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The American Who Saved The Wine Industry

Many of you will open a special bottle of wine, or better yet, a bottle of rosé Champagne, for your Valentine’s Day dinner. This year, before you imbibe your favorite libations, raise a toast to an incredible 19th-century Missouri scientist who saved the wine industry.

To gain a better understanding of this story, let’s take a look at some history behind it.

When the earliest French settlers came to America in the 1600s, they brought their wine with them. They planted Vitis vinifera, which is the European species of wine grapes used for wines like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These alien grapes did not do well, and were attacked by local pests and pathogens.

The vintners realized they had a problem and they began experimenting with local grape species, such as Vitis riparia and Vitis rotundifolia. While these grapevines thrived in their native soil, the wine they produced was no match for the great wines of Europe.

To produce an acceptable wine, these early American vintners decided to start grafting vinifera vines to the roots (aka “rootstocks”) of American vines. By doing this, they were able to preserve the genetics of the vinifera grapes (ensuring a good quality wine), and the local roots would protect the vines from the unknown disease agents in the soil. This method worked very well, and the North American wine industry flourished.

The competition for growing the best grapes started heating up in the 18th Century, so the French vintners began importing American vines into their country.

Steam powered ships came into use during the 19th Century, and they significantly cut transit time across the Atlantic. This allowed for them to receive their orders of American and hybrid vines at a faster rate, and the vintners rapidly set up experimental vineyards all across France. However, there was one subject that no one paid much attention to and that was the possibility of plant diseases being transmitted through this unregulated trade.

In 1868, vintners in Roquemaure (a village on the right bank of the Rhône River in France) noticed that their vines were mysteriously withering and dying. A special commission was then appointed to look into this problem. During their investigation they discovered multitudes of aphid-like insects that were sucking the juices from the roots of the vines.

None of the investigators were entomologists and they did not know what type of pest this was. All they could do was to describe it as a new species of louse (in the plurality; they are called lice). Various scientific names were assigned to this pest, but even the brightest scientist could not agree on what it was or what to call it.

In 1866, Charles Valentine Riley, an entomologist from the state of Missouri, began reading French and English accounts about this new pest. He published several articles where he speculated that this pest was identical to what vintners had seen in the US. His big questions were: (1) why did this louse only attack the leaves on vines in the US; (2) why did it only attack the roots on European vines?

Riley realized that this insect could be of immense economic importance, and decided to join forces with the French investigators. Between his first contact with them in 1869 and his first trip to France in 1871, he and his French colleagues determined that the pest was actually “Grape phylloxera” (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae), and that it originated in eastern North America.

Riley was able to prove that some American vines, such as the Fox and Summer grapes, were the most resistant to phylloxera. He also showed how others, such as the Frost and Clintons, were most susceptible.

By the time that Riley got to France in July of 1871, the “Great French Wine Blight” was threatening vintners in the Midi region around Montpellier and regions to the north, east, and west.

Some Midi vintners had already begun the process of importing and planting the recommended American vines by the spring of 1871.

There was a division of thought amongst other growers. Some wanted to plant resistant American vines, while others wanted to graft their European V. vinifera vines to the American rootstock. Both of these methods were supported by Riley, although he did hope that the wine from American vines would find favor with the French.

Riley returned to St. Louis and began writing a series of articles. He was able to explain how phylloxera had killed the European vines planted in the eastern U.S., and made further recommendations for planting U.S. vines.

The response to Riley’s articles about grafting European vines to American rootstocks was overwhelming. About 400,000 American rootstocks were sent to the Montpellier region by the winter of 1872.

When Riley returned to Montpellier in 1875, the scene was starkly different from what he saw in 1871. He later said, “Where four years before the whole country was one vast vineyard . . . the ground was now devoted . . . entirely or partly to other crops . . . Yet right in the midst of this [desolation] the American vines were flourishing.”

In 1875, the imports of American vines peaked at 14 million cuttings. Many of these vines died after being planted, but with a lot of experimentation, they eventually came up with methods that worked. Riley was proud of his role in solving the “Great French Wine Blight” and by 1890, over 719,000 acres had been replanted.

Much of what we learned from Riley’s work has been used to solve Grape phylloxera problems throughout the world. His methods also helped save the California wine industry during the early 1900s! Chile is the only major wine producing country in the world that has been able to completely evade Grape phylloxera.

Charles Valentine Riley is considered by many to be the “Founder of Modern Entomology”. During his career, he was responsible for solving many different insect problems in agriculture. As we prepare to enjoy our favorite libations, we should all raise our glasses and give thanks for all that he taught us!