Typing through tears is not one of my strongest suits, but I’ll give it a shot. Ralph Kunkee died today. I’m fairly sure that not many of you met him. He was a Professor Emeritus of Enology (winemaking) at the University of California at Davis where I learned how to be a winemaker. He taught aver 1,000 students who are now making wine all over the globe.
Ralph had retired one year before I got to the Master’s program but he stayed on to teach wine microbiology for another year or two and asked me to be his Teaching Assistant. I remember a yeast trial I had to monitor for him with 27 different yeast strains all in triplicate. It was a very complicated experiment and there was Ralph trying to clarify it for me in his scattered way–which would usually end with “Just do it. You know what I mean.”
It was an honour trying to figure out what he meant.
As the School’s website says, Ralph worked on isolation of wine yeast, malolactic fermentations and what causes wine to spoil. He has a strain of Malo Lactic bacteria named after him Lactobacillus Kunkeei. In his life he published nearly 150 scientific articles and two texts (one of which he was writing when I was at the University). He helped in California’s transition from high alcohol fortified wines to the lower alcohol table wines we now enjoy. He urged clean conditions in wineries and showed many wineries and winemakers that bad wines are indeed sometimes made in the cellar.
But a person’s accomplishments do not define who they are.
Ralph must have invented the saying “suck the marrow out of life”. At every conference he was first to stand and ask the speaker a question (or many). He was always, always asking, probing, exploring. He’d ask his students questions about all sorts of things–not because he was trying to get us to think, but because he was truly interested in learning more all the time.
For him there was a purity in learning and teaching.
Students in enology and brewing prided themselves on knowing how to party–but we were just amateurs compared to Ralph. He had thrown a lifetime of bashes and had perfected the Art of Party. Every year he threw a party for his students. Imagine that. He threw a rip-roaring bash yearly for his students. Past alumni were always welcome as well as his co-workers, the other professors, and pretty well any passer-by on the street.
The culmination of the party every year came at the strike of midnight. Ralph forced all of us to drink a shot of Jagermeister. I told him I hated the stuff but he made me drink it anyway–you could never say no to Ralph. I mean really, look at his face! Then he’d cue up the Village People’s YMCA and we’d all dance and sing it. Seriously. That’s what we all did. 100 plus people with arms outstretched making the letters and belting out the words. Years later we met up at a wine conference where the Village People were playing a huge supplier party. When they began to play YMCA we dragged Ralph onto the dance floor and we all danced around King Ralph–like he was holding court.
He came to mine and Kenn’s wedding in 1995 as did most of my professors. That was the kind of program Viticulture and Enology was–they were not teachers as much as they were friends–and Ralph was the Dean of the Department of Smiles and Laughter.
When I moved to BC and we built our winery I named one of our tanks after him. Tank 20 is “Tank Ralph”. I choose our biggest blending tank for him–it seemed appropriate.
It’s empty today. Somehow that also seems appropriate.
In 2002 he came up to the Okanagan Valley for a lecture to the BC wine industry on cleaning and sanitation and we got to visit. I was so proud of taking him around our winery and being able to tell him that he was instrumental in our success.
I handed him a sharpee pen and had him autograph the wall of the new barrel cellar. He wrote: “Vigilance and Discipline! Great wines begin in the classroom! Align that microscope! –Ralph Kunkee” (never could get our microscope in alignment). Ironic thing about that autograph…a few years back one of my cellar workers was asked to clean the cellar really well and he decided to scrub off Ralph’s writing. Ralph probably would have been proud of the level cleanliness, but I was not so happy. I reconstructed it when I heard Ralph was in hospice this week. No doubt it was my misspelling of “vigilance” when I retraced his writing and not his.
Ralph wouldn’t have cared so much about my spelling error. He knew we all are human and make mistakes. He celebrated “human”. And tonight I will toast you, Ralph with some Jager and a dance with my six-year-old daughter to YMCA.
I only bought a tiny bottle, though, Ralph. I told you I can’t stand the stuff.