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Remembering Dr Olmo, the great grape breeder!

The other day while doing some reference work, I came across Dr Olmo’s name. My attention was diverted to Dr Olmo’s personality. Previously also I came across the correspondence of Dr Olmo in the department of Genetics at Agharkar Research Institute, Pune. Dr Herold P Olmo was widely regarded as the world’s foremost grape breeder, grape geneticist, viticulturist. He had a tremendous interest in grape and everything related to the grape. His achievements and vast experience in the field of viticulture induced me in writing about the great man and his great achievements on the occasion of his birth anniversary!

Dr Olmo was born in San Francisco on July 31, 1910. He grew up selling flowers, fruits, and vegetables that he grew up with a lot of interest. He graduated in horticulture in 1931 from University of California. After which, he became an Associate in the Experiment Station and earned his PhD in genetics from UC Berkeley in 1934. He joined the Viticulture department as an assistant professor of viticulture in 1938. In his book 'The Wines of America,’ the historian Leon D Adams wrote that in 1933 Frederick Bioletti, then head of the university’s wine studies chose from among graduates a tall, smart young geneticist named Harold Paul Olmo and gave him a lifetime project to breed better grapes for the unique climates of California. And in his words, Dr Olmo became the Luther Burbank of the grape (Luther Burbank was a renowned American botanist, horticulturist and pioneer in agricultural science)

During the tenure of his service,Dr Olmo developed 30 new grape varieties and two rootstocks. Today these varieties are ruling millions of acres of vineyards worldwide. His most widely planted varieties of the table grapes were Red globe, Ruby Seedless and Perlette, the wine grape -Ruby Cabernet, and the juice grape-Rubi red.

Dr Olmo, though, he was one of the world’s best-known grape breeders, his research career covered many other areas. He travelled a lot to all grape-growing regions in the world. He worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on projects in India and Afghanistan, and also consulted Eastern and Western Europe, South America, and Australia. Dr Olmo was also an accomplished ampelographer – an expert in the art of grapevine identification which depends upon detailed observation of leaf and inflorescence. In those days the samples, growers would send him were often decayed beyond recognition during transit.To solve this problem, he created a huge seed collection so that he could compare seeds from the rotten fruit with those of known standards. He would say that every grape seed was like a fingerprint.He collected hundreds of grape varieties and species on his travels. His collection later became one of the world’s finest grape collections. Dr Olmo’s research work is well documented in the Brook ‘Register of Fruit and Nut Varieties’.

He travelled widely in search of the origin of Vitis and to advise on viticultural practices and the establishment and redevelopment of vineyard areas. Olmo was also an adventurer, he travelled 7,000 miles by ship, plane, train and mule and on foot, to find the origins of the vinifera.  In the mountains on the border of Iran and Afghanistan, he found what he considered to be the original vinifera vines growing in the wild.

In one of the interviews published in California wine club blog, his daughter Ms Jeanne-Marie Olmo says, typically, he would take a driver when he was travelling. Once, the driver hit a donkey and it was killed. The driver ran off thinking that people would thrash him. The people arrested poor Olmo and put him in a chicken coop with just bread and water. After 2-3 days, the driver turned up. They did not want money they wanted another donkey in the replacement. Through consulate when he managed to get another donkey, then only he was released. Once, his car went off a hill. Nomads found him, cared for him and brought him back. Such adventures earned him the nickname of “the Indiana Jones of Viticulture.”

Dr Olmo spent eight months in Western Australia to study climatic limitation of viticulture in Swan Valley in the year 1955. His recommendations on the suitability of Mount Barker and the Frank land of Western Australia region for growing grapes proved promising.

When Dr Olmo came across tremendous morphological and ecological diversity, he developeda novel method of varietal breeding, that is, clonal selection. When he began practising clonal selection on Chardonnay grapes, it was unproductive variety. Now, mainly because of his clonal selection efforts focused on improving fruit quality and productivity, Chardonnay is the most famous wine grape in the United States and is planted on almost 100,000 acres.

Harold’s work on the introgression of the distantly related rotundifolia grape into the cultivated viniferais a highly recognized profession. V. rotundifoliais wild species of grapes having a very high resistance to most of the pests and diseases. However, these grapevines do not produce good quality fruits. Dr Olmo recognized the tremendous potential of introgressing rotundifolia’s disease resistance into vinifera grapes to produce hybrid types. He could produce fertile hybrids. He also created the Vinifera rotundifolia hybrid rootstock, O39-16, effective rootstock used against fanleaf degeneration disease, a viral disease spread by a nematode vector.

While developing new grape varieties, Dr Olmo experimented with novel methods to train and trellis them, which would help to harvest by mechanical harvesters. In the 1960s, he initiated the use of cane severance to produce dry-on-vine raisins found useful for early ripening raisin varietiesto be harvested mechanically. A modification of this technique was used to facilitate the mechanical harvesting of raisin grapes for drying on a continuous paper tray.

 Dr Olmo created the first grape quarantine facility in California, allowing hundreds of European varieties to be imported into and planted securely in the United States. This was considered as his most significant contribution to California wine.

Another most important contribution is his role in formulating the grapevine clean stock program. This concept of a Foundation collection and the creation of a clean stock program made the California grape industry possible to improve its quality and productivity and served as the model for clean stock programs around the world.

After retirement, he began breeding grapes for Marko Zanninovich, Inc. and patented several new table grape varieties. He donated millions of dollars in patent royalties from his varieties to the Department of Viticulture and Enology where the endowment is used to assist new faculty and fund graduate students.

Dr Olmo was a recipient of many awards and honour internationally. To name few - the Wilder Medal of American Pomology Society in 1958; the Laureate and Medal for Outstanding Contributions to World Viticulture in 1965; the Charter and Honorary Life Member, American Society for Enology and Viticulture in 1973; the Award of Merit by the American Pomology Society in 1974; the Papal Medal, Benemerenti by the Catholic Church in 1979; and the Rockefeller Spirit of Service Award, International, Executive Service Corps in 1993. He was a Guggenheim Fellow, Fulbright Scholar.

He was very actively involved in research un till his last breath. He patented his last grape variety at the age of 96. He would say he had too much to do before leaving this world. He died on June 30, 2006, while in a sleep owing to complications that arose after hip fracture and the world lost one of the most excellent grape breeders.

He mentored countless students, colleagues and guided many viticulturists across the world. He will always be remembered for that as well as his contributions in the field of viticulture!

Department of Genetics,
Agharkar Research Institute,Pune

Email: sujatatetali@aripune.org

Disclaimer: This work has been submitted by the author. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the authors only.