In the mid-1860s, after countless centuries of bearing the fruit that would become wine, French grapevines began to wither and die in ever increasing numbers and no one knew why. It started in southeastern France, in the Rhone Valley, as Christy Campbell tells the tale in his masterful The Botanist and the Vintner
. Within 30 years the inexorable rolling disaster that was the phylloxera infestation had reached into every nook and cranny of France's wine making regions, destroying nearly all. Everywhere the wine grape grew--England, Spain, Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe, and even Australia--phylloxera appeared and took no prisoners. Except for American grape vines. The little bug didn't seem to have much taste for the skunky wines of native American grapes.
Christy Campbell, British journalist and, if The Botanist and the Vintner is any example, master storyteller, waltzes the reader into the middle of a fascinating tale of discovery and combat and never stops dancing. The book reads like a detective novel, a page-turner you can't put down. And it's about a bug, phylloxera, a root-sucking aphid that absolutely wiped clean the grand vineyards of France and thrived in defiance of both peasant remedy and all that "modern" science could bring to bear.
The modern science of the time, mind you, included debating Darwin's new theory of evolution. So it's really at the beginning of discovery and scientific technique. Despite a French government prize of 300,000 gold francs for a remedy, it took 30 years and more to pinpoint the reason for the vineyard die-off, and a practical way of defeating the organism. Grafting onto American rootstock a rootstock that was the initial cause of the disaster won the day though not the reward.
Campbell both begins and ends his tale in California's Napa Valley, where phylloxera once again raised its nasty little head toward the end of the 20th century, about 100 years after the struggle in France. It cost millions of dollars to bring the bug to bear. But this time part of the solution turned in a transgenic direction which is, of course, a threat with a completely different vintage. --Schuyler Ingle
From Publishers Weekly
In 1864, France's wine industry was in mid-boom and on the verge of facing a modern crisis: an ecological disaster brought on by global trade. Samples of American grapevines carried Phylloxera vastatrix
, a tiny aphid to which they were resistant, to France, whose vineyards were devastated by it. In this detailed, well-researched book, British journalist Campbell weaves the social and ecological strands of the upheaval together: its nearly unnoticeable beginnings, when vines in a single vineyard in the south of France began losing leaves in midsummer; the devastation of millions of acres of vineyards and with them the livelihood of small farmers; the search for the cause, full of mistakes and dead ends; the search for the cure, equally flub-filled and as often driven by superstition as empiricism; and, finally, the transatlantic solution. Even the taste of French wine was in danger, because the sturdy American vines produced appalling wine. Portraits of the researchers who carried the day, colorful quotes and occasional cliffhangers produce a story lively enough for amateur wine lovers and armchair historians. It's also a good summary for wine makers and enologists, with a clear discussion of the elaborate life cycle of the aphid, a fascinating look at the pride and prejudice that drove French wine makers and brief coverage of the Phylloxera
crisis in California during the 1990s. Illus.
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