Visiting Lagier-Meredith: Driving to the top of Mt. Veeder
Carole Meredith and Stephen Lagier at their home on top of Mt Veeder
It’s mid-December on a clouded day, the first of several visits to Lagier-Meredith Vineyards over a couple of months. At the top of Mt Veeder, the fog has shielded our view from the other side of the valley. We can still make out the general direction towards the house in which Robert Mondavi once lived, and the nearby (rather flat) peak of Mt Veeder itself, but the Bay, and mountains in every direction hide behind the cold weather. I’ve driven to the house of Stephen Lagier and Carole Meredith after getting the guts to write and ask for an interview a couple weeks before.
The story of Lagier-Meredith fascinates me for multiple reasons. The pair were among the very first to plant Syrah in Napa Valley at a time it was even more defined by Cabernet Sauvignon. When they purchased the land that would become their home and vineyard, Mt Veeder was not yet an appellation (the area still today not burgeoning with development as the creased and rolling tree covered mountain AVA makes too much growth difficult). Before realizing they had fruit good enough to sell wine from they were a two career couple.
Stephen Lagier made wine for Robert Mondavi, after first managing the company’s lab. But prior to that he’d also helped perform research at UC Davis on the chemical effects of vineyard practices before significant knowledge was to be had on the subject. Carole Meredith’s career at the same university focused on the genetic relationships between grape types, leading to the landmark discovery that Cabernet Sauvignon was the off-spring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, information now almost taken for granted.
Talking with Lagier and Meredith
art display outside the entrance to Lagier’s and Meredith’s home–Stephen made the frogs, Carole the telephone
Talking with the twosome proves both entertaining and insightful. The couple enjoy not only bragging about each other’s successes, but sharing in the fun of how they met.
In Fall 1980, both began work at UC Davis in the Viticulture and Oenology department. Lagier had done his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and recognized most graduate students spent their study years broke, often also going into debt. Unwilling to follow suit, he started his Master’s degree in Winemaking (before the program shifted to a single Viticulture and Oenology Master’s degree) with a full-time job. Over five years, Lagier ran the research program for a professor doing chemical analysis of the effects of training vines on grape composition. At the same time, Lagier purchased his own home, then rented rooms out to other students to help with expenses.
The same Fall brought Meredith to the University as a Professor. She’d applied her PhD in Genetics in the private sector, until realizing she didn’t like having a daily boss. At the time Davis accepted Meredith’s application, she was actually a finalist in two different positions in plant genetics–lettuce and grapes. There had also been a third position in beans Meredith didn’t get. The time period marked the start of retirement for men that had returned from World War II, completed advanced science training, and then effectively reshaped American education. Meredith was hired as the start of a new generation of educators. With multiple plants up for research, the hiring committees negotiated to decide who would get which candidate, thus securing Meredith’s future in genetic research history.
Her beginning with the parentage of Cabernet was rooted in first developing the technology and toolkit to do so. She fostered the work of brilliant research students that helped solve how to apply insights from the use of DNA markers in human genetics to grape vines. But she also helped establish a multi-national genetics cooperative through which researchers from all over the world pooled their findings on those same DNA markers in grape vines. Doing so allowed an explosion in both identifying individual grapes genetic identity, and then afterwards the relationships between grape types.
Discussion of their UC Davis years quickly leads to the two of them smiling, telling me about how they met. Meredith was often working weekends to get ahead on some of the lab projects she had operating, and Lagier would be in his office having negotiated to switch his work day schedule so he could downhill ski during the week. Those days the mountain was quieter. He’d often come in showing signs of sun from the slopes, which gave the pair reason to talk. As Meredith explained, she wanted to have fun and go skiing too. So, Lagier invited her to join a group that often went downhilling together. Then, one outing, it turned out the two of them were the only ones able to go. “We had to spend the whole day together,” Meredith laughs. “I wanted to have fun, and Stephen is fun.”
Lagier smiles. “I crack Carole up everyday. I feel like it’s my job.”
looking into the young Mondeuse vineyard at Lagier-Meredith
Lagier’s support of Meredith isn’t limited to his good humor, however. Meredith and I take at least an hour to talk through the work she accomplished in genetic relationships–how she helped find the parentage of Syrah (sire: Dureza, mother: Mondeuse Blanc; thus leading to Lagier-Meredith planting Mondeuse Noir, “Syrah’s crazy uncle,” as the couple call it), how she helped successfully find the original vine and homeland of America’s pride, Zinfandel (it’s the Croatian variety Crljenak Kaštelanski). But when Lagier comes back inside from clearing a tree that’s collapsed from a winter storm, he brings up an accomplishment Meredith hasn’t discussed yet. “Did she tell you about her paper in SCIENCE?”
“We were talking about ZInfandel.” Meredith responds. The Zinfandel discovery was significant for how it brought together people in the United States, in Italy (Primitivo is also of the same original grape vine), with researchers in Crotia. But also because the discovery that Zinfandel comes from the motherland of Croatia actually helped improve tourism to the region, showing that wines and their history from there could deserve respect for higher quality than previously expected internationally. The Zinfandel discovery also stands as significant, however, because it was Meredith’s final large project before retiring to focus on the Lagier-Meredith wine label.
The grape Zinfandel had long been suspected of having International origins. It’s a plant with visible characteristics unlike those native to North America, so it must have been brought in from elsewhere. But at the same time it’s wine history so shaped California it had become the adopted champion of a country’s pride. After completing the research that led to Zinfandel’s proper naming, Meredith had also reached the early cutoff for potential retirement. Ready to shift to their wine label, she stopped her commute from Mt Veeder to Davis, making Crjenak Kaštelanski her genetic’s career swan song, effectively leaving at the top of her genetics game.
Lagier agrees the Zinfandel discovery was significant, but it’s the paper in SCIENCE he wants to make sure I know before we finish our first interview. Meredith’s work on grape relationships led to the discovery that Pinot Noir and Goulaise Blanc together parent at least 16 grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Aligote, Gamay, and Melon. The conclusion was celebrated not only because of its scientific importance, but also because with such popular varieties considered, the discovery becomes relevant beyond the walls of science to other disciplines as well. Lagier looks at me directly and explains, “It was one of the proudest moments for me that my wife got a paper in that magazine. It’s like the Grand Slam of science. It brought tears to my eyes.” Doing a little bit of research, it appears Meredith is the only professor in the history of Davis’s Viticulture & Oenology program to have gotten a paper in the prestigious magazine.
The Beginning of a Wine Label
By Meredith’s retirement, Lagier was already working full-time on their label, having retired from Mondavi in 1999. His time at the company was significant, as he managed the Mondavi winery lab, established their first program to track and determine projected fruit availability from the vineyards, and then served as one of the Mondavi Coastal brand winemakers.
Though Lagier and Meredith had intended all along to plant vines on their hilltop, it took years before they realized they could turn that fruit into a bonded winery. Upon purchasing the property, it had to be thoroughly cleaned and cleared to rid the soils of Oak root fungus that would impact Vitis Vinifera. Once the seven years to accomplish that were up, the twosome placed their first vines in 1994. The year before, one of Meredith’s students, Jean-Louis Chave, the 15th, of Hermitage fame, had agreed the property would be perfect for planting Syrah as “Syrah loves a view.”
The grape was unheard of in Napa Valley at the time, with the pinnacles of the industry almost completely focused on the success of Cabernet Sauvignon. But the pair love Rhone wine and decided to plant what suited the slope and cooler climate of the site, as well as their palate interest. 1996 was their first press. By 1998 friends were commenting enthusiastically on the quality of wine, and the couple realized it was good enough they could consider selling it publicly. In 2000 they released it, inciting quick response that would herald them as one of the first labels in the region to showcase a marriage of French Aesthetic with California fruit.
I ask Lagier about this critical history of their wine, and if they’d intended to make wines that allude to the Northern Rhone. “There are hints of a Northern Rhone character in some of our vintages.” he responds. “To say more than that is just complete speculation.” He continues. “That was not our goal. Our goal was to reduce our influence on the wine, to capture the character of the fruit from here and get it into bottle. We’re just pleased this place makes this wine, and people enjoy it, which allows us to make a living. So pleased.” He pauses, then continues. “I do enjoy the hell out of the wine. Both of us feel incredibly blessed we found this land, and managed to pull this off.”
Thank you to Stephen Lagier and Carole Meredith for taking so much time to meet with me. I have plenty more moose meat whenever you’re ready.
To read more on Zinfandel, Carole’s work on its genetic history, and Lagier-Meredith’s foray into making it, read the recent article by Jon Bonné: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/History-underscores-Zinfandel-s-new-tack-4321826.php#page-4
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