Balancing the Commercial and the Academic

June 1, 2012

When I think of UC Davis, I envision this proudly tree-shrouded citadel of learning inhabited by monks wearing brown robes and cinched by raw cord, their tonsures browned from exposure to the gentle rays of the sun and the breezes wafting off the coast. When you get there, you realize it’s an f’ing oven. There are trees, cork oaks that have never been harvested, but they hunch over in obeisance to the unremitting solar energy. The profs share a sensibility with the monks of Middle Age France; in many ways they are still the keepers of the sacred books and some of them lament the state of the relationship between the learned (them) and the crass money counters who can only sell and do not value the value of wisdom.

Tom Stutz and I went up today to attend a series of lectures on the effects of oxygen exposure to fermenting wines, the intricacies of

The UC Davis Winery

pressing, and the different kinds of tannin that are present in grape skins and seeds and oak barrels and how to manage those to make the best possible wines. There is something undeniably magical about being in this particular academic environment. These are the Avengers of the wine-education world, the best of the best. The image of the cloister isn’t really right. A lot of what these scientists are dealing with is of real-world concern to people trying to make saleable wine. There is a symbiotic relationship: the industry (the Mondavi and Gallo and Jackson families, in particular) has funded the construction of  several of the buildings the department uses as well as endowing a number of the professorial chairs. These assets are used by the faculty and students to help the industry be more profitable and to make better wine, and thus seeding the virtuous research cycle.

Despite the mutual benefit that the faculty and winemakers receive from each other, there is also a very real respect issue that undergirds some of the presentations that we see today. One of the professors mentioned a number of times the “stupidity” of the people on the business side of the business who don’t know what they don’t know, and who don’t recognize the value of what was being summarized in the presentation today. This was a proud and accomplished dude who (I imagine) felt as if he were casting pearls before swine. The oinking chorus was concerned only (again, I’m projecting) with the bottom line and didn’t understand the short-sighted nature of saying no to more research. This professor described himself as cynical and Tom mentioned that you become how you act, referring to his observation that this professor has carried this cynical streak with him his whole tenure at the college.

And while the presentation was valuable in at least a knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake kind of a way, one could question whether that knowledge would lead to wine that was sufficiently better in quality as to make its academic integration worth the effort of the acquisition and the putting-into-practice. As I’ve gotten older, I realize more and more that the real bottom line is that I’m making wine for an audience willing to pay its hard-earned money for it. My own passion to know it all is really only of value in respect to how much service I can put that knowledge to in the pursuit of making that bottle of wine you buy from me the best wine-drinking experience you can have.  We still render unto Caesar what is his and have and will. It’s the only way, in the end, of sustaining that which is given over to the pure.

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