~I’ve been told that Texas has the highest number of separate grape vine species (not the highest number of grape vines) in the United States.
~Yeah, yeah, I’m a fountain of information, but what does this have to do with California and Europe? Bear with me. First let me tell you a story.
~Recently, while standing in the lobby of a wine and culinary center at which I taught wine classes, I engaged in conversation with a woman who was waiting in line for her cooking class to begin. When she discovered that I taught classes she began to tell me about a wine tour guide in California who told her group how California vines saved the European wine industry. The guide knew that her group was from New York so he explained how the event spurred one of those Europeans to come to New York to save our wine industry.
~Astonished, I asked the woman to explain. She said that in the nineteenth century European vineyards were hit with a major vine disease. Well, she got that right.
The rest of the story was a wonderful flight of fantasy that included the California wine industry philanthropically sending vines and experts to replant and save the Europeans in the nineteenth century. One particular European was so impressed by the Californians that he joined them when they returned to America, winding up in New York where he saved the local wine industry.
~I can only imagine how many passes of “telephone” that story has gone through.
Back to Texas
~The fellow likely responsible for the vast variety of grape varieties that exist in Texas was Thomas V. Munson. This major grape vine horticulturist lived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He tinkered and experimented with vines at his nursery in Denison, Texas, and I am told that his work left behind 300 grape varieties in the state. Munson’s viticultural work attracted attention both here and abroad.
~In fact, a lot of grape vine experimenting went on between North America and Europe. After the American wine industry began to make itself known in the middle of the nineteenth century, experiments heated up, and while a great deal was being learned, a great deal remained unknown, especially about vine diseases.
~Why do you think that when you re-enter the United States after a trip abroad customs wants to know if you are carrying any plants with you into the country?
~In the nineteenth century they didn’t ask that question when boats docked and delivered foreigners. You would think that after centuries of exploration across continents, humans would have known by then that you can’t bring plants from one continent to another, stick them in the ground and then wait for them to grow and give you what you want. What you often get is disease, and that is exactly what happened in Europe after experimenting with North American grape vines.
~Americans had similar experiences with European vine transplants in the South, Midwest and East, but not so much bad experience in the Southwest or the West Coast, where the vines managed to root and survive. They did not know it then, but the European vine success in the West was related to the fact that there were no indigenous vines.
~Back East, and in the South, where there were indigenous vines, the European vines that were brought in mostly succumbed; before they died a few of them romped in the fields with native grapevines; their offspring were often quite healthy and promising. One of them, Catawba, became the leading American wine grape in the middle of the nineteenth century. Catawba was even planted in California and for a while was used to produce commercial wine in Anaheim.
Enter the Disease
~We call it powdery mildew; they named it Oidium Tuckeri when it hit Europe in 1850. This fungus kills vines. A British fellow named Berkeley suspected that the disease had been introduced by transport of American vines. He probably was learning about the sub species difference between European and American vines. Eventually, it was discovered that sulfur spray kept powdery mildew under control—didn’t cure it. Some Europeans were not pleased. They began to wonder why they ever brought vines in from America. One wine industry—at Madeira—lost a majority of its vines.
With powdery mildew behind them, the French experienced a series of fantastic vintages but at the beginning of the boon, 1863, a few vineyards in the Rhone district displayed odd shriveling up behavior, and then they died. Soon, a few more vineyards, and then some more, until the French realized they had a major disaster on their hands.
~After a number of attempts to control the new disease, a scientist named Planchon figured out that the cause was a root louse. In America Munson had discovered the same root louse. The two scientists had independently discovered what was happening in Europe—in America the native vines are resistant to the root louse, but when the louse was introduced into European vineyards by transplants of American vines, the European vines showed that they were not resistant.
~While the French fought over what to do about the root louse problem, the disease, now named Phylloxera Vastatrix (a Greek-Latin construction that literally means “shriveling devastator”) marched across French borders into most of Europe and even as far as Australia and back to the United States, to California. Wait a minute. California? Didn’t I just say that the root louse lives on American vines without seemingly causing a problem? Well, with the exception of that Catawba at Anaheim, the vines in California mainly came from Europe. That Catawba, and a few other vines brought in from the Midwest, must have spread that little louse through California vineyards.
Remember what happened to Madeira during the powdery mildew disease? After phylloxera, Madeira was down to about 10% of its vineyards and its wine industry remains smaller than it once was.
~Unfortunately, Planchon offered no cure for phylloxera—Munson seemingly did. He is believed to have figured out that by grafting European vines onto American rootstock they could create root louse resistant vines in Europe. That is what they did, and that is what they still do in order to propagate the European vines globally. (Everyone wants the European vine sub species because everyone in the wine business who counts agrees that its wines are the classiest.)
~Munson organized selection and shipment of rootstock to Europe. His task was to carefully select so that he did not send any vines that had European blood in their line, such as Catawba. Most true native vines were in the South, and parts of the Northeast and the Midwest, plus in Canada. Munson gathered those vines, selected and classified them in Texas, and sent them across the seas. Seems he might have kept one of each for himself…
~In 1934 Charles Fournier left the Champagne region of France, where he produced wine at Veuve-Cliquot. His destination was Keuka Lake and the Urbana Wine Company (later changed to Gold Seal) in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
~One of the results of the phylloxera disease and its fix was a burgeoning new grape vine hybrid species of French and American vine crossings. A hybrid cross is not the same as a rootstock graft: the former creates a new species from crossings of two or more sub species; the latter maintains the vine species that grows above the ground.
~At Gold Seal Fournier produced the first French-American hybrid sparkling wines and to great success. His Gold Seal wine won an award in California, beating out local sparkling wines and causing the Californians to bar future out-of-state entries into the competition. Fournier knew that he would not get the wine world’s attention unless he could produce sparkling wine from European grapes, but no one had figured out how to grow them in the erratic Finger Lakes climate.
The Russians Are Coming!
~Fournier had been at Gold Seal for more than twenty years when an irascible Russian immigrant arrived on Keuka Lake. Stubborn but oh so right, Konstantin Frank went up against Cornell University’s Agricultural Station when he claimed that he could successfully grow European grape vines in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The academics had a comfortable arrangement with the big wine and juice industry in New York; it essentially meant that the professors researched only the sub species of vines that the big producers needed growers to provide, and that was the so-called native varieties (many of the grape varieties were actually cross breeds). The official line was that those vines could withstand the erratic temperature swings of the region. In return, the producers funded academic research.
~Konstantin Frank produced grape crops in Ukraine, at Odessa. He knew that proper vine selection could get the European species to survive cold, erratic climates. But he was up against entrenched academics, a big wine industry, and a bunch of grape growers who were making a good living doing what they were told to do, and he had to fight them in broken English.
Frank knew how to clone vines to select adaptive qualities that would allow them to survive in harsh environments. Fournier recognized a chance and so he persuaded Gold Seal’s owners to hire Frank to develop the clones on Keuka Lake. Frank did and by 1962 Gold Seal released a couple of wines that became the first successful commercial release from European vines in New York State.
~Frank went on to establish a rootstock nursery and to sell his wares across the nation. But in California he once again came up against academe, this time the University of California at Davis, the country’s premier wine college. Frank claimed that he had developed truly root louse resistant rootstock for the European vines. At the time, the California wine industry was poised to make its successful splash in the global wine world. Frank warned that the rootstock Davis was recommending for the California vineyard expansion had European blood and would prove a mistake.
~Konstantin Frank lived just long enough to see his work in New York start a wine revolution and to see Cornell’s researchers finally get on board. He was not around, however, when the phylloxera root louse that he warned UC Davis about brought down vast California vineyard plots in the 1990s.
~I find the real story more fascinating than the one the woman told me. I also find it offensive when a person, a group, or an industry makes baseless claims as promotion. I sincerely hope that the tour guide in California who recounted the flight of fantasy to that woman and her group did so without the knowledge of his employer—come to think of it, the employer really ought to give guides the real story.
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December 2006. All Rights Reserved.