Mendel Gets The Credit, But Farmers Did The Work



OK class, who remembers Gregor Mendel? Here's a quick refresher:

"Treatises on Plant Hybrids" written by the Austrian (Moravian-Silesian) Augustinian monk, Gregor Mendel, appeared in 1865. Mendel's treatise described his observations on the inheritance of various characteristics ("factors") in crossbred pea plants, as manifested in the phenotypes of subsequent generations. Later known as Mendel's Laws, his famous principles of hereditary transmission were to revolutionize the cultivation of plants and the breeding of domesticated animals in the 20th century." ( In other words, he is credited with documenting the science of crossbreeding.

Take a little of this, add a dash of that, modify it with just a hint of something else, and !voila! you have a new entity that represents many desired traits, or perhaps eliminates some undesired ones. Nature does it all the time with no help from us. It's why polar bears are white and bats have radar.

We intentionally crossbreed in order to improve crop yields or the amount of fat on a hog. The Kentucky Derby is a prime example. You never see a Clydesdale entered in that race. The winner, in fact, probably never races again, but is assigned a rather idyllic lifestyle to only breed another winner like him (her) self. No oxen need apply.

And this is important because? Well, apart from providing a way to improve many aspects of life, the process of crossbreeding (intentional or not) has resulted in the creation of exquisite wines over the centuries. (You knew I would get around to my favorite subject, didn't you?)

There are few, if any, wild grapes that will make a wine you would pour at your daughter's rehearsal dinner. Nothing wrong with them, but they will either be very sweet or somewhat bland in taste. Some of them might even taste sour.

Now, in some ways, "fine wine" or at least "table wine" might strike some of the same notes with various individuals, but for the most part, these wines are the result of thousands of years of crossbreeding. Desired qualities have been bred into the grapes, which result in wines with finesse, richness, sophistication, complexity and a unique experience for the palate and the senses. It goes on today with increasing frequency as the demand for wine grows and the grower attempts to come up with a taste which will sell his wines at a premium.

The world standard for fine wines has, for hundreds of years, been established in France. The British made them famous and desirable throughout the world because they had the money and "ruled the seas." France had (and has) the ideal climate zones and variety of soils to grow wines that have a refinement about them, which no other country (until recently) can provide. In addition, certain varieties of grapes have been carefully developed there over very long periods of time. Mendel came along to scientifically explain the process, but farmers, and especially grape farmers have known about it since the beginning of agriculture.

The Brits, by the way, had a particular fondness for red wine and imported it by the shiploads from France. Whatever its derivation, it was all simply called "Claret" (red).

Over the years, certain Clarets from specific regions began to be noticed for their reliable quality, and the prices for these wines began to be bid upward to ensure their availability to wealthy buyers. The practice roars forward today, as the top wines from France are priced completely beyond reach of the average consumer. Other countries have joined in as well, as worldwide demand for fine wine has exploded.

Now, due as much to my age as anything, I have had the good fortune to drink some of the world's "great" wines. I can verify without question that they were superb -- in a class totally of their own. I have also enjoyed a wonderful ride in a Rolls-Royce automobile, and it was remarkable. The two experiences have a lot in common. Both the wine and the automobile were handcrafted and made in small lots. Both result from many years of refinement and dedication to high quality. Both are completely out of reach of my present budget.

However, I can easily give you a list of 50 wines -- $50 a bottle and under (many $20 and under) -- all of which will have SOME of the characteristics of the "Great Ones." Cloning and crossbreeding has become popular in all fields of agriculture, and there are many wonderful examples in the world's wine regions.

If peas are your thing, thank Mendel.

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