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Distilling The Story Of California Wine, One Label At A Time

For the first half of the 20th century, nobody would have ever compared the wines of California's Napa Valley to the great wines of France.

"It's amazing when you think about it," says Amy Azzarito, online strategist at the University of California, Davis, library. "California wines were a joke for a long time. And they're not anymore."

UC Davis and a man named Maynard Amerine are two central reasons for that turnaround. With a project called Label This, the UC Davis library is asking the public to help them distill Amerine's legacy and trace the history of the wine industry in California and across the world.

A professor at UC Davis and a pioneer in the fields of wine-making and tasting, Amerine, who died in 1998, explored the world in the mid-1900s with the goal of helping California vineyards to grow better grapes.

"He traveled around the state, he traveled to Europe, drinking wine, learning about wine," Azzarito says, "and then relayed that to California growers to bring that level of production up to the standard that he was drinking in Europe."

The UC Davis library now has all of Amerine's papers and assembled artifacts, from his hiring to his retirement in 1974. That includes 5,200 wine bottle labels, which the library has recently digitized, spanning the late 1800s to the 1960s.

To determine exactly what its archives contain, the library recently launched a slick web app that allows anyone with Internet access to flip through Amerine's wine label collection. Users can draw a box over a label to mark any text or images; later, they'll be able to transcribe the text and identify the imagery.

Azzarito says the program uses a platform called Scribe, which was developed by the New York Public Library for a similar project Azzarito created in 2011.

That effort, "What's on the menu?", asked users to transcribe some 9,000 historical restaurant menus and register prices, then geotag the restaurant locations. The library was then able to build a database of menus, tagged with keywords and searchable by date and location, for the librarians and other researchers to feast upon.

UC Davis librarians want to accomplish something similar: Create a database of wines sorted by variety, alcohol content, label design, manufacturer and vineyard location.

It's an appropriate project for the UC Davis library, which contains the largest wine research library in the world — 30,000 volumes in over 50 languages. Librarians there support academics and research at UC Davis's Department of Viticulture and Enology, viticulture being the science and study of grapes, and enology being the study of wines.

After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, UC Davis — located an hour away from Napa Valley — was charged with conducting research for the recovering California wine industry and helping to improve the state's grape-growing efforts.

"The university's goal isn't to create that one brilliant bottle of wine," says Axel Borg, a food and wine librarian at UC Davis. "It's to create 9,999 bottles of good wine."

Amerine, a plant physiologist who grew up in Modesto, Calif. – home of Gallo, the world's largest winery – was one of the first people hired for this project. In 1935, he joined Alfred J. Winkler in the just-formed Department of Viticulture and Enology.

Amerine and Winkler's primary task was figuring out which wine-making grapes grow best in certain climates. Their 1944 study on grape zones essentially told farmers where to plant grapes for different types of wine, such as chardonnay or Cabernet.

Along with Edward Roessler, a statistician at UC Davis, Amerine was the first to apply sensory science to the wine field, writing the book – literally – on how to taste and evaluate wine.

"If you did what Amerine told you," Azzarito says, "you would make great wine."

Turning wine-making into a science required a lot of wine-drinking. As his wine-label collection shows, Amerine was a methodical collector. He kept wine labels in a notebook, often grading them and noting whom he drank with.

Those grades were no light judgments.

"If these are the pinot noirs that he thinks are an A, he's coming back to California to say this is what our pinots should be like," Azzarito says.

Azzarito and Borg hope that, by sorting through Amerine's labels – just the surface of the library's historical artifacts – they can begin to understand the forces that shaped California's wine industry into the global powerhouse it is today.

Because what Amerine wanted, California made. And the world consumed.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gabriel Rosenberg