A Gift From A Steamship, or, Why We Can Still Get Good Wine From Europe

The southern Rhone Valley in 1866 France was a wine maker’s heaven. A warm Mediterranean climate offered warm winters and plenty of sunshine, with just enough rain to keep the vines happy. Heaven, that is, until death struck. 13 acres of vines mysteriously died, without leaving a suicide note or cause-of-death notice or anything. In the middle of a good weather year, the leaves shriveled up, the grapes turned into bitter raisins, and the whole vine died quickly.

Death spread quickly, extending out in all directions from the original field. The mysterious disease killed off large swaths of vinyards who had withstood pests and bad weather for hundreds of years already, only to be laid low by the newcomer. By July 1868 winemakers were so worried that a special council was appointed to determine the cause of all this death.

image“There was no rot… but suddenly under the magnifying lens of the instrument appeared an insect, a plant louse of yellowish color, tight on the wood, sucking the sap,” wrote Jules-Émile Planchon, a professor of botany and pharmacy at the nearby university in Montpellier and one of the council members. “It is not one, it is not ten, but hundreds, thousands of lice… They are everywhere.” A suspect had been found.

But not all wine growers of the region were convinced that this was the culprit. Science and medicine were rapidly changing in the late 1800s; ideas about what caused disease were changing particularly rapidly. One camp believed that disease was caused by some sort of inbalance within the body- the same type of thinking that prompted many generations of doctors to attach blood-sucking leeches to their patients, trying to suck out the bad humors. The other camp believed that disease believed could be caused by an outside agent, and was convinced that this yellow louse was destroying France’s vineyards.

This philosophy of science issue bogged down wine growers, scientists, and authories in debate for years, slowing down the practical, in-the-field response to the blight. But whatever it was, it was taking over quickly; over the next several years, nearly all of Europe’s wine growing regions were ravaged.

While this debate was consuming the French wine world, Planchon, one of the first investigators of the louse, stepped ahead of his colleagues and started tackling the practical questions. ‘Where did it come from? Had it been described? What were its closest relatives?’ he wondered in 1872.

His investigations led him to a close relative in Phylloxera quercus, a very similar little louse that had been found in oak trees in North America and England. But while related, that wasn’t it exactly. Soon after Planchon published his findings, he got a letter of help from an ocean away. Charles V. Reily wrote to Planchon all the way from Missouri, where he was the state entomologist and author of exhaustive annual guides to the insect speicies of the state, which included plenty of practical knowledge and humor as well as academic taxonomy. Reily was convinced that Planchon’s Phylloxera species was the same creature as one another American entomologist had described earlier, called Pembigus. But the American version was usually found in galls on the leaves. Planchon was not hopeful they would turn out to be the same creature.

Reily suggested he have a look at the leaves of his infected vines anyway. A few days later, a dubious Planchon headed outside to check. There they were, the culprit exactly as the American had described them- the same pest as Planchon had found on the roots but in a different stage of its lifecycle. From there, it was easy to find out the source of the invasion.

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A previous infection, by powdery mildew, had attacked European vines a few years before. Powdery mildew wasn’t nearly as big of a problem as Phylloxera was later was, but it was enough of a bother that when someone noticed that the few American varieties living in botanical gardens escaped the mildew epidemic, vinyard managers were intrigued. They imported a few hundred American vines over the next several years as they investigated wheather any of them might be disease resistant and produce good wine, a holy grail for wine makers. But the experimenters imported more than just possible holy grails.

But they also imported Phylloxera, a pest that American vines had evolved resistance to, but European vines had not. The American vines had arrived on new, fast steamships, bringing their cargo to a new continent fast enough to keep the Phylloxera pest alive during the journey. In a neat confirmation of this hypothesis, two significant collections of American grape varieties were located very close to the site of the original Phylloxera infection.

The culprit had been found, but that was not the last accidental invader that spread in vulnerable areas as transportation around the globe only got faster. It was only one of the first of many examples. A kaleidoscope of infestations are being dealt with today. For instance, Black and Norway rats stowed away on the first European ships to visit the Galapagos, which proved to be rat heaven. With food, space, and – the key – few predators, they feasted on the eggs and hatchlings of native species and depleted the plants key to feeding native species. Just like Phylloxera in grape vines, the Galapagos’ species had not evolved resistance or defenses against the millions and millions of rats, vermin that threatened to collapse the whole ecosystem. From infectious diseases in humans to plant diseases to animal invaders, foreign imports can be disastrous.

But the Phylloxera infestation did not end in too much of a disaster. Phylloxera was destroying vineyard upon vineyard, but you may have noticed that Europe still produces wine. That is thanks to nearly 30 years of all-out war against Phylloxera, especially in France. Vintners tried hundreds of defenses and solutions, from flooding their fields to planting only in sand, from shrimp boulllion to goat’s urine. But one of the best solutions came, again, from America.

This time vitners imported American vines for their Phylloxera-resistant roots. The branches of French varieties were grafted onto American rootstock, and replanted. The unthinkable disaster of complete wine industry collapse had been averted, and today almost all of the old, old vines in Europe are one variety on the top and another, disease-resistant one on the bottom.

Thus importing American grape vines both destroyed and saved the vineyards of Europe. Every few years after the Phylloxera problem seemed to be under control, a vintner would try to go back to the old ways, and the little yellow bug would rear its hungry head again. Inexplicably, a few little spots around Europe escaped the plague, only a few acres worth. Some wine snobs insist that the wine from these American-rootstock free vines produce better wine than any with the new, protective rootstocks, but Europe is still producing pretty good wine by most standards. The steamships and the supersonic jets are only binding diseparate ecosystems closer, and while we try to deal with today’s infestations, like the Galapagos rats, at least there’s still some good wine to drink.



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