Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World

by Christy Campbell

(Algonquin, 352 pages, $24.95, March, 2005)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Wine! The celebratory bubbly. The aromatic complement of a fine meal. The connoisseur's delight.

The sacramental fruit of the vine. The sanctifying blood of the Risen Savior.

The everyday beverage of the French working class. The Skid Row bum's daily ticket to oblivion.

Throughout human history, the fermented juice of the genus Vitus has been many things to many people. 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 scourge that spread inexorably across the vineyards of France and Europe in the mid-to-late 19th century nearly wiped out all the grapes that produced the world's finest wines.

It began in the spring of 1862, with the unexpected arrival of a case containing several different varieties of rooted New York grapevines for Monsieur Borty, a wine merchant in the small French town of Roquemaure. The previous fall, a friend, M. Carle, had visited from America and described the native grapes. Though they did not produce wine of European quality, M. Borty was interested in them. Now that improved shipping technology and faster transportation made it possible for the plants to survive a trans-Atlantic voyage, M. Carle prepared a gift to satisfy his friend's botanical curiosity.

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 June, at a small vineyard a few kilometers away, the leaves on a cluster of vines began to discolor. By August, the foliage had dried up, and the plants were soon dead. When the dead vines were uprooted, there was no obvious source of the disease.

Similar stories began to crop up elsewhere in France. The disease followed the same devastating pattern. In one case, two boys reported seeing some insects on the march, but their report was discounted. Only when an infested living plant was accidentally uprooted were insects suspected. By 1868, botanist Jules-Emile Planchon had established that the withering resulted from root damage by phylloxera imported from America.

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. Its themes are scientific, sociological, political, and economic. Its central time span covers nearly forty years. Its spotlight jumps from one French region to another and occasionally to different parts of North America.

Readers who prefer tightly woven stories with an obvious protagonist who achieves a clear triumph will struggle with this book. It is full of loose ends, blind alleys, and repeating themes of finger pointing and denial. Mr. 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 his readers to hack through the often confusing details, just as the people who lived through the times had to do.

Much of the complexity of the story is due to the aphid itself, which reproduces both sexually and parthenogenetically (from an unfertilized ovum) at different seasons, living either on the leaves or the roots of the plant, and occasionally flying or hitching a ride on the wind to a new location. With each generation during a growing season, the aphid gradually changes form and feeding habits. At first, scientists didn't even recognize it as the same species on opposite shores of the Atlantic, because it adapted its life cycle to differences in climate and host plants. 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, children's author, and book critic Fred Bortz toasts the finest in science books at his Science Shelf web site.