David with his family wearing matching sports jerseys with the Marcos Automoción logo.
David Llodra (center) with his family. From left: David’s wife, Katherine Llodra; daughter, Eden Llodra; son, Lucas Llodra; and daughter, Kate Llodra.

Alum uses oak like a ‘spice rack’ to innovate wine industry

David Llodra feels ‘blessed’ to give back to UC Davis, his community

Growing up in a European city known for its fresh food and vibrant, local wines, David Llodra ’01, Ph.D. ’13, found a passion for winemaking that took him halfway around the world to learn from the best.

He was working in a successful career in the food industry in his hometown of Valencia, Spain, when he met a vintner who said, “If you want to study winemaking, you need to go to UC Davis.”

Llodra knew then that his life was about to change.

“I was in my early 30s when I moved to California to pursue a second career I knew I would stick with for the rest of my life,” he said.

And he has. Llodra’s unique combination of skills in winemaking, chemistry and agricultural engineering have helped him discover innovative ways to use oak in the wine and spirits industry, setting new standards across the globe.

“We kind of revolutionized the market,” Llodra said. “We created a system that was out-of-the-ordinary, and when people started tasting these products, they said, ‘Man, this is unbelievable!’”

Today, Llodra is the Director of Research and Development for Independent Stave Company, and because of his close connection to the university, his employer frequently donates French and American oak barrels to UC Davis for teaching and research purposes. He has also visited campus as a guest lecturer many times over the past decade to share his expertise with students.

“I believe education is the doorway to igniting our passions and I’m grateful for the opportunities I was exposed to at UC Davis,” he said. “The community at this school kept me wanting to grow and to contribute. It’s been an incredible journey.”

‘Driving force’ in the industry

David Llodra sampling wine at Nicholson Ranch with several wine barrels visible.
David Llodra samples wine at Nicholson Ranch Winery in Sonoma, Calif.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology in 2001, Llodra worked as an assistant winemaker in Napa Valley. A few years later, he was offered a job doing research on oak barrels, the premier vessels for aging wine and spirits around the world.

In the company’s Napa-based laboratory, Llodra began developing products that could be used to flavor and finish wines, like using extracts from oak to make tannins to add to wine. He also experimented with how heat levels inside a barrel during toasting could affect the final product.

UC Davis Professor David Block, a mentor and colleague, said Llodra has been a “driving force” in changing the way people use oak in the wine industry. The advancements Llodra championed allow people to use oak like a “dependable spice rack” to augment and complement the flavors in wine, he explained.

“It allowed his company to use barrels and oak alternatives to dial in the flavors in a way that could be reproduced and marketed to winemakers,” said Block, the Ernest Gallo Endowed Chair in Viticulture and Enology. “Before this standardization, it was really hit or miss.”

Llodra honed some of his skills under Professor Emeritus Ann C. Noble, a sensory chemist who developed the wine aroma wheel, which lists descriptions such as fruity, earthy and spicy to describe the flavor profile of wine. Their time together influenced his research with oak during his Ph.D. program, and she played a key role in his decision to return to UC Davis for a doctorate degree with Professor Hildegarde Heymann.

“Here I am today, in my dream job with my Ph.D. because they believed in me and helped me find my path,” he said.
Over the years, Llodra has been invited to assist with experiments and share his expertise as a guest lecturer in undergraduate and graduate level courses, something he said he is always happy to do.

“David is one of our go-to people when it comes to teaching our students — or the industry through UC extension programs — because he’s just so knowledgeable about oak and the science behind winemaking,” Block said.

‘Blessed’ to give back

In addition to managing donations of French and American oak barrels to the Viticulture and Enology Department for student projects and experiments, Llodra played a key role in his employer’s decision to give funds to build the “Cooperages 1912 Napa” wine barrel room at the UC Davis Teaching and Research Winery.

“My mentors have been key people in my life to get me to where I am right now, and I feel blessed to have the opportunities through the company I work for to give back to UC Davis,” Llodra said.

The barrel room, opened in 2010, is located within the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, the world’s first LEED Platinum winery and the most water-efficient winery in the world.

Block said having a dedicated space for barrels has been “game changing” because it offers unique learning opportunities for students.

“It’s allowed us to create a whole new aspect of our research and teaching program,” he said.

Through his role at the Independent Stave Company, Llodra has cultivated partnerships with winemakers and distilleries around the world over the past 20 years.

The family-owned organization has been making oak products for the wine and spirits industry for more than 100 years, and today reaches customers in more than 40 countries.

Their Napa-based laboratory, which Llodra helped develop, houses state-of-the-art equipment that allow him to analyze oak aromatics and oak tannins, as well as study the color and phenols in wine. He is currently researching an eco-friendly alternative to toasting barrels using infrared heat instead of wood burning fires.

“It’s very exciting to explore innovative and sustainable ways to advance the industry,” Llodra said.

Love for life’s simple pleasures

David poses in winter wear with his family outdoors.
David Llodra (top right) with his family. Counter-clockwise from left: David’s wife, Katherine Llodra; daughter, Eden Llodra; son, Lucas Llodra; and daughter, Kate Llodra.

Llodra is very passionate about his work, but his family is the thing he loves most.

He is a devoted husband and proud father to three children, Eden, 23, Lucas, 21, and Kate, 18. His youngest daughter is a pilot who will be entering aviation school in the fall; his son is studying construction management at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; and his eldest daughter is an avid runner and musician with a degree in communications.

Their story began back in the summer of 1995, when Llodra first met his wife, Katherine, who was teaching English abroad in Spain. They were introduced through mutual friends while he was working as a buyer for a citrus company that stocked oranges for fresh juice machines across the country.

The pair became fast friends and shared an instant connection. After dating for a few years, they wed and moved to her hometown in Northern California so he could begin his undergraduate program at UC Davis. They’ve been happily married ever since.

In 2016, Llodra was diagnosed with leukemia, for which he is in treatment. He travels less for work these days and doesn’t visit campus quite as often, but he cherishes the quality time he gets to spend with his loved ones.

Some of Llodra’s favorite memories involve traveling with family and friends and tasting local wines paired with local dishes. When he visits Spain, he enjoys a light, zesty Albariño and can never pass up a traditional plate of paella, though his kids still say his recipe is the best.

“Our kids spent every summer in Spain, and together we did a lot of activities and took many trips,” he said. “Katherine and I tried to introduce our kids to everything we could because we wanted them to find their passions and embrace who they are. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

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