Throughout human history, wine, the fermented juice of the genus Vitus, has been many things to many people. From St. Peter's...
“The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World”
by Christy Campbell
Algonquin, 320 pp., $24.95
Throughout human history, wine, the fermented juice of the genus Vitus, has been many things to many people. From St. Peter’s Basilica to Skid Row, wine has been used to sanctify, celebrate and transform the human spirit and the experiences of everyday life. It would be hard to imagine the world without it.
Yet, as British author and journalist Christy Campbell describes in “The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World,” a late 19th-century scourge nearly wiped out all the grapes that produced the world’s finest wines.
It began with simple botanical curiosity. In the spring of 1862, a gift arrived from an American friend for Monsieur Borty, a wine merchant in the small French town of Roquemaure. It was a case containing several different varieties of rooted New York grapevines.
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The American plants flourished in M. Borty’s garden. Unfortunately, so did the North American aphids, soon to be named Phylloxera vastatrix or dry-leaf devastator, that had come along for the ride. The next summer at a small vineyard a few kilometers away, a cluster of vines began to die.
The author reads from “The Botanist and the Vintner” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle’s University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
Similar stories began to crop up elsewhere in France. The disease had begun its inexorable spread that would wipe out almost all the wine-producing vines of Europe by the end of the century. Yet the grapes that grew on those vines were preserved. That is the story Campbell weaves for wine-loving readers.
The title notwithstanding, the book is not the story of one botanist and one vintner. It is a complex true tale, with a large cast of scientists, vintners, merchants, peasants, politicians, profiteers and scoundrels competing for the readers’ attention.
If it has a central character, that would be botanist Jules-Émile Planchon, who by 1868 had established that the withering resulted from root damage by phylloxera imported from America.
Its themes are scientific, sociological, political and economic. Its central time span covers nearly 40 years. Its spotlight jumps from region to region in France and America.
Readers who prefer tightly woven stories will struggle with this book. It is full of loose ends and blind alleys. Campbell could have pruned the vines to reveal a clearer narrative thread, but he chose to present history with all its natural disorder. He wants readers to hack through confusing details, just as the people who lived through the times did.
Much of the complexity of the story is due to the aphid itself, which reproduces both sexually and parthenogenetically (from an unfertilized ovum), lives on the leaves or the roots of the plant and invades nearby vineyards by flying or hitching a ride on the wind. During a single growing season, the aphid gradually changes form and feeding habits so much that scientists did not immediately recognize it as the same species on opposite shores of the Atlantic.
North American grapes, having co-evolved with the aphid, withstood its attacks on the roots. The European plants died out. Planchon and others quickly realized that the only viable solution was grafting European vines onto American or hybrid rootstock, but they faced opposition at every turn.
Despite taste tests that proved otherwise, the growers feared the “foxiness” of American roots would compromise the delicate flavors of French grapes.
They were incredulous that the solution to a problem caused by bringing in American vines was to import more of them. It was an affront to France and French wines! But by the end of the century, the embattled industry was again flourishing in a fully “phylloxerated” France, thanks to wine from French grapes grafted onto American rootstock.
The story does not end then or there. Botanists, entomologists and vintners around the world remain on high alert for phylloxera outbreaks. And the mere mention of the aphid’s name still brings shudders and recrimination among them.
Physicist, book critic and children’s author Fred Bortz toasts the finest in science books at his Science Shelf Web site, www.scienceshelf.com.