Last weekend I went over to a friend’s house for a bonfire. A very Wisconsin thing to do, I know, but we only get summer for maybe two months every year. It’s my mission to be outside for every ounce of it. As I sat enjoying the cool night air and crackling of the fire, the peacefulness of the moment was instantly interrupted by a minuscule, buzzing insect flying straight. Into. My face.
Mosquitos. They were everywhere. While these minute beasts reappear every summer, I somehow forget how obnoxious they are. Nothing ruins the perfect night outdoors faster than mosquitos. And it seems that no amount of bug spray can repel them, and no amount of scratching or swearing can dull the intolerable itch that they leave you with for days after. As my friends and I sat by the fire swatting away the tormenting mosquitos, I mumbled, “Well. Could be worse. At least it's not phylloxera.” And...no one got the quip. Because, of course they wouldn’t. My friends are PBR lovers and vodka soda sippers. Most of them couldn't be paid to learn about 19th-century history, let alone wine-growing history from the 19th century.
Despite the lack of interest, they were going to learn. I didn’t spend weeks studying for my Sommelier exam to not talk about phylloxera at parties. So, we got into it.
Let’s take it back to the 1800s.
Note: I skipped passed the development of the oldest winery (4100 BC), Egyptian pharaohs’ consumption of wine-like substances at ceremonies, the worshipping of Bacchus (Roman god of wine) and Spain’s great grape journey to the New World not because the events are unimportant, but because there’s only so much time in one night. That, and I was dealing with short attention spans.
In the early 1800s, the European and North American wine industries boomed. Competition was fierce for growing the best new wines, and winemakers began the journey of importing American grapevines into France, the heart of the wine world.
As the hustle and bustle of grapevine transportation commenced, importers failed to notice a microscopic passenger amongst their cargo. Unbeknownst to them, this would set off a biological domino effect that would permanently change grape-growing around the world. #sofired
By the 1860s, various winegrowers in France started to notice some pretty nasty changes to their vines. A vine or two in the middle of their vineyard would start to turn yellow, droop, and die. No one thought much of this. (Which I totally get. I’ve lost at least eight succulents this way and never thought twice.) The next year, however, neighboring vines started to display the same signs of illness. Within two years after the first less-than-desirable vine sighting, plants could be found rotting from the grapes down to their roots. Within a matter of seasons, entire vineyards crumbled. The cause was unknown at the time, but thanks to hindsight and technology, we can now attribute this devastation to one thing: a microscopic, root-eating aphid called phylloxera.
And you thought mosquitos were bad.
By the 1900s, phylloxera had taken an unimaginable toll on the vineyards of France. Over 70 percent of the country’s vines were dead, the incomes of thousands were destroyed and an international wine deficit ensued. Like a free-spirited high school grad on a gap year, the aphids made their way through Europe, eventually traveling as far as Croatia and Greece. Their journey continued to Australia, New Zealand and the wineries of California. To this day, Chile remains the only wine-producing country that didn’t fall victim to these ravenous insects thanks to the Andes Mountains.
At a time when wine was desperately needed, perhaps more than ever, winemakers were at a total loss. Nothing seemed to fend off phylloxera. Toxic insecticides were tested (these killed more plants than aphids), new soil types were used (no luck), poison flooding was attempted (even worse) and divine intervention was requested (nice try). Even calamine lotion couldn’t fix the destruction caused by these pests.
Finally, a small group of researchers including a Frenchman, Jules Émile Planchon, and an American, Charles Valentine Riley, discovered a solution. They had observed that the aphid was a bit of a wine snob. It preferred the leaves of the imported American vines, but the roots of local French vines. This discovery led to what would eventually resolve the great grapevine massacre.
Now this is a story all about how wine’s life got flipped, turned upside down.
Upon discovering phylloxera’s preference for French roots, Planchon and Riley decided to experiment. They grafted vitis vinifera, the European grapevine, onto American rootstock. Low and behold, this grafting method was the hero of the wine world needed. Grafting stopped the root-eating aphids in their tracks, and vine growing was forever changed.
To this day, nearly all French wines, including some of the most expensive varietals produced, come from vines that were grafted onto phylloxera-resistant American roots. (Queue “USA, USA” chants in 3...2…)
And that, my friends, is the story of how a microscopic winged-aphid changed the wine industry forever. Now, go forth, share this historic tale as you relax around a fire with friends and wine. I promise it’ll at least resonate more than your pal’s off-key, acoustic rendition of Wonderwall.