Carl Djerassi, credited with key research in developing the birth control pill in the 1950s, died Jan. 30 at age 91. With his name inextricably linked to that development more than a half-century ago, as well as to other chemical developments involving antihistamines and steroids, it’s understandably easy to forget that Djerassi also played a key role in the development of American fine wine (which, of course, involves its own share of chemistry).
In 1959 (the year before the Pill debuted in the U.S.), a Stanford researcher named David Bennion, who made wine in his spare time, partnered with fellow scientists to launch Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, to the west of Cupertino and its larger neighbor San Jose. Djerassi was one of those partners.
He would go on to play a much more powerful role roughly 10 years later, after Ridge hired Leo McCloskey to clean barrels.
A recently minted Oregon State University general sciences graduate, McCloskey turned out to be an immensely quick study. He was soon doing research, delivering lectures, and writing academic papers on how to improve both Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay as well as other wine styles made in the U.S.—all at a time when the America ran, along with the rest of the globe, distantly behind France when it came to producing wines from higher-end grapes. McCloskey would help close that gap dramatically.
After Ridge hired him, he studied oenology at the University of California-Davis and then earned a master’s in the subject from San Jose University in 1973. When it came to earning a doctorate, however, McCloskey took Djerassi’s advice to study “things like chemistry and mathematics, which actually have principles.” To Djerassi, winemaking was more a social science than a hard one. (Djerassi, the son of physicians who fled Anschluss Austria, had himself trained as an organic chemist.)
McCloskey chose chemistry—chemical ecology, to be precise—enrolling in a doctoral program at the University of California-Santa Cruz, while remaining a paid consultant at Ridge and other wineries, including the efforts of the comedian Smothers brothers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
McCloskey would go on to launch Enologix, an immensely influential consultancy that has helped hundreds of wineries—in the U.S., especially, and overseas—scale up the production of their fine wines. It’s one thing to make several cases of really good Cab-Sav; it’s another thing entirely to make several thousand cases of the same quality.
The chemistry that Djerassi steered him toward proved the cornerstone for much of McCloskey’s work, which hinged on discovering which grapes would make the best wines—often before they were even harvested.
· Synthesizing Revolution [Economist]
· The Chemistry of a 90+ Wine [NY Times]
[Photo of Djerassi in 2004 via Wiki Commons]