyard Series/Spring releases include another cabernet sauvignon, the merlot dominant “Firebelle, “LMV Salon,” a blend of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, and the well-structured “Lillie,” a sauvignon blanc in honor of Lillie Coit, who lived at the estate for many years.

Guest columnist Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email sfewine@gmail.com

Lyle Norton

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