With that bit of educational background, now its time to tie the pieces together.
The Mystery Appears
2012 marked the centenary of the first chardonnay plantings at Wente and to celebrate, the winery decided to hold a symposium on the role of the family and the clone in the history of California’s wine industry. The announcement of the symposium got me to thinking about the three clones with more interest.
Over the years of accumulating various details about Margaret River and New Zealand chardonnays, what struck me the most was how winemakers and growers in each country used exactly the same terminology in describing the attributes of their respective clones. But at the same time, it was also apparent that chardonnay producers from each country did not see or discuss these similarities. For some, it was accepted that the two clones were one and the same but even that was not clear: was Mendoza a GinGin clone or was GinGin a Mendoza clone? At the same time, few folks in the Tasman were aware of the Wente clone and, therefore could not see the possibility that all three clones had some relationship. Yet why would the same terminology applied to the Wente clone also be used by southern hemisphere winemakers with their clones?
The world of winemakers, grapegrowers and associated academics and researchers is notoriously tight and information is freely and quickly spread within and across their professions. But the idea that the three clones were one and the same seemed so obvious that I must have been overlooking something. After all, I’m no viticulturalist. So the symposium seemed like the opportunity to examine the relationship between these clones more closely.
An exciting aspect to researching Australian wines comes from its readily detailed and accessible history. Australia, unlike America, lacked any native viticulture, so vines sourced from regions in France and South Africa became the foundation of the country’s wine industry. The rootlings brought to the country by Busby had considerable background information on their sourcing attached to them. What chardonnay vines were brought back to Australia by Busby in the 1830s were planted in and around Sydney. But given the lack of demand for commercial chardonnay, the vines became anonymous and remained below the radar until the 1970s when Tyrrells produced Australia’s first chardonnay.
In their efforts to prevent plant diseases from entering their states, strict protocols for importing and planting vines from other countries or Australian states were implemented and enforced. These strict regulations meant that vines were often required to go through quarantine for periods of up to 10 years before they were allowed to be propagated and planted in vineyards.
Many clones and grapes planted in Western Australia had the advantage of being unique and were not shared with other Australian states. The state’s wine industry also had strict quarantine regulations so there would be some considerable time before they could be planted in vineyards. With respect to much of the material available from other Australian regions, Western Australia had a thriving wine industry dating back to the 1840s so they had plenty of their own vines with little need to import cuttings from the east.
Descriptions of chardonnay grapes and vines grown in New South Wales that could be traced back to the Busby collection never describe the problems and qualities associated with the GinGin clone. As vines were planted in other regions, there was no linguistic connection between that plant material the descriptions applied to the GinGin clone. In fact, many growers appreciated that clones from New South Wales were free of virus. Logically then, GinGin grapes could not have been sourced from within Australia.
Margaret River’s wine industry started in the late 1960s as estates like Cullen, Vasse Felix and Moss Wood all sprung up in that sparsely populated region of Western Australia. Given that quarantines of grapevines from other states would have been in effect, its estimated that GinGin clones of chardonnay would have arrived in Western Australia some 8-10 years earlier in order for them to be released for planting in the late 60s.
This would seem to support the theory that Farmer suggested, that the grapes arrived in Western Australia in 1957. This would allow the vines to have cleared quarantine some 10 years later making them available for the first chardonnay plantings in Margaret River at the end of the 1960s. All signs pointed to the grape arriving around 1956-58. The timing seemed right but much more mystery seemed available.
Professor Harold Olmo, the acclaimed professor of viticulture at the Davis campus of the University of California, is a bit of a cult hero in parts of Australia. His main claim to fame came from a paper he prepared that declared that tracts of land in a remote portion of Western Australia would be perfect for grapegrowing. His predictions proved to be correct and he is almost revered in areas like Frankland River and Mount Barker as the “Godfather” of these grapegrowing regions.
What has been overlooked over the decades was the actual reason for his visit to Western Australia in the first place? So little is known about his visit today that many assumed that the sole reason he left was to search for potential growing regions in Western Australia. And once he discovered the Great Southern, he returned to California right away, his small place in the history of the Australian wine industry secured some years later.
In fact, it turned out that vineyards supporting the small wine industry of Western Australia had developed some serious problems. Declining yields and dying vines in the Swan Valley prompted the state government in 1955 to ask Olmo to visit the region to ascertain the cause. His research pointed to a problem with nematodes as well as poor soils that would eventually make grapegrowing even more problematic. It was then that he took a look around the state and determined that Mount Barker and Frankland River possessed excellent potential for growing the state’s wine industry. It would take a decade before the first vines were finally planted and he was proved to be correct.
Prior to his Australian visit, Olmo was deeply involved in a project to review the range of chardonnay clones planted in California in an effort to help supply the industry with an array of plant materials that would assist farmers in growing a plentiful and profitable crop. He would later be actively involved in setting up the chardonnay plantings for the nursery at UC Davis and developing techniques to rid vines of viruses.
Upon discovering the real reason for Olmo’s trip to Australia and learning more about the man and his research background about chardonnay, his presence in the State right about the time when the grape was said to have arrived seemed to point to his involvement with the clone’s arrival in Western Australia. The timing of the calendar pointed to him as well. As noted earlier, the first vines in Margaret River were planted in 1967 and a 10 year moratorium would mean the vines arrived about 1957, just after Olmo’s visit.
But even with this supporting info, something did not add up. Most importantly, it was not until the early 1960s that UC Davis had developed the ability to clean out viruses from grape plant material. It would be viticulturally irresponsible to take virused chardonnay clippings into Australia and risk a quarantine violation. In addition, Olmo’s trip to Australia was not meant to solve a problem with chardonnay so he would reason to bring those vines instead of another varietal.
Yet all the circumstantial evidence pointed to Olmo being involved. The timing of his trip, his knowledge of chardonnay, his experience with virused vines, all combined to suggest that Olmo somehow played a role. So while the circumstantial signs pointed to him, there was no actual evidence that the GinGin clone came from California or that Olmo was involved. And there remained the question of how the budwood physically arrived in Western Australia. A dead end in my research had truly arrived.
The day of the symposium rapidly approached and all signs led to the conclusion that the GinGin clone was somehow linked to California but what was missing was some firm evidence. It literally arrived the day before the event in the form of a fax from Vanya Cullen from Margaret River’s Cullen Winery.
The original fax, dated April 9, 1992 was addressed to Bob Cartwright, then the winemaker at Leeuwin Estate and was prepared by John Elliott, Viticulturalist with the Division of Horticulture for State of Western Australia’s Department of Agriculture. It is one of the few documents linking Californian chardonnay to the GinGin clone:
Chardonnay was first know[n] to be introduced into WA on 15/2/1957 and was called “PINOT CHARDONNAY”. This came from California. It was released to industry on 25/9/1964. Its reason for import was as a virus indicator! – and secondly was noted that it could be used as a wine grape!!
This clone became known as the Gin Gin clone because (I think) the first large planting of it was made at Valencia’s Gin Gin property known now as ‘Moondah Brook’.
This then became a valuable resource block for other early plantings, particularly in the S-W.
In 1972, four clones of chardonnay were introduced. Cl 1, Cl 3, Cl 5, Cl 7} These are Californian selections introduced to Meebein.
Given that Olmo was visiting the region to help out with disease and virus problems in their vineyards, the clone’s role as a virus detector would make some sense by assisting researchers and growers about the nature of diseased vines. Most likely, that role was forgotten by the time that vines cleared quarantine and were planted in Margaret River, all involved assuming it was just another chardonnay clone.
With palpable excitement, it was time to tell the story of the three clones and propose a link between Harold Olmo and the GinGin clone. But while this memo provided evidence to support the theory that California was the source of the Western Australia’s chardonnay clonal material, what was missing was the proof.
A Helping Hand
Much of the historical research on chardonnay clones in California’s viticulture was conducted by Nancy Sweet at UC Davis. Her excellent monograph, “Chardonnay History and Selections at FPS” proved to be essential reading for my research. As it turned out, Nancy was also part of the symposium and we had an excited chat about my theory following my presentation. Subsequently and just a few days later, she uncovered a document in the UC Davis archives that clearly links California as the source of the clonal material that became known as the GinGin clone.
Although there were no narrative records in the Olmo archives that could be accessed to add more information, it was clear from this document that UC Davis was the source of the chardonnay sent to Western Australia sending 24 “Pinot Chardonnay” vines to the Department of Agriculture in Perth via air freight on February 6, 1957. The bill for $28.29 was paid by check two months later.
Nancy believes that there can be no 100% definitive guarantee that the Old Wente clone was shipped as the document does not detail the actual source of the chardonnay vines. As she notes:
The card shows that we sent some ‘Pinot Chardonnay’ to Western Australia in 1957 – true. FPS was created in 1956-58 and the process of filling orders was still in development at that time. Orders were filled from various vineyards in those early days – frequently but not always from the new and very small foundation vineyard. At the time in 1956/1957, the Wente material was not included in our foundation vineyard. There is nothing on the card that identifies the Pinot Chardonnay sent to Western Australia as the Wente clone. Since the card is silent on the source of the ‘Pinot Chardonnay’ sent to Western Australia, we cannot even guess what material was sent. All we can do at this point is take the card at its face value and let it speak for itself.
FPS has no additional information (apart from the card) indicating the identity of the material sent. It appears from the notation on the card that Dr. Olmo may have been involved in coordinating the shipment of vines to WA in 1957. Dr. Olmo did his work on the Wente material in the late 50’s and early 60’s in Carneros and Oakville. He may have had a research vineyard in Davis but I do not know that as a fact. The Wente clones did not become an official part of the FPS foundation vineyard until the 1960’s.
With this caveat in mind, however, the classic descriptions of the original Wente clones and what ended up in Margaret River makes it very likely that the two are related if not identical. If the budwood was sent as a virus detector, the Wente clone would have been sent as it was known to be infected by virus at the time.
Additionally, the document indicates that Olmo probably played a very important role in the introduction of the GinGin clone to Australia, as a request for the listed varieties would probably not have happened if he had not visited the region. This contribution to the Australian wine industry has not been noted in any research and may arguably be more important to the fortunes of Western Australia than his recommendations about the Great Southern.
But most importantly, this document should finally solve one of Australia’s great viticultural mysteries just as Margaret River begins to celebrate 50 years of winemaking: the source of the GinGin chardonnay budwood and how Harold Olmo played a role in introducing one of the world’s most famous chardonnay clones to Australia.
Thanks to Nancy Sweet of the Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis for the research that uncovered the decisive document, to Kimberly Charles of Kimberly Charles Communications for inviting me to speak at the Wente Chardonnay Symposium and for Wente Brothers Winery for sponsoring the event. Additional thanks to Vanya Cullen and Samantha Connew for their research assistance in Australia. And thanks to all you chardonnay drinkers out there. Without you, I would be stuck drinking gruner veltliner.