The Botanist and the Vintner
The lush green leafed rows of vines of a vineyard don’t call to mind a battlefield but in the late 19th century the vineyards of France were made up of “frail wooden frigates, lightly armored cruisers and unsinkable battleships”. This is a colorful and very telling description by Christy Campbell in his book The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved For The World as he illustrates the scale of resistance of various varieties and species of vine against the scourge of phylloxera. Vitis vinifera which had provided the grapes for the great wines of France were frailty personified while Vitis rotundifolia, also known as Scuppernong in its native North America, was resistant to the little insect; and so it should be, it had grown up surrounded by the bug.
Phylloxera was introduced into France in the early 1860’s by vines from New York and had infested virtually the whole of France by the end of the century. The cure was to use rootstock resistant to the insect, but even here battle lines were drawn between the américainistes who advocated the use of the resistant American rootstocks and the sulfuristes who preferred insecticides. But first the cause of the malady that made vines wither and die in the early 1860s would have to be identified and studied. The 19th century struggle against phylloxera is masterfully told by Campbell as he weaves considerable scientific detail into a story coupled with personal accounts of a number of the major players, all against a backdrop of French politics.
The lists of practical remedies that were proposed for the 30,000 franc prize offered by the French Imperial Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce border on the ridiculous; marching bands to drum the aphid out of its root loving existence. However the most remarkable facet of the story is the considerable insight of individuals such as the Montpellier botanist Jules-Émile Planchon and Charles Valentine Riley an English-born entomologist from Missouri in realizing that the aphid was responsible for the disease and that it had come from America. And then there were the struggles faced in convincing vineyard owners to destroy their vines. Why destroy the vines when almost everyone seemed to have a concoction that would kill the pest? Besides there was money to be made in sulphur.
The Botanist and the Vintner is a compelling story and should find a place on the book shelves of all serious lovers of the vine and wine.
The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved For The World by Christy Campbell (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005, 320 pages, $24.95USD, Hardcover).
Disclosure: A complimentary copy of the book was supplied to me by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.