Profiles in wine: Carole Meredith, wine grape geneticist

The renown grape geneticist is recognized for her use of DNA to identify wine grapes.|

The term “celebrity” has special meaning in Napa Valley, where world-class winemakers, esteemed vintners, multi-generational wine families, historic grape growers and even sommeliers can be considered legends in winemaking.

But this story isn’t about them.

It’s about a world-renowned wine grape geneticist who lives a quiet life on Napa’s Mount Veeder. She’s a woman many in the wine industry consider a true superstar.

Carole Meredith, professor emerita of UC Davis’ department of viticulture and enology, is recognized for her groundbreaking use of DNA markers to identify wine grape varieties.

Her work has played a key role in solving many longstanding wine-grape mysteries, including the geographic origin of the zinfandel grape (Croatia) and the parental lineage of numerous grape varieties.

A passion for science

Born in Wales, United Kingdom, Meredith came to the United States at age 11, eventually settling in the East Bay with her parents. She had a passion for science and planned to study plant biology at UC Berkeley, until her dad put the kibosh on her college destination.

“It was the mid-1960s, so there were a lot of protests at Berkeley at that time due to the free-speech era and Vietnam War,” Meredith said. “My dad perceived Berkeley as a dangerous place for a young girl and wouldn’t let me go. So I ended up going to UC Davis. What my dad didn’t realize is that Davis was very much like Berkeley — they just didn’t get the press!”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Meredith took a job at a plant nursery, where she became fascinated by the diversity of the plants and flowers. It was “a revelation” when she realized every petunia variety had been created by a plant breeder.

“I began to wonder whether that was something I might like to do,” Meredith said.

She returned to UC Davis, intending to study flower breeding. Instead, she decided to pursue a doctoral degree in plant genetics.

When a faculty position opened up at UC Davis in the viticulture and enology department in 1980, Meredith applied and got the job. Her new role would be to use the latest biotechnology to improve the health and vigor of wine grapevines in California.

“Then these new DNA-profiling tools caught my attention,” Meredith said. “They were being used in human medicine, but it was clear we could use the same tools to solve some grape-identification problems.”

May I see your ID?

When wine grapes from Europe were introduced to the New World, their variety names were not of interest. But as the wine industry grew and winemakers began looking for specific varieties, the names of grapes suddenly became important.

“By that time, the grapes’ original names had been long forgotten, so sellers just made up new names,” Meredith said. “That’s when things got really confusing. So we used DNA typing to determine some of the unknown grape varieties in California.”

In 1996, Meredith and her team used DNA typing to identify the parentage of the cabernet sauvignon grape, which turned out to be cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. They also determined the lineage of syrah, chardonnay and zinfandel.

But one of Meredith’s greatest triumphs was helping to identify the geographic origin of the zinfandel grape.

“Zinfandel was so important to California at that time, and some people were even calling it ‘California’s own grape,’” Meredith said. “Many people speculated where it was from, so it was time we used DNA to figure it out.”

Her team’s DNA research led to Croatia, which was confirmed as zinfandel’s country of origin in 2001. Further testing revealed zinfandel, primitivo, tribidrag and crljenak kaštelanski are the same variety.

Lagier Meredith Vineyards

After 23 years at UC Davis, Meredith retired from higher education in 2003. Today, she manages Lagier Meredith Vineyard, a small but mighty wine label she cofounded with her husband, Steve Lagier, a former winemaker for Robert Mondavi.

They source fruit from their home estate on Mount Veeder, where they grow 4 acres of syrah, mondeuse noir, malbec and tribidrag. They’ve historically produced less than 1,000 cases of wine per year.

But that chapter will soon come to a close, too. Lagier Meredith bottled their last wine in 2021, and the couple expects to sell it over the next few years. Aaron Pott, a good friend and Napa winemaker, offered to care for their estate vineyard in exchange for its fruit.

Once Meredith and Lagier retire for the second time, they plan to put all their efforts into maintaining a fire-defensible space around their 84-acre property. The Nunn’s Fire in 2017 came within feet of their land.

“Steve and I have worked very hard, so it’s about time to retire,” Meredith said. “We absolutely love our property and never intend to leave. Keeping it safe is our biggest priority.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or

Sarah Doyle

Wine & Lifestyle Reporter

Wine is the indelible heartbeat of Sonoma County. As the wine industry continues to evolve, my job is to share the triumphs, challenges and trends that affect our local wine region, while highlighting the people — past and present — who have contributed to its success. In addition, I cover spirits, beer and on occasion, other lifestyle topics.

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