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The Botanist and the Vintner

(article, Caroline Cummins)

British journalist Christy Campbell specializes in the obscurer corners of 19th-century history (his previous books have focused on an Irish assassination plot and an Indian maharajah), so it's no surprise that his latest, The Botanist and the Vintner, is devoted to the French and American efforts to combat phylloxera in the late 1800s. 

Phylloxera, as most modern-day winedrinkers know, afflicted French grapevines en masse in the 1860s, and was only defeated by the introduction of tough American grapevines as rootstock for the feebler French varieties. Beyond that, the conventional wisdom tends to go fuzzy: Is phylloxera a disease? An insect? A fungus? Where did it come from? How did the American vines save the day? Is it still with us?

Campbell, a dogged researcher, does an excellent job of explaining the origins, life cycle, and devastating efficiency of phylloxera (which is a type of aphid, not a disease or fungus). Phylloxera is native to North America, and arrived in France in the mid-19th century via grapevines imported from the States as botanical curiosities. The American vines had, for the most part, co-evolved with the parasitical insect and were resistant to it; the European vines were utterly vulnerable, and succumbed by the hectare.

Throughout the last few decades of the 19th century, the French alternately panicked, researched, bickered, offered rewards (still unclaimed today), and tried all manner of solutions to the problem, including laboriously flooding their vineyards, injecting expensive insecticides, transplanting their vines to sandy soil, or, as a last resort, insisting that the "foxy-tasting" wine derived from American grapes was palatable. 

Since the aphid in its European habitat preferred living underground, a few desperate grape-growers tried grafting European vines onto American rootstock. This, after much debate and even rioting, turned out to be the salvation of the European winemaking tradition.

Campbell also looks briefly at the modern Californian wine industry, which planted an American-European hybrid rootstock that, by the 1980s, proved vulnerable to phylloxera. Contemporary researchers have tried to crush the insect via transgenic experimentation, such as snowdrop genes in grape stock; Campbell describes their efforts but rejects the idea that the problem can be solved in the lab.

Despite the title of The Botanist and the Vintner, no single botanist or vintner leaps into a main role; Campbell profiles several distinguished scientists and grape-growers, but the book lacks a dominant character. The real star of Campbell's story is the aphid itself, which, like Campbell's writing, is dry, determined, and, ultimately, a bit dull.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate.


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