Love your food

Can UC Davis’ new Robert Mondavi Institute change the way we taste things?

The Robert Mondavi Institute grew from a $25 million gift from Mondavi, the recently deceased legend of the California winemaking industry.

The Robert Mondavi Institute grew from a $25 million gift from Mondavi, the recently deceased legend of the California winemaking industry.

Photo by Kyle Monk

On a windy, sunny late-September morning, the butternut and pumpkin tones of UC Davis’ brand-new Robert Mondavi Institute pop against the blue sky. The courtyard between the three buildings smells pleasantly of wet dirt, sage and thyme, as a cadre of workers plant an edible landscape that will be known as the Good Life Garden. Mature olive trees transplanted from other parts of campus—some a healthy silver-green, some browned—tower over the tiny plants and still-bare earth.

In the RMI’s sensory building, by contrast, the mineral scent of fresh concrete and new construction pervades. In offices and gleaming new labs, boxes are piled up; ladders and blue tape marking not-quite-finished corners punctuate the shiny, sleek spaces.

The three new buildings house two academic departments, viticulture and enology and food science and technology, as well as the Institute’s offices and sensory labs and theater. While the departments housed in the complex retain their traditional research and teaching missions, the RMI’s mandate includes public outreach. According to Clare Hasler, the Institute’s executive director, “Our vision is enhancing the quality of life through wine and food sciences—the Institute is an outreach vehicle for programs, education and research related to wine and food sciences.” So far, two programs particularly exemplify this vision: the Olive Center, which combines research and producing olive oil from campus trees; and the Good Life Garden.

If the garden looked barely planted in September, three weeks later, at the RMI’s grand opening ceremonies on October 10, it had filled in considerably. Crops were as various as frilly lettuces, kale, artichokes and radicchio. Signs detailed the health and culinary benefits of the foods. A new central lawn was tented and teeming with chairs; the opening was standing-room-only. It drew a big crowd for tastings, lectures and the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new teaching and research winery and the Anheuser-Busch Brewing and Food Science Laboratory (the groundbreaking was attended by the Budweiser Clydesdales), despite a sharp, cold wind blowing through the courtyard. One tasting table blew over, and the garlands of grapevines and dangling hops that framed the ribbon-cutting swayed dangerously but stayed put as speakers that included UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, Margrit Mondavi and Neal Van Alfen, dean of UC Davis’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, spoke about the timeliness of the RMI’s mission.

Interest in our food and where it comes from—sparked by books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma—is at a peak, but many locals overlook the impact that the research and teaching at UC Davis has on our food supply, not only in this area but nationally and internationally. The location of the new RMI—with its brightly lit labs visible from Interstate 80 and buildings situated at a major new entrance to campus—makes that research literally and figuratively more visible. Moreover, the RMI may significantly expand the opportunities for the public to interact with and learn from the research being done at Davis. Future programs may include conferences, short courses and lectures, and perhaps even a visitor center.

Now that it’s been built, however, the question is whether the public will come—and whether ambitious programs can be sustained alongside the busy teaching and research mission that is, after all, the heart of the university. How these new institutional developments may affect the local public remains to be seen, but already the Olive Center and the Good Life Garden are providing fresh models for changing regional food culture—and the RMI’s ambitious plans may further extend its reach.

The Institute
The Robert Mondavi Institute grew from a $25 million gift from Mondavi, the recently deceased giant of the California winemaking industry, made “with the idea that we would build a brand-new complex that would join food and wine sciences together,” said Hasler. “He really wanted to make sure that UC Davis maintained its preeminent place in the industry.” This was not the first of Mondavi’s large gifts to the university (the RMI is close by the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts), but this one touched closely on Mondavi’s own professional achievements. At the RMI’s grand opening, Margrit Mondavi said, “I am only sorry that the love of my life, Robert, isn’t here” to see the new buildings. “When we used to come here many years ago, viticulture and enology had a great faculty, but the building was very much not up to it. I remember Robert saying, ‘I’m going to do something about it.’”

His widow Margrit Mondavi appeared at the opening of the Institute.


The original Mondavi gift was augmented by a $33 million California bond, passed in 2004, and moneys from the university and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The academics leading the two departments are enthusiastic about the new space. Andrew Waterhouse, chairman of viticulture and enology, said: “The state-of-the-art facilities really increase our capabilities—just the temperature control in the building [means] you can run better experiments, and it’s very exciting.” He also cites the teaching labs, saying they were previously using “literally borrowed lab space” rather than an outmoded 1939 lab.

Charles Bamforth, the chairman of food science and technology, agreed. “These are spacious and very open and bright—the old building was sort of old and defunct,” he said. The new buildings “put people who have similar disciplines together, in open-plan laboratories.”

“This really makes for interaction and good exchange of information and work,” Bamforth said.

The adjacent buildings also facilitate complementary research and collaboration. Bamforth cited a recent example of cross-department work: “We put together a study where we were comparing the perception of beer and wine and how these two fine beverages are judged by the public,” he said. “This gave me an opportunity to interact with consumer science, sensory and my own specialty, beer, with the sensory scientist being in the wine world.”

Other interactions are less formal. Moshe Rosenberg, a professor in food sciences and technology whose research focuses on cheese—and who is evangelical about the idea that, as he puts it, there is “life after cheddar”—teaches highly technical courses on cheese but also collaborates with his neighboring department in another way: “I’ve established a good relationship with the department of enology and … have provided evenings of cheese and wines,” he said. “We look at the science of the cheese and the wine and how they meet each other.”

That spirit of collaboration is extending across the campus, as evidenced by a recent, innovative hire: a joint appointment of an assistant professor in both the food science and American studies departments, a first. Charlotte Biltekoff, the faculty member, said she “credits the deans of the two colleges, and the departments, for being open and creative” about the hire.

“We have these strengths at UC Davis in food and wine sciences, and emerging strengths in cultural and social approaches to food,” she said. “My position recognizes the importance of bridging the gap between the two areas of expertise.”

Dan Flynn is the executive director of the Olive Center, which is centered in the Institute’s new buildings.


That gap is also being bridged in other ways. A conference planned for February of 2009, “Tasting Histories: Food & Drink Cultures Through the Ages,” “is a collaboration between RMI and two different multicampus research groups,” said Carolyn de la Peña, who is director of the Davis Humanities Institute and a member of the RMI Executive Committee, and has recently written a cultural history of artificial sweeteners. “What excites me most about this event is that it’s not just symbolic,” said de la Peña. “People in food science and viticulture and enology and also nutrition are now looking to have a cultural perspective on the work that they do, and I think it’s really unique [to Davis].”

De la Peña notes that increased interest in food culture among the public presents “a real opportunity to take some of that good energy and curiosity that brings people to Corti Brothers, or the farmers’ market.”

“The interest in food brings people literally to the table, and the exciting thing about this conference is that we have the opportunity to show how food lets us think about the world, and our relationship to the world. It’s an entry into really complicated systems,” she said.

Although academic in focus, the conference will be open to the public. “The second night, we’re looking at … the taste of this region. How have Northern California, and more specifically the Sacramento area, changed the way that we taste things?” said de la Peña. Darrell Corti and a panel of local farmers and producers will speak to these issues.

The general public, however, may be less likely to notice academic developments than other events and future facilities at the institute. Plans include tastings and public lectures hosted in the Sensory Theater. “In December, [we’re] starting with an olive-oil event, and we’ve been contact by Sudwerk to do something on beer and cheese pairing,” said Hasler. “We’re planning an heirloom tomato tasting for fall of next year, but I want to do chocolate and coffee and tea as well.”

Culinary classes are also a possibility. “We’ve got the food-innovation kitchen,” said Hasler. “We may have cooking classes in there … There’s a lot of potential there for culinary things that we haven’t even tapped into.”

Among other plans are a 12-acre demonstration and teaching vineyard, with some blocks open to the public, and the new teaching and research winery and August A. Busch III Brewing and Food Science Laboratory, slated to open in 2010—portions of which will be accessible to all. “We’re designing the new winery and brewery to be publicly visible,” said Waterhouse. “They actually have a public hallway that has windows into all the important processing areas. Research labs sort of all look the same, but in a winery and brewery, then you’ve got real production going on.”

The hope of bringing in visitors is deliberate. “We really expect to have a lot of public exposure through that, and use that as a magnet to bring people to campus,” said Waterhouse. It will be “one of the gateways into campus to show folks not only what we’re doing but what other academic units are doing.”

Sal Genito, director of the Buildings and Ground Division at UC Davis, conceived of an edible landscape to beautify the blank space between the buildings at the new Institute, and the Good Life Garden was born.


“In a way, we’ve been located out here to facilitate that,” he said.

The RMI, the Good Life Garden and the vineyard also fit into a broader campus-planning initiative known as the GATEways Project (Garden, Arts and the Environment), a master plan that emphasizes public interaction with the campus and aims to “create teaching landscapes directly related to [academic] programs,” said Bob Segar, assistant vice chancellor for campus planning. “The whole idea is that as the public has the chance to engage with these places on the campus, the landscapes themselves give you insight into the program.”

A hotel and conference center going in also has space set aside for what Hasler called a “small discovery space” that will draw visitors and show off, among other things, the olive oil made on campus—a program that started small and has grown into something big.

The olive garden
As in many of the RMI buildings, the office of Dan Flynn, the executive director of the Olive Center, is not quite unpacked. But at least one thing is at the ready: flared cobalt-blue glasses for tasting olive oil, along with bottles of oil. He goes through how to taste the oil: warming it first by cupping it and covering the glass, before releasing the aromas; sipping and slurping to assess the balance of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency (a peppery tickle in the back of the throat; some are pungent enough to induce coughing fits). The oils on the docket today include two produced by UC Davis, as well as another high-end oil and one inexpensive (and quite rancid) oil. “Seventy to 80 percent of supermarket oil has a serious defect, such as rancidity or fustiness,” said Flynn.

This sort of tasting, however, is nothing compared to the sensory evaluations the Olive Center sponsors. For those, tasters are trained for weeks or months to detect flaws: “You want them to be like a laboratory instrument. You have to get them calibrated so they’re all tasting the same thing, within a certain tolerance of variation,” Flynn said. “If something is rancid, the panel senses rancid; if it tastes metallic, they taste that.” This is the kind of finely tuned sensory analysis that the RMI’s tasting labs were created to foster.

Olive oil at UC Davis, however, hasn’t always been a story of gleaming lab instruments and precision tastings. Instead, it started with a mess: Olive trees overhanging campus bike paths dropped fruit, creating a mucky olive slick, and Davis’ cyclists were taking the fall—literally, to the tune of $60,000 a year in cleanup and settlements. It was an annual headache for Sal Genito, director of the Buildings and Grounds Division; one day, he caught the scent of olive oil and got the idea.

“I never thought about making olive oil as a way to fix a problem, because my assumption was that it was too hard,” said Genito. “I’m thinking to myself, what would it take to make olive oil, who would I ask? And then the light bulb goes on and I say to myself, ‘You work at UC Davis, you idiot—if somebody knows about it, they know about it here.’” Although initially the costs seemed daunting, Genito said, “we were already spending money on it, more than it would take to harvest the olives.”

Flynn soon came onboard to manage the harvest and production. “Some bumbling around occurred at the beginning,” he said—the nets used for harvest blew away (they switched to canvas tarps)—but the project has been strikingly successful: In 2005, the first year, the program produced 200 gallons of oil; last year, they “did pretty close to 700 gallons,” said Flynn. This year, the center is acquiring a mill to process olives on site.

From left to right: Clare Hasler, the Institute’s executive director; David Howard, until recently the head gardener of Prince Charles’ all-organic estate; and Andrew Waterhouse, chairman of viticulture and enology at UC Davis.

Photo By dominick porras

Out of these ad-hoc beginnings grew the Olive Center. “Just in the practice of us making olive oil, we were talking to more and more people in the industry. We decided that it would be a good idea for us to marshal our resources, which are scattered across different disciplines, and so that in the future when the industry has a problem they know where to come,” said Flynn. “That was brought on by our getting our hands dirty as olive-oil producers.”

Davis has engaged in olive research for decades—the university was instrumental in refining the process for canning ripe black olives (the kind of you put on your fingers as a kid)—but the center, launched in January 2008, integrates research into a single resource.

“We’ve really tapped into some excitement out in the industry,” said Flynn, who notes that the olive-oil business, in particular, is expanding rapidly in California; it produced 500,000 gallons this year, but in 10 years, the projections are for a 40-fold increase to 20 million gallons. “The university has a lot of the right people who’ve worked with olives for a long time. Now, with olive oil really taking off in California, we’re here ready to help them as they’re trying to grow very rapidly to become viable competitors for the cheaper imported oil.”

Although the center was inspired by olive oil, it continues to work on table olives, both for industry and consumers: “We are hoping to produce some table olives, too,” said Flynn. “We’re doing a traditional Sicilian-style cure, and it takes a long time to get the bitterness out of the olives.” They’re also doing sensory analysis of table olives, providing data to California producers who have lost market share to cheaper but lower-quality imports. The olive industry, both oil and table olives, underwrites such research. “Public funding has diminished over the years, and the model we’ve worked in needs to be updated for the current era,” said Flynn.

The payoff for the public at the center comes not just in the opportunity to buy olive oil at the campus bookstore, but also in the fact that maybe better olives will turn up on your pizza (where most food-service table olives end up, said Flynn). There are also special programs like the annual launch party and the recent lunch and tour at the Wolfskill Ranch (undertaken with Slow Food Yolo), where 250 people feasted on local foods that included slow-cooked lamb, leek gratin and a salad dressed with (of course) Davis’ olive oil. The annual event, with long white tables set under the towering, gnarled olive trees of the ranch’s main drive, is the public’s annual opportunity to peek into Wolfskill, a remnant of a historic land-grant ranch that serves as a research station and botanical library (it grows some 3,000 grape varieties and hundreds of figs, among many other crops) for UC Davis and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The olive-oil program makes a Wolfskill olive oil from the trees’ fruit.

The center has “just gone great guns,” said Hasler. “There are all sorts of [events] planned. … It’s going to have long-term implications for the industry, both table olives and olive oil, in California and beyond.”

Good Life Garden
If the Olive Center’s reach extends from the local to the international scene, the Good Life Garden is distinctly rooted in the campus. It grew out of a literal empty space: the courtyard between the buildings of the RMI. To beautify the blank space, Genito conceived of an edible landscape. The garden has taken on the additional mission of illustrating the connection between good food and good health.

“To me, it fit the university’s two basic core competencies—agriculture and medicine,” said Genito. The garden aims, moreover, to educate: “You walk into the garden and see kale, why would you eat kale, how do you prepare it, when do you buy it and why is it good for you? If you can walk in and learn those four things, then we’ve done our job,” he said.

The Institute is designed to facilitate complementary research and collaboration. Food and wine tastings and public lectures will be hosted in the Sensory Theater (pictured) at the RMI.


Slow Food Yolo co-chair and award-winning cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan, who serves on the garden’s advisory board, notes the uniqueness of the garden’s concept: “What I think is unusual about this is that it really has the notion [that] fresh garden food is healthy and good for you,” she said. “Those of us in the food world are used to the notion of eating locally and close to home and in season, and [the RMI] is taking this message a step further and infusing it with nutrition and health, which is appropriate, given the connection with the university.”

Although the garden is just planted—using organic seeds and plants from Seeds of Change, with fall crops like broccoli and lettuces, herbs of all sorts and trees including rare varieties of pomegranate—it will serve in the future as both a public visitor space and an event space, as well as a teaching tool. Plans for complementing the departments’ traditional missions include portions of the garden dedicated to crops that can be used in sensory evaluation, such as foods with flavors often found in wine.

Moreover, “the facility enables a whole host of different kinds of events and programs; the question that we need to answer is to determine what the public wants and how we can best fill that need,” said Genito. “People love food, especially eating outside—it just seems really seductive.” Proposed events include a locavore feast, a family ice-cream social, a summer camp for kids focusing on farms and food, a cheeses of the world seminar, a beekeeping- and honey-focused evening, and many others.

The inaugural event for the garden, an evening of lectures called “Growing Our Food”—though held in the Sciences Lecture Hall, not the then-unfinished garden—was one example of the sorts of events planned for the future. It featured talks by Brennan; Ethne Clarke, an editor at Traditional Home; and David Howard, until recently the head gardener for Prince Charles’ all-organic estate, Highgrove. Between the talks, a walk-around food and wine tasting included everything from strawberry pátés de fruits from chocolatier Ginger Hahn, sausages from Morant’s Old Fashioned Sausage Kitchen, grapes from Davis’ own vines, local caviar and other tastes.

David Howard’s talk focused on his background as a gardener (he began his career as a teenaged journeyman gardener in the royal gardens at Windsor) and then discussed the theory and practice of organic gardening. Of the Good Life Garden, Howard said, “The garden is a great start. I would love to come back and see it in a couple of years. My hope is that it will be at the very least organic and preferably biodynamic. It should work very well with the Institute.”

That, certainly, is the hope of its founders. “How [the garden] grows and becomes part of the academic program will depend on how well we cultivate it and how creative the faculty and others are in using it,” said Genito.

Looking ahead
In the end, what will these developments mean for local food culture? Although locals know that Davis is a research center, taking advantage of the opportunities the university offers to the general public “can seem daunting, because [the university is] so big,” said Georgeanne Brennan. “Hopefully, the location of the garden and the RMI will help defuse that. It can act as an information hub for all kinds of things, and an interface to the community.”

The university already draws a considerable number of visitors, and the position and potential of the RMI have led some to speculate that it could become a food- and wine-focused regional attraction, comparable to Napa’s Copia. In fact, it might have some advantages over that institution, which has struggled in recent years. “Copia had to be fully self-supporting, and it’s difficult to do unless you have a huge public,” said Genito. “These facilities are part of the public domain, and so there’s not necessarily an expectation that we’re making a profit, as much as we’re paying for our expenses, and … offering things as a public service.”

The form that public service may take remains to be seen, but already the products from the olive-oil program and the RMI’s Good Life Garden let the public see, touch and taste—literally—the cornucopia of food research and production on campus.

Genito notes, however, that the campus is still “full of food opportunities.” And some, at least, dream of an even broader audience for programs spearheaded by the Robert Mondavi Institute. “With the same name, we’ve got the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts,” muses food science and technology chairman Bamforth. “I would love to think that the whole auditorium, the Jackson Hall, could be filled with people hearing about food and beverages in the context of quality of life. I’m sure Robert Mondavi would be delighted to look down and see that that was happening.”