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The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World Hardcover – March 25, 2005

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; First Edition edition (March 25, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 156512460X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565124608
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.2 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,721,700 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Tony Purmal on March 10, 2006
Format: Hardcover
When I got this book I looked forward to an exciting, intriguing story based on the reviews I'd read. Unfortunately what I found was an unimpressive, somewhat disorganized telling of a great story. I found the writing to be rather boring and uninspired. The organization of the story was disappointing and I felt that the characters could have been more fully developed.

It would have been nice if the publishers had seen fit to place the photographs and drawings in the book accompanying the text. It also would have been nice to have had more maps in the book showing the spread of the phylloxera.

I love books on science and I love books on wine, so it isn't as if I was a mystery fan who was sucked into reading this book based on the hype. I was disappointed in the way the story was told, the way the information was organized and the lack of accompanying material to bring it all together. I give the book a thumbs up for the information in it and a thumbs down for the way it was written and presented.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Legendary French wines were almost wiped out when the vines that produced their grapes withered in the nineteenth century. The problem was one that has become familiar; our capacity to ship species from one continent to another has meant that we can have much more variety in our plants and animals, but it also endangers the homebodies that have to meet the newcomers. In _The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World_ (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), Christy Campbell writes that in the 1840s, trade in grape vines proceeded with "no barriers, no inspectorate, no concept of biological quarantine." The result was that tiny aphids with an extraordinary life cycle made their entry from America into France, and found the sap of the French grape vines exactly to their liking. Campbell has told the story of this disaster much like a mystery, and indeed, the vintners who saw their vines rapidly wither had no idea what was happening. A voracious caterpillar had threatened their plants two decades before, and a fungus had come shortly afterwards, but no one had seen a pattern of vine death like this one, with the leaves rapidly drying and curling up. There were only guesses about what was going on; too much rain, smoke in the air or iron in the soil from locomotives, and even emanations from telegraph lines were held to be responsible. Perhaps it was as simple as soil erosion or bad weather. No one knew.

The problem was an aphid usually called phylloxera. It took a long time to finger this particular culprit for many reasons, among which was that the tiny insect was not found on the dead vines. The simple explanation was that the aphids sucked all the sap they could out of the roots of the plant, and with nothing further to eat, moved on.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By charles falk VINE VOICE on September 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a marvelous book that will appeal equally to wine buffs, history buffs, science buffs, and the general reader. It is constructed like a mystery story (replete with detectives, victims, and villains) about the search for the cause and cure for a grapevine malady that began decimating European vineyards in the 1860s. Don't be put off by the inept title on the American edition.

Christy Campbell turns the Byzantine life cycle of Phylloxera vastatrix into a plot device to be unraveled by doughty scientific sleuths on both sides of the Atlantic. He describes the tragic effect of the plague on peasant vignerons of the Midi, where it first appeared, and the resulting political fallout. Bizarre remedies and inventions offered to cope with this root aphid provide comic relief. Campbell even includes short summaries of the afterlives of his chief protagonists. The book has excellent maps and a detailed timeline to help the reader keep track of the sequence of events.

Campbell is neither a wine writer nor an enthusiast, but rather the defense correspondent for the British Sunday Telegraph. His two previous books dealt with Victorian political intrigues. Nevertheless, his meticulous research in French archives has unearthed information that will be new even to those who think they are well informed about Phylloxera.

The weakest part of the book is its final chapter, a hodgepodge dealing with the new outbreak of Phylloxera in California beginning in the 1980's and other recent developments. After the thorough way Campbell dealt with earlier events, its brevity is disappointing. He is much more lenient with the mandarins of UC Davis than with the scientific bureaucrats of 19th century France.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Reader from Yellow River on December 31, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Grape vines have been around for a long time. Charles Darwin suggested all grapes were descended from grapes now growing wild in western Asia. From Asia, these wild grapes were carried into Europe and North Africa by the ancient Phoenicians and Romans. But the Asian grapes had actually been originally brought there from Italy. And the Italian grapes had actually been originally brought to Italy from southern France, where the oldest grape fossils have been found. So French grapes have always been influential grapes!

But North America has long been known for grapes too. In fact, Scandinavians of the eleventh century under Leif Ericsson called the continent Vinland, because of all the wild grapes. Spanish explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries brought European vines with them. The vines did well with the first Spanish settlements of California. But in the rest of North America, the European vines died within a few years of being planted.

So winegrowers turned native, wild grapes into wine-yielders. These wild grapes got the attention of the wine world, because of their "robust" temperament. But they were also criticized for their "foxy," "musky," or "raspberry" taste.

Nevertheless, Frenchmen began importing sample American grape vines in the early 19th century, and even more so in the 1860s. For the first plague ran its course in the 1840s and 1850s. A fungal parasite called oidium went hog wild on southern European vines. Powdered sulphur fungicide saved French wine production from collapse. It was noted at the time that imported American vines successfully stood up against oidium.

Then, in the 1860s, vines started dying in England and Ireland. Vines were uprooted. Yellow-orange bugs were found all over them.
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