The idea to explore Afghanistan’s remote regions for crop plants that could be grown in California came from renowned UCD horticulturalist Hal Olmo. In the 1930’s, he joined a cadre of “plant explorers” who traversed the Afghan mountains by horseback and camel in search of wild and cultivated varieties of fruits, nuts, and grains. As his career progressed, Olmo came to focus his attention almost exclusively on grapes, becoming not merely a grape geneticist and breeder but also a kind of grape archaeologist. As part of his long-term research to trace the origins of the grapevine, he made a now almost legendary, adventure-filled collecting trip in 1948 to the border district of Afghanistan and Iran, where he discovered specimens of the original Vitis vinifera.
Over a career spanning nearly five decades, Olmo utilized these genetic resources to develop two dozen table grape and two dozen wine grape varieties. His work on the chardonnay grape was responsible for developing it from insignificance into California’s most important wine grape variety, now grown on nearly 100,000 acres throughout the state.
His proudest accomplishment, however, stemmed from in his early work on Vitis rotundifolia, or muscadine, the original American wild grape. In the 1930’s, he had discovered that muscadine was highly resistant to Phylloxera, nematodes, and fan leaf virus. When Phylloxera and nematodes hit California vineyards, Olmo worked with Lloyd Lider and Austin Goheen to breed muscadine’s resistance into the rootstocks of other varieties, an accomplishment that lies at the heart of the ongoing viability of the state’s table grape and wine industries today. A true legend of the vineyard, Olmo’s impact is far-reaching indeed: cuttings from some of the wild grapevines that he brought from Afghanistan during the 1940s and grew in UC Davis vineyards were recently sent back to Afghanistan because they are now extinct there and needed to rebuild that country’s devastated agricultural economy.