Deep in the dark, chilled caves carved into the side of the Mayacamas Mountains can be found the greatest smell known to man. It’s complete, almost wholesome, an embodiment of sugar and earth. Though at the time it contains no trace of alcohol, the smell itself is intoxicating. It’s a scent that is known to a scant few, a fame not befitting its power. Only those privileged enough to work in the at once esoteric and familiar world of wine have had such a delightfully redolent experience.
The aroma is that which arises as new French oak barrels are filled with freshly-pressed Sauvignon Blanc grape juice. The juice, imbued with sugar that will become alcohol, smells slightly of spring, of a fragile freshness, almost golden-green in character. This is balanced by the must of the wood, the sturdy, toasted grains of Tronçais or Vosges once destined for the ships of Napoleon, now carved down, flamed and sculpted into this vessel for a far-more tender cargo. It’s one of the treasures of this world, a magic found at the intersection of the strong and the delicate, the ancient and the young, the raw and the refined. But there’s another aspect to the smell, a hidden one, that casts its elegance in a new, enduring light: it almost vanished from the earth.
There’s a certain romance to the world of wine; verdant rows of vines carved into hillsides, ancient family wineries owned for generations, a cosmopolitan flare that unites people the world over in the love of such a dynamic beverage. That love is reflected in the size of the industry. According to The Wine Institute, wine retail sales in the United States reached $55.8 billion in 2015, the largest year on record. Most of that came from California wine, which by itself represents 60% of the US market.
There’s a certain romance to the world of wine; verdant rows of vines carved into hillsides, ancient family wineries owned for generations, a cosmopolitan flare that unites people the world over in the love of such a dynamic beverage.
While California wine may make up the bulk of wine purchased in the US, fine wine is still distinctly French in character. The names of the grapes themselves – Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon – are French. When Spanish and French settlers came to America in the mid-1700s, they found that the grape species native to America (strains like Vitis labrusca or Vitis rotundifolia) made impuissant, flavorless wines. Drinking such poor wine was tantamount to blasphemy. To rectify the issue, they imported cuttings of Europe’s native vine, the venerated Vitis vinifera, parent of the wine varieties known best to consumers today.
Early American wine was inspired by religion. It was often sacramental, championed by Spanish missionaries (indeed, the first Vitis vinifera variety popularized in America was the Mission grape). It was not until the 1840s and the agricultural pioneering of Jean-Louis Vignes, an immigrant to the US from Bordeaux, that secular American wine began to take off. Growing up in one of the most storied and prestigious wine regions in the world gave Vignes a discerning palate. He judged the Mission wines unsatisfying, insipid, and so, with the enterprising spirit that permeated the early west, made the first American imports of now-common varietals, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, believing Americans would be enamored by high-quality wine. The gamble paid off. By 1850, Vignes was exporting his French-American wine all over the country.
The growth of the American wine industry brought about a renaissance of grape study. Researchers looked for ways to increase yields, cross-breeding new world and old world varietals in the hopes of finding some romantic match, some whole greater than the sum of the parts. European researchers (and vintners) became increasingly uneasy about the newfound popularity of American wine and so, in an attempt to remain the leader of the world, reversed the trend that had been ongoing for over a hundred years: they imported native American vines.
The interest in American vines was benign. If they grew there, maybe they’d grow here? researchers hoped to themselves. Maybe we can beat them with their own vines. Across France, experimental vineyards began to grow – unnatural hybrids that were largely unfit, the French discovered, for making quality wines. The hybrids were considered failures. American vines weren’t any good after all. Bad, even.
Beneath this industrious current, trouble stirred. It took a while to be noticed. It emerged slowly, almost imperceptibly, as the most insidious plagues often do. In the spring of 1863, vintners in the Rhône region of France watched several of their vines yellow and die. Vineyards are often planted with hundreds of vines, so a handful of deaths was not likely to draw much attention or concern, especially in a time so bereft of botanical knowledge. However, over the next two years, the mysterious disease spread with an unparalleled drive. Vintners across the country watched in horror as entire vineyards rotted from root to fruit. The plague was relentless and undiscerning. It struck every varietal, and had its hand in every region of France. Indeed, its reaches spanned even beyond the French border. Burgeoning wine industries in places as far flung as Australia and Argentina were hit with this inexplicable menace.
And it really was inexplicable. Unearthing dead vines yielded no evidence – aside from normal fungal growth, they showed no signs of insect damage or other abnormalities. It was like the vines had simply decided to stop living. Families turned to drastic measures. Vineyards were torn up and set aflame in a futile effort to halt the death march. Vineyards that had rolled for hundreds of years, iconic stalwarts of these rustic towns planted by the Romans themselves, lay in ash and rot.
By the end of the 1860s, Europe was in full-blown oenological disaster. Estimates of the damage range between 60-90% of European vines, but whatever the number, many families’ lives had been ruined. It wasn’t until a french pharmacist, Jules-Émile Planchon, arrived on the scene that any explanation for the blight began to form. Planchon’s innovation (if it could be called so) was to excavate live, seemingly healthy vines. It was only when the vines appeared healthy that they offered any real elucidation into the menace that besieged them. Planchon described “no rot, no trace of cryptogams; but suddenly under the magnifying lens of the instrument appeared an insect, a plant louse of yellowish color, tight on the wood, sucking the sap. One looked more attentively; it is not one, it is not ten, but hundreds, thousands of the lice that one perceived, all in various stages of development.” Planchon’s discovery did not immediately lead to any solution. Indeed, most French scientists had no need for his information – they had already declared the weather the cause, or perhaps physiological deficiencies in the vines, or other vague waves of the hand and posh words.
Undeterred, Planchon continued to push his theory that the tiny lice were the cause of the blight. He published several detailed descriptions of the creatures, writings that happened to come across the desk of a Missouri entomologist, Charles Valentine Riley. In 1870, after reading Planchon’s descriptions, Riley sent to Planchon his belief that the insect was the pest Daktulopsphaira vitifoliae, known as phylloxera, a bug previously found only in America. The sole hole in this theory was the fact that phylloxera was only found on the leaves of American vines, and Planchon had found the lice on the roots of vines in Europe.
This dilemma was solved quickly; Planchon found the bugs on the leaves of the American imports that researchers had imported. Planchon and Riley concluded that phylloxera, the great Atlantic stowaway, was the cause of the destruction. The insect would, the pair discovered, puncture the surface of the root and secrete a toxin that would prevent the root from repairing itself. The young lice would then suck sap from the roots, leaving them for dead as they moved down the row in search of healthier stock.
Whatever the cause, science still offered no solution. Farmers, tired of fire, tried its cousin: flooding their vineyards – a method that offered a brief, if impractical, respite. Toads were tried, poor creatures buried in the ground alongside the vines to leach the toxins from the wood. Then farmers turned to arsenic. Then urine (both human and goat). Farmers soon turned to religion, erecting large, stone crosses to watch over their vineyards, blazoned with such proclamations as “Croix de grace pour nous,” or Cross of mercy for us. In the face of these overwhelming odds, still the vines died.
Reluctantly, science acquiesced around phylloxera as the cause. Adamantly against the simple solution of planting American vines (which, to this point, remained free of the destructive nature of the pest) across the continent, the French government offered a 300,000 Franc reward for a solution in 1874. To Europeans, utter destruction was preferable to poor wine.
The solution came, unsurprisingly, from something other than buried toads and goat urine. In a delightful twist of irony, the savior was found in the very instigator of the problem: imported American vines. Planchon and Riley, playing on the idea that phylloxera only affected American leaves, and not the roots, suggested grafting American rootstock onto the scions (stems, leaves, flowers and fruit) of European plants. Though working with a tenuous grasp of genetics and botany, the pair and French scientists systematically attempted hundreds of grafts to find the right pairing.
Eventually, such a pairing was found. European vines were ripped up, de-rooted, grafted onto American rootstocks, and re-planted en masse. Phylloxera, though not eradicated, had at least been beaten to a standstill. European wine production, after laying decimated beneath the onslaught of these tiny lice, rebounded to near-full production by the early 1900s.
Of course, a standstill is not eradication. Even today, scientists lack a weapon to fully destroy the phylloxera scourge, and the nature of rootstock resistance is not entirely understood. Overconfidence in the resistance led to an outbreak of phylloxera in California in the early 1960s. California farmers, perhaps in a point of arrogance, had used a rootstock rejected in France for offering only passing levels of resistance. Generations upon generations of phylloxera were held at bay, until, suddenly, they weren’t. California paid dearly, to the tune of over $1 billion in damage to American vineyards
Genetic pressures within phylloxera overcame California resistance, and will too, one day, overcome resistance around the world. Wine, that beautiful, ethereal, poetic beverage, will become ephemeral, and fade back into the ground, only the stuff of lore and legend. Every bottle produced today comes from a plant of borrowed time. There’s a saying in wine that a struggling vine makes good wine. So are they all. Until they are no longer.