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How California became a food and wine lover’s dream

If you’ve ever taken a drive through California’s picturesque vineyards and pastoral farms, you know it’s impossible to imagine the Golden State without them. But California wouldn’t have become a dream destination for foodies and oenophiles without research from the University of California.

Today, California rivals France, Italy and Spain as a global wine producer, contributing billions of dollars each year to the economy. California also produces a majority of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts, and a large portion of its livestock and dairy, with yearly production valued at $45 billion.

That wasn’t always the case. In 1860, New York was America’s top dairy state, Ohio led the nation in winemaking and California trailed 27 states with its farm value of less than $50 million.

California’s rise in agriculture, including its reputation for producing world-class wine, has gone hand in hand with the work of researchers and scientists at the University of California.

In the late 1800s, UC soil scientists led the foundational research that showed farmers how to remove salts from the alkali soils in the Central Valley, transforming barren land into one of the the world’s most productive farming regions. UC researchers also helped establish California’s wine industry, then brought it back from the brink after prohibition nearly destroyed it.

Its partnership with farmers, vintners and ranchers is just as strong today, with cooperative extension offices in every county in the state.

A new industry takes root

UC launched its Department of Viticulture and Enology in 1880, after being directed by the state legislature to help California develop its nascent wine industry. UC agriculture professor Eugene Hilgard, director of the first State Agricultural Experiment Station, led the charge.

He was convinced that the California climate made it ideal for winemaking, and thought that with the right techniques, the state could move beyond the “faulty wines” being currently produced to create something truly worth drinking.

While the Mediterranean weather in California was perfect for growing grapes, on the ground there was confusion about varietals, crude and insufficient fermentation processes and an infestation of the root louse, phylloxera.

Hilgard began studying California’s soils and developing phylloxera-resistant plants at the university’s farm at Davis. By 1919, California’s young wine industry was beginning to flourish when Prohibition brought things to a screeching halt.

Hundreds of wineries went out of business. Farmers tore out their vineyards and planted fruit trees. UC’s enology program ended, too, but its work on grape growing and fruit production continued. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, UC was an established authority on grape growing in California, and it stepped in to help the wine industry recover.

To read more about how a UC Davis discovery recharged the wine business in California, read the full story.

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