Phylloxera

As a miniscule part of the complex life-system of the planet, I understand that everything comes back to the nature that surrounds me and is me.

Most of the invasive species that have crossed the oceans have come from Eurasia. The Americas, long separated from the planet’s largest continent, were sitting ducks for viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other, more complicated, life-forms. Smallpox, Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, emerald ash borers, zebra mussels, starlings, kudzu, are just a few examples of things to hit these shores and transform them.

It used to be thought that syphilis was the New World’s revenge upon the Old for this cross-oceanic transportation, but there is now archeological evidence that the disease was long resident in the Old, and that it may have been a cross between New and Old world strains that caused the virulent outbreak in Post-Columbian Europe.

A couple of our native mammals, like the wily muskrat, have spread throughout Eurasia. Without a doubt, however, the deadliest example of an American species to ravage the world remains Phylloxera. Originally classified as Phylloxera vastatrix (meaning, basically, leaf-drying destroyer), this tiny louse was native to the eastern U.S. Here, they lived in relative détente with American grapes species. However, this wasn’t the case with the primary European grape species, Vitis vinifera, from whence the great grape varieties stemmed. The little bugs got over the big water on American rootstocks sent to the south of France for experimentation. Starting in 1863, they spread out to vanquish the European wine industry by cutting off vines at the root. Only a few grapes were safe, mostly those that grew in volcanic or very sandy soil.

After Europe, Phylloxera swept across South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and then, ironically, swamped California, where an infant wine industry was based on European grapes. 17,000 acres of California vineyards were destroyed. (There was a second devastating outbreak in California in the 1980s, due to a poor choice of rootstock.) Pretty much everything was tried to stop the insects, which were so small that at first people had no idea why the vines were withering. Chemicals were poured, fields were flooded, vineyards were irrigated with white wine, toads were buried (the desperation of livelihoods destroyed led to desperation; we’ll be seeing more of that as radical climate change and accompanying sociopolitical transformation ravages populations).

The ultimate solution turned out to be pretty simple: take American grape rootstock — from the species V. riparia, V. ruspestris, and V. berlandieri — which had evolved along with the insects and tolerated them, and graft them to V. vinifera cuttings. As a result, almost all of the world’s wine vines today have American roots. The rootstock has no effect on the grape itself, so your Bordeaux is still Bordeaux.

Yes, there can be solutions.
In vino veritas: I’m taking a wine tasting class at the French Culinary Institute, where the hallways, unlike any school I’ve ever been in, smell really, really good. Cheers.

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