Francis Crinella
UCI neuropsychologist Francis Crinella finds there's a science to making fine wine, like the pinot noir produced by Crinella Winery. Steve Zylius / University Communications

To his students and fellow faculty members at UC Irvine, Francis Crinella is the respected professor of pediatrics and psychiatry & human behavior who’s an expert in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and other developmental problems in children.

To parents who’ve taken their offspring to the UCI Child Development Center for ADHD assessment, he’s the calming neuropsychologist who can tell whether a youngster really has the disorder or is just a rambunctious “Dennis the Menace.”

Among wine lovers and foodies, Crinella is recognized for something else: his good taste.

To them, he’s the vineyard owner who has produced gold-medal sauvignon blanc. He’s the accomplished chef who still rolls pasta dough by hand the way his Italian grandmothers taught him and whose online cookbook of family recipes attracts as many visitors to the Crinella Winery website as the wine.

During a recent lunch at Onotria restaurant in Costa Mesa, Crinella assumes the roles of both university professor and sommelier, ordering not one but two bottles of wine that bear his family’s name and educating his guest on the finer points of a pinot.

“People don’t understand pinot. They want it to be a cabernet,” he says, swirling the cranberry-colored liquid in a glass.

“They pick the grapes when they’re overripe and let the wine ferment too long, so it’s too high in sugar and alcohol. California pinots are black and getting blacker. We like ours to be fruit-forward — clean and bright with a wonderful nose.”

Crinella spends one week a month in Northern California, where he and his sister, Ramona, own and run the Crinella Winery and two vineyards in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley as well as rice farms in the Sacramento Valley. The family has owned land in the region since 1944; Crinella’s father sold real estate and maintained a ranch but didn’t grow grapes.

“Back then there were only half a dozen wineries. Now there are several hundred,” he says. “The wine industry grew up around us.”

After inheriting the property, Crinella and his sister decided to plant vineyards in 1999. They opened the winery five years later. Today they produce 2,000 cases of wine annually and sell most of their grapes to other vintners.

“The grape fields are hand-tended. We’re out there chasing gophers and pulling the leaves off vines in the summer to make sure the fruit is exposed,” Crinella says.

The winery is best known for its sauvignon blanc; the 2006 vintage earned Double Gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition and an impressive 91 rating and editors’ choice recommendation from Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

“This type of sauvignon blanc has a more citrus, melon quality,” Crinella says. “It’s a beautifully fermented grape juice.”

Perhaps because wine-making is both art and science, he isn’t the only UCI professor who pursues it. Francisco Ayala, for instance, is an evolutionary geneticist and molecular biologist who owns vineyards in San Joaquin and Sacramento counties that supply major wineries with grapes.

Science, however, was the first love of both men. Crinella got his doctorate in neuropsychology and moved to Orange County in 1977, when then-Gov. Jerry Brown assigned him to direct Fairview State Hospital. At the same time, he was appointed to UCI’s School of Medicine.

Today he primarily studies toxins that affect memory, attention and learning, such as pesticides, manganese and lead. In a key 2002 study, Crinella showed that manganese in soy-based infant formula could impair babies’ brain development and cause ADHD.

He has written or co-authored four books, including the popular memory self-help book Brainfit, and published more than 60 scientific articles.

Crinella plans to continue his double life — conducting clinical research while tending his grapes in Sonoma.

“We’re Italian. The idea of selling anything — whether a rice farm or a vineyard — is not in our family genes,” he says. “We’ll hang onto the land no matter what.”