Sunday, March 25, 2001 By KEVIN COURTNEY Register Staff Writer NAPA Many a winemaker has won a blue ribbon. But only one, Daniel McFadden, has a newly minted Nobel Prize. McFadden, 63, took leave of his two-acre vineyard on Soda Canyon Road in December to travel to Stockholm to receive the 2000 Nobel Prize for economics. A man of modest demeanor, McFadden lit up the economics world in the 1970s with his trailblazing statistical approaches for analyzing how people make everyday decisions. How do consumers pick one car over another or factor in price when deciding on a breakfast cereal? McFadden's breakthrough work with statistics helps sort through reams of data to provide answers. His contribution to economics is eminently useful to corporations and governments, but does nothing to help him solve a pressing problem -- "recurring bunch rot in his vineyard," McFadden said during a recent interview and tour of his farm. McFadden divides his time between UC-Berkeley, where he is an economics professor, and his historic "ghost" winery property in Soda Canyon where he harvest figs for high end restaurants such as Chez Panisse and Tra Vigne, squeezes olive oil from century-old trees and tends cows and chickens. Come autumn, he struggles to make the perfect zinfandel. The country life nicely complements his academic career, said McFadden, originally a North Carolina farm boy. His farm chores on weekends clear his mind for creative thinking. "I can work in the vineyard and on my research problems at the same time," said McFadden, who is director of Berkeley's Econometrics Laboratory where vast amounts of consumer data are crunched for a host of research projects. McFadden is a soft-spoken, small-framed man with a cropped white beard. When he kicks around his 30-acre spread, he looks every inch a farmer, not an august Nobel laureate. Winning the $915,000 prize, which he shared with an economist at the University of Chicago, was a surprise, although people had told him he was on "the list." I fix problems," he said of his statistical solutions. "Normally they give Nobel Prizes to grand themes." The McFaddens are using the prize money to create a charitable trust that will fund projects to improve public education. "I'm a great believer in public education. I'd like to support it," he said. His money will go to school districts with more problems than Napa's. "I think the highest priorities are probably in a place like Oakland," he said. Winning a Nobel is a "bigger deal than I realized," McFadden said. He had won scores of academic honors over the years without receiving media attention. Then came the October phone call at 2:30 in the morning telling him he had won a trip to Stockholm. McFadden and his wife Beverlee made a family celebration out of the Nobel festivities. They took their three adult children and three grandchildren. On their way to Sweden, the McFaddens were hosted at the White House by President Clinton and dined with Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Supreme Court Justices Ruth Ginsberg and Sandra Day O'Connor. In Stockholm, they attended a dinner party at the Royal Palace, where Daniel shared a bottle of his '96 cabernet sauvignon with the king. He got to make a speech before a TV audience of 13 million. Upon his return, life got stranger yet. The international news media began calling. Reporters wanted his opinion on any subject even remotely connected to economics. "I'm asked a lot more questions about things I don't know anything about than I used to," he said. Offers to speak at academic conferences poured in. Most involved topics beyond his specialty. In four months, McFadden has turned down speaking engagements in Belgium, the Netherlands, China, Peru and Mexico, where he was asked to talk about economic development in Latin America. His wife has helped keep him focused, he said. When an invitation arrives, she asks, whether it will further his research goals? "If you're not careful, the Nobel Prize is a career-ender," he said. "If I allowed myself to slip into it, I'd spend all my time going around cutting ribbons." "I have a lot of research going on. I'm trying to stick with it." McFadden hasn't been a total media recluse. He has written an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal on California's energy crisis and signed a manifesto with other academics calling for higher energy prices. "Raising prices is the best way to motivate consumers to conserve energy, which will ultimately lower prices by creating a surplus of gas and electricity," he said. "It's a harsh medicine," he acknowledged. "It sticks it to consumers, but it's up to them to keep prices under control." "They don't call economics the dismal science for nothing," he said. "Those are the facts of life." McFadden's neighbors in Soda Canyon know him not as a professor who makes pronouncements on national issues, but as a man with a yearning to make ever better wine. Growing grapes wasn't the idea when his wife, a photographer, stumbled upon the Soda Canyon property in 1992. They simply wanted a country get-away. Banchero Vineyard had begun winemaking there in 1880, but by 1992 all that was left of the original operation was the stone base of the wine cellar. The vineyards had long since disappeared. That was fine with McFadden. It was enough that the operation had cows and chickens and some ancient olive trees. "A little working farm," as he put it. Two years later, a new friend at Atlas Peak Vineyards discovered a row of over-ripe cabernet sauvignon and merlot fruit that had been missed at picking. Did he want it? "I didn't know anything about it. I was sort of thrown off the dock," said McFadden, who scrambled to buy and learn the winemaking basics. "It turned out to be a marvelous wine. It made a luscious, fruity, meaty wine," said McFadden, who soon signed up for winemaking courses with his wife at UC-Davis. He planted 3,500 vines on two acres, most of it in cabernet sauvignon which he sells to Dave Cronin at Blackford Wines. He makes a barrel or two for family use, lavishing extra care on his zinfandel. Ever the academic, McFadden is one of the organizers of this year's annual meeting of the Vineyard Data Classification Society, an international group that focuses on the quantitative and analytic study of vineyard and wine technologies. McFadden has occasionally tried to marry his economic research with his new interest in wine, with less than spectacular results. His statistical tool, discrete choice analysis, showed how a restaurant could sell more high-profit wine, he said. The trick is to charge the same price as a wine of inferior reputation and lower profit margin. Seeing the two choices next to each other on a wine list, diners will feel compelled to buy the wine with the greater profit, he said. When McFadden told this to a friend in the restaurant business, "He said, 'Tell me something I don't know.'" "It's all a bit much," said McFadden of his academic responsibilities, his farm chores, his wine love and now the Nobel hoopla. "It's hard to get it all done. And that was before the Nobel business. Now I'm really in the soup," he said. Come crush, McFadden does get a hand from academia. He imports graduate students and fellow professors who think harvesting grapes is romantic labor. McFadden insists he has no plans to retire from Berkeley. "I'm 63 and enjoying what I do," he said. Yet, the rural life has its allure, especially in spring when the landscape is erupting with sweet blossoms and new life. McFadden looked contentedly at his beloved farm before preparing to make the long drive back to campus. "If I didn't teach, I could be farming, right?"