Harold P. Olmo, 96; Had Key Role in Growth of California Wine Industry

Times Staff Writer

Harold P. Olmo, a grape breeder and viticulturist who played a key role in the development of the California wine industry starting in the 1930s, died June 30. He was 96.

For years Olmo was known as the Indiana Jones of viticulture for his travel adventures on horseback and camel in Central Asia during the 1930s and ‘40s to collect endangered vines that he then cultivated in California.

He had been hospitalized at the Sierra Health Care Convalescent Hospital in Davis, where he died of complications from a fall, said Lynn Alley, who is writing his biography.


Olmo had been on the UC Davis faculty in the department of viticulture and enology since 1938, including 29 years as professor emeritus.

His “breadth of knowledge and his adventurous spirit were critical to the reemergence of viticulture in California,” Andrew Waterhouse, interim chairman of the department, said in a statement this week. The grape-growing industry took several major dips during Olmo’s time, most recently in the 1950s.

Along with propagating rare species of grapevines that he gathered in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, Olmo bred close to 30 new varieties, including the ruby cabernet, a wine grape. Most of his new varieties, however, were table grapes, including the popular redglove and perlette, the first grape he introduced commercially, in 1948. He also bred raisin grapes.

Over 70 years he amassed one of the world’s most important grape collections, Andrew Walker, Olmo’s successor as grape breeder and geneticist at UC Davis, said in an interview this week. The collection is housed on university property and serves as a library for students and faculty, as well as for growers.

Cuttings from some of the wild vines that Olmo collected in Afghanistan decades ago were recently sent back and planted there after the vines had become extinct in that region.

California vintners know Olmo as the man who made the chardonnay the most widely planted wine grape in the state. Through the 1950s the chardonnay produced a comparatively low yield. Olmo developed a variety with larger clusters and greater disease resistance.

Its success led to a steady rise in acreage planted with chardonnay vines. The number went from 50 acres in 1960 to 100,000 acres this year, Walker said, adding that the total number of California acres planted with grapevines is 900,000.

Vintners around the world consulted with Olmo about the suitability of grape varieties to their climates and terrains. Olmo’s Reward, a Bordeaux blend made in Australia, is named in his honor.

Born July 31, 1909, in San Francisco, Olmo graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in horticulture and went on to earn a doctorate in genetics at the university. During his academic career he was awarded both a Guggenheim and a Fulbright fellowship.

He married Helen Miller, and they had three children: daughter Jeanne-Marie Olmo of Davis, and sons Daniel Martin Olmo of Davis and Paul Stephen Olmo of Port Orford, Ore.

Olmo’s wife died in 2000. He is survived by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.