You are obviously a wine aficionado; otherwise why would you be reading this blog? But what if I told you that you don’t know one of the most important people in wine making modern history. My bet is you don’t know him but don’t feel bad, many people very knowledgeable about wine, don’t know who he is.
With over 200 published papers, four books, and four decades of teaching at UC Davis, a relatively unknown wine genius made a profound impact on the global wine industry. His discoveries saved the California white wine industry and it is not an exaggeration to say he discovered the science of why wine tastes good. This man discovered the impact of tannins, the science of wine aging, and the effects of radiation on wine.
Despite these monumental achievements in enology, his impact on the industry was not fully understood or appreciated until well after his retirement from teaching. This was the man who discovered the impact tannins have on wine and was a guest at Robert Mondavi’s wedding. This wine revolutionary was so far ahead of his time it took the wine world almost 20 years to understand and appreciate the genius of Dr. Vernon Singleton.
Vernon Singleton was born into humble beginnings on June 28,1923. He moved from Oregon where he was raised to northern Indiana for college. While at Purdue University he studied chemistry. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the United States Army and was stationed oversees in Italy. This is probably where he first started developing his lifelong fascination with wine.
After the war he returned to Purdue and earned his PhD in biochemistry. At Purdue, he met and married his wife Kay. Upon graduation, the newly minted Dr. Singleton and Kay moved to Hawaii where he took a job at the Pineapple Research Institute in Hawaii. Kay and Dr. Singleton welcomed three children while residing in The Aloha State.
In 1958, to the benefit of winemakers everywhere, he joined the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis. For the next 33 years, Dr. Singleton taught, studied, and published on a multitude of wine science subjects.
As an expert on wine chemistry, Dr. Singleton was best known for his work with phenolic substances, including tannins. He identified, characterized, and transformed many such substances greatly influencing the way wine is made today. In many ways, his findings and studies explained to winemakers what made wine taste good. His studies on wine maturation, particularly white wine and aging, are largely credited with saving the California white wine industry.
However, few of these breakthroughs were appreciated at the time because Dr. Singleton was a man ahead of his time. In 1991, Dr. Singleton retired from UC Davis before most in the wine industry even recognized his tremendous achievements.
One man, who did recognize Dr. Singleton’s brilliance and was quick to adapt his winery to the doctor’s findings and discoveries, was Robert Mondavi. Mondavi and Dr. Singleton were friends and colleagues. In fact, Dr. Singleton even attended Mr. Mondavi’s wedding in 1980. In many ways, they were the California wine industry visionaries who built the industry we know today. And thanks to the donations of the Mondavi family, various buildings have been built for the Department of Vitriuclure at UC Davis.
Upon retirement, he did not just sit at home and drink perfectly scientifically structured wine. No, he continued his lifelong legacy of teaching by consulting with industry leaders, students, and scientists. Several of the books he wrote while a professor are still used today in classrooms around the world including Wine: An Introduction for Americans, co-authored with Maynard Amerine, and Principles and Practices of Winemaking, co-authored by Dr. Singleton and three UC Davis colleagues. Both books are still considered essential reading for any aspiring winemaker.
In 2011, 20 years after his retirement, Dr. Singleton was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame for his work in the area of wine science. It took nearly 20 years for the wine industry to fully comprehend and appreciate the scientific advancements Dr. Singleton’s made in his career.
The Vintners Hall of Fame is a celebration of wine industry professionals and supporters who have made the California wine industry into what it is today.
The Hall of Fame is located in the awe-inspiring barrel room at the Culinary Institute of America located in St. Helena, California. If you ever make the pilgrimage to Napa you must make time to visit the Hall of Fame. While there you can view Dr. Singleton’s bronze sculpture and biography.
Today, if you take a tour at any winery in Napa producing cabernet sauvignon, I guarantee you they’re talking about tannins, tannic structure, and the aging properties and influences of tannins. This is all a result of the decades of study and research by Dr. Singleton. The wine world has finally advanced far enough to see Dr. Singleton’s accomplishments for what they are, revolutionary.
Through the magic of modern social media you can also still view some of Dr. Singleton’s most famous lectures from his days teaching at UC Davis. Several of his class lectures have been uploaded onto YouTube. Here is one my favorites on wine, alcohol, and medicine. UC Davis has also established The Vernon Singleton Memorial Scholarship Fund to provide assistant for students of Viticulture and Enology.
On Friday August 26, 2016 the wine world lost one of the founding fathers of viticulture science. He was one of the first to really understand, teach, and study the science behind wine making. His contributions to UC Davis and the wine industry were so profound the University made the unusual gesture of paying for the beautiful tribute honoring him at UC Davis, which took the Singleton family by surprise.
Dr. Singleton was a private, quiet, and modest man devoted to a life of learning, teaching, and mentoring. However, Dr. Singleton’s legacy is not over. The students he taught, the lives he influenced, and the scientific discoveries he made will influence and inspire winemakers and oenophiles for many vintages to come.