UC Davis professor studied old Lake County vine

Jun 6, 2011

UC Davis viticulture professor Harold Olmo.
UC Davis viticulture professor Harold Olmo.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lake County, the Lake County News is publishing a series of local historical stories. This week, the focus is on viticulture.

Within a quarter century of the county's 1861 establishment, it boasted 600 acres of vineyards. One vineyard was purchased in the late 19th century by flamboyant British actress Lillie Langtry. She sold the property in 1906. Prohibition and the vineyard's destruction soon followed.

But according to local legend, Langtry's legacy lives.

"Rumor has it that one of California’s oldest vines continues to grow on the Langtry Estate at the top of Tephra Ridge. It is thought to be part of Mrs. Langtry’s original vineyard," the article said. "Professor Ohmo of UC Davis, one of the world’s experts on viticulture – now deceased – came across the vine some years ago, smiled and said, 'This is one of the oldest vines in California and I think it is a Syrah.'"

The report didn't source these rumors. However, a 1989 Los Angeles Times article confirms some of the facts. The Times article said Guenoc Vineyards in Lake County discovered eight vines believed to have been planted by Lillie Langtry.

Reporter Dan Berger wrote that UC Davis viticulture professor Harold Olmo (spelled differently than in the Lake County News account) visited the ranch and said he felt one of the old vines might be original Syrah, a grape of the Rhone. Langtry's wine maker, French-born and -trained Henri Deschelles, had imported some grapevines from Europe, and this red-wine vine might have been one of them.

When discovered, the old vines had not been cultivated or irrigated for more than 80 years, but survived and outlived even big trees that had grown in their midst. One vine had wrapped itself around a pine tree and strangled it.

The Times said Olmo took some of the leaves and seeds back to Davis in order to pin point the variety and determine whether the genetic stock could be converted into a commercial crop.

In his obituary, Olmo was referred to as the "Indiana Jones of horticulture" and quoted as declaring, "Give me enough time and I'll grow a great grape on the moon!" Alas, there is no mention whether he was able to confirm the origin of the supposed Lillie Langtry Syrah.

By Jeannette E. Warnert
Author - Communications Specialist