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How the World's Vineyards Were Saved

The Botanist and the Vintner provides a fascinating look at wine's greatest crisis

Kim Marcus
Posted: March 29, 2005

The biological costs of the European conquest of the New World are well-known, the most devastating of them being diseases such as small pox, tuberculosis and malaria, which decimated the defenseless native populations. Phylloxera represents one of the few instances where the New World wreaked devastation on the Old, though in a much different context.

Phylloxera vastatrix, known to modern science as Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, was brought to Europe on the roots of native American grapevines. A tiny aphid that is responsible for killing vulnerable vines by feeding on their roots, it multiplied into a plague that devastated the vineyards of France, and then most of the rest of the winemaking world, in the mid- to late-19th century.

The Botanist and the Vintner--How Wine Was Saved for the World, by British writer and journalist Chris Campbell (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), recounts the onslaught of phylloxera and how vintners responded. This generally well-written and laboriously researched book also shows the durability of human folly, how far science has advanced, and how much still needs to be done. It serves as a fascinating case study of how an ecological disaster was successfully addressed by the nascent industrial/scientific complex of the European West, with consequences that echo to this day.

Campbell's book falls into that category of nonfiction that seems inspired by the strain of forensic voyeurism running through our culture today. From works such as Into Thin Air, The Perfect Storm and even the television series CSI, the trend is to find a disaster whose outcome is already known and puzzle together the details that led to that outcome. Fortunately, Campbell can rely on the fact that all is not lost, and mostly regained, by the end of his book.

Phylloxera is native to the New World (it may have originally evolved in the tropical Caribbean or South America) and the native American vines developed resistance through mutation. Their genetic diversity also provided protection. But the European varieties had never been exposed to phylloxera, and had no defenses. Also, as Campbell astutely points out, all the noble European grapevines are clones of one species--Vitis vinifera. The work of the monks in the Middle Ages, and the Romans and Greeks before them, produced grapes with many flavors and nuances, but their genetic uniformity, and their monoculture, renders them vulnerable to devastating infestations and diseases.

Campbell is dogged in his pursuit of the bug's first contacts in Europe. From the outliers of infestation in the greenhouses of amateur horticulturists in England and Ireland, he zeroes in on the village of Roquemaure in the Southern Rhône just north of Avignon; a batch of American vines is shipped to a local vigneron in 1862, and by 1864 the surrounding native vines have begun to wither. From there the infestation spreads, enveloping most of France by 1890, then traveling throughout Europe and as far as Australia. California, which had its own thriving wine industry based on European noble varieties, is temporarily spared due to the isolation afforded by the Sierra Nevada, though it is eventually devastated as well.

For so small an insect, phylloxera has an amazing natural history and a complex reproductive life, which goes along way to understanding why it was so virulent in the Old World. Campbell explains these aspects of phylloxera comprehensively, which is both blessing and curse. To keep the book focused, Campbell examines the efforts of French botanist Jules-Emile Planchon to convince French vintners, government authorities and the scientific establishment that the malady was of New World origin--and that the New World would hold the means by which to defeat it.

Campbell's book is most fascinating at the beginning, when he traces the outbreak of the infestation, and at the end, when he gazes into the crystal ball and touches on the issues that are critical to the continued prosperity of the world's vineyards. The intervening portions of the book are interesting as well, but be warned that they involve an extended exposition on the intricacies of early Third Republic politics. The list of characters is almost Dostoevskian in its length and complexity.

Then there's the natural history of the insect itself. French entomologists and botanists (and some of their American allies) were sure that they could defeat it by interrupting the life cycle: thus the search for the mysterious winter egg, its winged forms, fundatrix females, crawlers and sexual potent males. Unfortunately, they might as well have spent their time banging their heads against the wall (as many of them probably did) because the vast majority of phylloxera reproduce asexually, at a logarithmic rate, underground.

And it was from underground that the solution would emerge: only by grafting native American rootstocks onto European varieties could the vineyards of the Old World be reconstituted. Yet it took more than two decades for grafting to take root from the first experiments to widespread plantings. The prevailing orthodoxy for much of the period was to battle phylloxera with expensive insecticides; some resorted to more desperate measures such as flooding the vineyards. In addition, the importation of American vines was prohibited in many locales due to their reputation for being contaminated. The law of unintended consequences is a constant in the course of phylloxera's spread.

Grafting faced its own hurdles: finding the right rootstock that would thrive in the limestone-rich soils of many of the top French winegrowing regions proved especially vexing. Eventually, the right combination was found by hybridizing a wild grape of Texas called Vitis berlandieri, which also grew on limestone soils.

Yet a hybrid would also lead to California's second phylloxera downfall.

In 1983, I was just a few years out of college and was working as a reporter at a small-town Napa Valley weekly called the St. Helena Star. A call came in about grapevines that were mysteriously dying just south of the city near Zinfandel Lane. It wasn't supposed to happen again, not phylloxera. But as I talked to researchers, farm extension advisors and academics over the next year or so, the prognosis was dismal and fairly straightforward. Phylloxera had apparently adapted. The new biotype of phylloxera would radiate out at a geometric rate from the vineyard to infest all vulnerable vines of Napa Valley, Sonoma County and beyond. It was only a matter of time.

The problem was a highly productive rootstock called AxR1. It had been recommended by the grapevine researchers at the University of California, Davis, for the fecundity of the vines planted on it. Unfortunately, its parentage in the end doomed it as well, because it is partly vinifera. AxR1 is a cross between the French Aramon vine and the native American Rupestris. While phylloxera did not feed on it voraciously at first, AxR1 became so widely planted that genetic mutation of the bug was all but inevitable. Susceptible California vineyards (not all were planted to AxR1) had to be uprooted and replanted at a cost of well over $1 billion.

The story of phylloxera is not over, and the bug will present challenges again to the world's vintners. Campbell writes that there have been laboratory experiments indicating that even berlandieri rootstocks may now be susceptible to phylloxera. He cites genetic engineering as a promising research direction for producing the next generation of phylloxera-resistant rootstocks, perhaps even delivering an own-rooted and resistant Vitis vinifera. That could spell a new quality revolution in world wine production, given that own-rooted vines are often cited as providing deeper and more long-lived flavors. As for the vines themselves, grafted vines have a shorter productive life than ungrafted ones.

Once again, however, the world of science and politics seems destined to collide. California's Mendocino County has already passed a local ordinance outlawing the planting of transgenic crops. There are moves afoot in other winegrowing regions to outlaw the planting of genetically modified grapevines. Phylloxera is not the only problem facing Vitis vinifera--it is prone to many other diseases that can require expensive solutions such as the use of chemicals or even replanting. In the end, the story of the The Botanist and The Vintner is rooted in the story of one tenacious aphid and Vitis vinifera's weakness in the face of its depredations. If you want reference as to how we got where we are, Campbell's book is a must-read, for academic and layman alike.

The Botanist and the Vintner--How Wine Was Saved for the World, by Christy Campbell (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; 320 pages; $24.95 hardcover)

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