A Great Man Died Today

Ralph Kunkee

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.

Lactobacillus Kunkeei

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.

Y-M-C-A…it’s fun to stay at the…

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.

Ralph, Back Row Left, at our Wedding

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.

About Sandra Oldfield

You can find out a bit more about me through the "About Me" page at the top of my blog.
This entry was posted in Grapes and Wine and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to A Great Man Died Today

  1. This brought tears to my eyes. Partly because I’m just getting to know Sandi, and heard of Ralph’s looming passing earlier this week, and partly because I’ve also lost many people that I’ve loved, and have learned much from.

    It’s always comforting when you can see yourself in others, the human companionship that spans society’s boxes. I too am the first to ask questions, and not the last to order Jäger. Funny thing is I thought, “I should send Sandi a bottle, I wonder if just a small one would be OK, or look cheap.” It really is the thought that counts. The thought it took for you to write this post Sandi, when there’s likely a list of post ideas just waiting to be written.

    Sometimes, you can’t help but write the things that are the closest to your heart. Sorry to read of the loss of one of your mentors Sandi. Take comfort in knowing you’re also an inspiration.

    A glass of Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series 2Bench White ’10 in hand, a toast, to Ralph.

  2. RickCMJZ says:

    Wonderful post! So great to know that wine its about so much more than grapes and alcohol. Friends who are family make wine a true celebration of life.
    My thoughts are with you tonight. Relish the Jager tonight.
    Cheers to Ralph!

  3. Rod McLeod says:

    Currently on a 6 wk visit to downunder Australia where I learned today from Gordon Pilone and Brian Croser of Ralph’s passing…needless to say I am saddened by his death, but must celebrate his life today. His contribution to his students has been immeasurable. Thanks Ralph!!
    Cheers,
    Rod McLeod, MSc UCD, 1969

  4. He’d be loving the celebration!

  5. Jeannette says:

    “Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality.”
    ~ Emily Dickinson

  6. iamholden says:

    Your tribute to Ralph was perfect. You said everything and it was beautiful. Thank you…I know I am a better man having known Ralph. Yes, he was an amazing human.

  7. I’ve not been able to link up with many other people who know what an amazing soul Ralph was. Thank you so much for commenting.

  8. The greatest teachers (& friends) who inspire their students to be great teachers and pass on the gift. Cheers to Ralph and all the amazing teachers out there who continue to inspire.

  9. Jennifer says:

    Hello Sandra, I worked with Ralph at UC Davis Extension for the last five years, and you did an excellent job recreating his signature. 🙂 He was a unique and special character, wasn’t he? A warm, generous, gregarious person. The life of the party. I had the honor of visiting with him at the hospital last month. His doctor was completey taken with him saying Ralph was the most interesting patient she had ever had. I’m sure that does not come as a surprise. And I think you’ll be happy to know that one of our instructors brought him a bottle of Jager, although I don’t know if was ever able to sample it in his last days. Thank you for your beautiful tribute. He was a dear man and I will miss him.

    • Jennifer, I am so sorry for your loss. I only worked with him for a year or so but he couldn’t help but leave an indelible mark on all people he touched. If there is a public memorial for him I plan to come down for it and perhaps we will meet.
      Thank you for taking the time to write!

  10. judy Matulich-Weitz says:

    Every year at the ASEV convention, Ralph and I would share a glass or bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. We both loved SB. I will drink a glass (or bottle) tonight in his honor. I had wanted to get over to see him in the last few weeks, but this harvest kept me at away, I should have broken away, there will always be another harvest but their will never be another Ralph. My thoughts were with him every day.
    The parties at Ralph’s were the best, we are all still talking about them 27 years later. I hope he got rid of the pictures!!!
    I will miss him, the industry will miss him, speakers will miss him (he always asked good questions).
    Thank you Ralph for making me a better winemaker and a better person for knowing you.

    cheers.

    • The only thing I vaguely remember about the end of the party I attended in 1993 or something like that was the police coming in in the morning to clear out bodies–and some passed out people in the bathtub. Yup. Good times!
      Very cool you two would share Sauv Blanc. Hard to think of him as gone now. Thank you so much for taking time to leave great memories.

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