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Uncorking Memories: Cal-Trained Chemist’s Book Traces How He Influenced Wine World

October 20, 2015
by Stacy Finz

In 1958, fresh from earning a Ph.D. in agricultural chemistry at UC Berkeley, Richard Peterson took a job with E. & J. Gallo winery in Modesto. He’d previously been wooed by Pillsbury, who at the time was experimenting with the novel idea of freezing dough for ready-to-bake biscuits, and were seeking out the brightest new food scientists in the nation. But Peterson was more attracted to enology and viticulture, especially because there was so much room for improvement: American wine at the time was pretty horrible.

Since Prohibition, it had been reduced to sweet, high-alcohol brands like Gallo’s Thunderbird. Winemakers didn’t even use wine grapes, but hearty shipping varieties like Thompson Seedless, which are for eating and drying into raisins.

The problem, Peterson says, was that consumers were more interested in getting a good buzz than they were in tasting complex flavors.

Still, he could sense a sea change and wanted to be part of it. Since then, he’s been credited with being one of the most important figures in revitalizing—some would even say saving—the California wine industry after Prohibition took its toll. He was the first to develop the wine cooler, Hearty Burgundy (a popular Gallo table wine), and programs that transformed production.

The 84 year old’s latest contribution is a 400-page history and memoir of his half-century in the California wine industry. The Winemaker was released in August.

“His real brilliance was to apply science to wine at a time and place when it was essential,” says Jon Bonne, a wine journalist and author of the book The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste. “At the time, it was really hard to convince Americans to drink wine even though the industry was trying. Dick’s work changed that. It might not seem like a super noble side of the industry but it was important.”

Probably his most noted invention was the steel barrel pallet in 1975, a system that allows wineries to stack barrels to the ceiling with a forklift, maximizing space and saving labor costs. Besides Gallo, he made wines for Beaulieu Vineyard, the Monterey Vineyard and Atlas Peak Vineyards.

“To this day people still use the steel barrel pallet,” says Marc Mondavi, whose own Charles Krug winery has been stacking their barrels with the pallet for 20 years. “Without a doubt Richard has made major contributions to the improvements of the wine industry. When he started we didn’t have the technology we know today, so he was an instrumental force.”

For half a century Peterson took copious notes, documenting everything from questionable business practices to insights on some of the biggest names in the wine world. “The wine industry’s complex stories were often more interesting than fiction,” says Peterson. “I had drawers full of haphazard papers; each was important, but who could sort them into usable order?”

At one point actor Burgess Meredith, who’d become interested in wine, gave him a tape recorder and told him to record his perspectives on the wine industry every day. “Get these down on paper, I want you to preserve them,” Peterson recalls Meredith telling him.

It was a long road from his first chemistry set—he got it free by mailing 1,000 ice cream wrappers he’d collected at the Iowa State Fair to the manufacturer—to UC Berkeley, which had one of the most lauded food science programs (UC Davis was only a farm extension of Berkeley at the time).

He grew up during the Great Depression in farmland near Des Moines. His mother was a seamstress and his father was a miner. They had three acres where they grew their own food, canned much of the harvest, raised their own hogs, chickens and milk cows and made their own root beer—an auspicious start to winemaking. When Peterson was 8, he’d drive the family car down the rows of corn they’d planted so his father could toss the ears into the trunk. The small family farm was where he learned how to fix machinery and anything else that broke because they couldn’t afford to hire anyone, he recalls. It made him a natural problem solver.

He graduated from high school when he was 16 and went to Iowa State College to study chemical engineering. During his freshman year, he made his first wine with Concord grapes from his home and guidance from his father. Peterson’s dad had made wine during Prohibition, which was legal as long as you only made enough for home use.

In the book, Peterson remembers asking his father how to do it. His pop’s advice: “Smash the grapes all to hell, let ‘em spoil with the skins in the mess for a while, then bottle it without the skins.”

Peterson’s response: “Thanks, Pop, I’ll check the library.”

It turned out his dad’s instructions were on the mark. However, Peterson didn’t know how long to ferment the wine or how long to age it in an old barrel he’d found—there hadn’t been a lot of information in the library books he’d checked out. So, on a hunch he waited a month and bottled his batch only to have one explode in the back of his brand new car. Peterson realized 10  years later that he’d bottled the wine too soon. It was still fermenting.

After Peterson graduated from Iowa State, he served as a Marines and fought in the Korean War. When his hitch was up, he was offered tuition for four more years of higher education under the GI bill.

“Berkeley was well known for engineering, biochemistry, science and food science.” he says. “There was pizazz in food and Berkeley was run over with tremendous scientists in the field.”

Manufacturers were trying to come up with new and different ways to process foods to make preparation a snap for modern housewives. His fellow students were developing new methods for processing, preserving and freezing. “There were not a lot of students who were interested in wine,” Peterson says. But he thought the timing was perfect.

“During Prohibition everyone ripped out their wine grapes to plant Thompson Seedless because they traveled better to the eastern part of the country where they fed the thriving homemade wine market and bootleggers. After the repeal nothing changed, they were still making wine with the same shipping grapes and there was no science to it, yet Americans had been to Europe, had tasted good table wine and were ready for it.”

That’s why when the Gallo brothers said they wanted to organize a research department to devise better approaches to wine making, Peterson jumped on it. That included tearing out the Thompson grapes and planting varieties such as French Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.

For the next 10 years he worked for the winery, eventually taking over the product development department, where he taught the brothers how to make sparkling wine and developed other processes. But in the beginning, according to his book, he was surprised to see how the business was run.

He describes a tour of the bottling room when the machinery suddenly stopped. When Peterson asked why, he was told that they were changing labels from “Dry Sauterne” to “Chablis,” except the wine going into those newly labeled bottles was exactly the same. Later he was told that Ernest Gallo had determined that the “Chablis” label played better with consumers. Never mind that Chablis is a region in France where the eponymous wine, a dry white burgundy, is made with Chardonnay grapes; Gallo’s Chablis was made with Thompson Seedless from the Central Valley.

When the Gallos decided to phase out Thompson Seedless grapes and make significant improvements to their new table wines, it appears they wanted to phase out their competition as well. As Peterson tells it in the book, Julio had become a major grape buyer in California to keep up with Gallo’s increasing production, so when he announced what he’d pay for fruit it automatically became the price for the rest of the industry. In 1966, Julio Gallo decided to use it to his advantage, setting Thompson Seedless grapes at a ridiculous $105 a ton, according to Peterson. The grapes typically sold for $60 to $70 a ton. Gallo wound up turning down most of the Thompson grapes, telling growers he already had what he needed, but bought up the good wine grapes. His competitors, however, were stuck paying the exorbitant price for the Thompson Seedless.

In 1968 Andre Tchelistcheff, considered one of the most influential post-Prohibition winemakers in California, chose Peterson to be his successor at Beaulieu Vineyards. Peterson quickly moved to Napa Valley, thrilled to be part of Beaulieu’s 750 acres of actual wine-grape vineyards. What he learned later, according to the book, was that the operation was being “held together by baling wire and duct tape.”

The owner had inherited the winery from her father, the late George de Latour. Helen de Latour had married Count Henri Galcerand de Pins, and was later elevated to the Marquise de Pins. Peterson saw her as a royal pain in the butt: She made it known, he recalls, that her father’s promise was that the winery would take care of her not the other way around. She eventually sold to Heublein, a spirts and food company, which Peterson says wanted to use the Thomspon Seedless grapes instead of Chenin Blanc to make BV’s famous Champagne.

Needless to say, Peterson eventually left, went to Monterey, where he put the Central Coast on the map as far as wine region. Later, he came back to Napa where he raised his family, including famous winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett and chef Holly Peterson, who owns chocolate and sea salt companies. At home he makes small-production sparkling wine with grapes he grows himself. At the urging of his granddaughter, Remi Barrett, he spent the last four years focusing on the book, a labor of love but also his obligation to preserve the past.

“The book is honest and very straightforward,” says Scott Harvey, of Scott Harvey Wines in Napa Valley and Amador County, who learned a lot of what he knows from Peterson. “He is one of California’s greatest winemakers and it’s just an honor to work with him.”

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