Wine has been an integral part of human culture for centuries, and its production has evolved into a complex and specialized field of study. One institution that has been at the forefront of advancing the science and art of wine production is UC Davis‘ Viticulture and Enology Department in California. With a rich history and a reputation for excellence, this department has been instrumental in shaping the global wine industry.
History and Legacy
The Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis has a long and illustrious history that dates back to the 19th century. It was founded in 1880 as the first viticulture research station in the Americas, and it has since grown into one of the world’s premier centres for wine research and education. The department’s mission is to advance the science and practice of viticulture and enology through research, teaching, and outreach.
Over the years, the department has been led by visionary leaders who have made significant contributions to the field of wine science. Notable figures such as Professors Maynard Amerine, Harold Olmo, and Andrew Waterhouse have been associated with UC Davis, and their research has shaped the modern wine industry. Today, the department continues to build on this legacy by providing cutting-edge research and education to students and professionals from around the world.
Research at UC Davis Viticulture and Enology
UC Davis‘ Viticulture and Enology Department is renowned for its innovative research programs that span a wide range of topics related to wine production. Faculty members and researchers at the department conduct research in various areas, including grapevine physiology, wine chemistry, sensory analysis, fermentation science, and vineyard management. The department’s research efforts aim to advance the scientific understanding of viticulture and enology and develop practical solutions for the wine industry.
One of the key areas of research at UC Davis is grapevine genetics, which has led to the development of new grape varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases. This research has helped winegrowers around the world cultivate grapes that are more sustainable and less reliant on chemical inputs. The department’s research on wine chemistry has also led to important discoveries related to flavour development, wine stability, and wine ageing, which have had a significant impact on wine quality and production practices.
The department’s research on fermentation science has been another area of focus, with studies on yeast and bacterial strains, fermentation kinetics, and the influence of fermentation on wine quality. Additionally, the department’s research on vineyard management has provided valuable insights into topics such as irrigation, canopy management, and soil health, helping winegrowers optimize grape production and sustainability.
Education at its best
The Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis offers a comprehensive and rigorous curriculum that prepares students for careers in the wine industry. The department offers undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs in viticulture and enology, as well as a professional winemaking program. Students receive hands-on training in the department’s state-of-the-art research and teaching facilities, which include vineyards, wineries, sensory laboratories, and analytical laboratories.
The undergraduate program provides students with a solid foundation in the principles of viticulture and enology, including courses on grapevine physiology, wine production, sensory analysis, and wine business. The graduate and doctoral programs offer advanced training in specialized research areas, such as grapevine genetics, fermentation science, and sensory science. The department’s professional winemaking program is designed for individuals who are already working in the wine industry and are looking to expand their knowledge and skills in winemaking.
In addition to formal education, the department also offers workshops, seminars, and extension programs for wine industry professionals and enthusiasts.
Megan Bartlett, Ph.D. – Assistant Professor (Plant Biologist)
Dr. Megan Bartlett graduated from Harvard University in 2009 and earned her PhD at UCLA in 2016, focusing on plant drought tolerance traits and mechanisms. Her postdoctoral work at Princeton University applied optimization theory to understand how plants adjust gas exchange during drought. Since joining the V&E Department in 2019, her research combines modelling and experiments to explore grapevine responses to drought and heat. The Bartlett Lab also develops modelling approaches for informed management decisions and identifies key traits for stress-resistant cultivars.
Current research topics
In the vast and dynamic landscape of California’s winemaking, the industry has faced significant challenges in recent years, particularly from 2011 to 2016, marked by a prolonged dry period and recurring droughts. The region has grappled with the repercussions of heat waves, intensified wildfire seasons, presenting problems for vineyards and winemakers alike. One of the primary responses to these challenges has been an increased reliance on irrigation, impacting most vineyards. Dry farming, a practice aimed at achieving low yields and high-quality grapes by spacing vines far apart from each other, could be a solution but is not as prevalent in California yet.
Despite the desire for sustainable practices, the market demand in California seems to lean heavily towards certain grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Consumer preferences in the region appear to limit the scope for other grape varieties. However, Andy Walker, a renowned grape breeder, has played a pivotal role in creating new and more sustainable varieties (e.g. hybrids resistant to Pearson disease).
UC Davis‘ Viticulture Department is actively engaged in addressing the challenges faced by the industry. Stress and disease resistance, salt-tolerant rootstocks, and efficient irrigation management during heatwaves are key focus areas. The department collaborates with wineries and growers, conducting field trials and experiments, including a Cabernet Sauvignon rootstock trial featuring ten different clones on various wood stocks. The university also participates in exchange programs with institutions like Geisenheim University and collaborates internationally in countries such as France, England, and Italy.
UC Davis alumni in Viticulture and Enology maintain a strong community, staying well-connected due to the relatively small size of their field of study. The university boasts its own wine cellar and wine store, providing a unique platform for students to explore and contribute to the industry.
In the context of evolving trends in the United States, sustainable winemaking has emerged as a prominent theme. The industry is exploring ways to tap into this growing demand, with a particular interest in natural wines, albeit a somewhat polarizing choice. Additionally, there is a curiosity around alcohol-free wine, although its popularity has yet to reach the levels observed for other varieties. As the industry navigates these challenges and explores new trends, the commitment to sustainable practices and ongoing collaboration between academia and the wine industry will undoubtedly shape the future of California winemaking.