Last month, a Sacramento court handed down a ruling affirming the legal status of the California Grape Rootstock Improvement Commission and its right to assess vine nurseries a fee that supports research into vine rootstock improvement. Which may have prompted many wine lovers to ask, what the heck is a rootstock improvement commission?
Vine rootstocks have been a research topic since the latter half of the 19th century, when the vineyards of Europe were devastated by phylloxera, a pest that hitchhiked from America to the south of France in a shipment of grape vines. The louse attaches itself to vine roots, ultimately killing them. In order to save European grape varieties, growers grafted their vines on to American vine roots that had some resistance to the pest.
Since that time, planting noble grape varieties on heartier roots has become standard practice. And the search for a rootstock that is truly resistant to phylloxera has become the subject of much research.
For nearly 50 years, University of California viticulturist, Harold Olmo, devoted a portion of his time to breeding rootstocks to combat a host of pests threatening California's vines. His first focus was on breeding a rootstock that was resistant to Pierce’s disease. Olmo complained frequently that the lot of the vine breeder was a difficult one in that research took a very long time, often 15 years or more, to bear fruit.
Olmo retired in 1977, and his rootstock work was picked up in 1989 by geneticist M. Andrew Walker. To date, Walker has developed a series of rootstocks resistant to a range of nematodes (roundworms that can spread viruses), discovered a rootstock that protects the grafted vine from fan leaf virus (which allowed for planting hundreds of acres infested with fanleaf in Napa, Sonoma and San Joaquin counties) and developed the first genetic map of grape rootstocks, to name a few accomplishments.
So why the lawsuit? Walker’s work is supported by the California Grape Rootstock Improvement Commission and the American Vineyard Foundation. The commission is funded by an assessment on rootstock sold to customers. California nurseries currently pay $0.015 per unit for cuttings and rootstock.
John Duarte, president of Duarte Nursery, one of the state’s largest vine nurseries, filed the lawsuit in 2000. He argues that the program has spent millions of research dollars without producing true results for nurseries or growers. After the ruling, he said he plans to appeal to the State Supreme Court. The battle over roots continues.
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