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Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Wine

Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Wine

by George D. Gale

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Dying on the Vine chronicles 150 years of scientific warfare against the grapevine’s worst enemy: phylloxera. In a book that is highly relevant for the wine industry today, George Gale describes the biological and economic disaster that unfolded when a tiny, root-sucking insect invaded the south of France in the 1860s, spread throughout Europe,


Dying on the Vine chronicles 150 years of scientific warfare against the grapevine’s worst enemy: phylloxera. In a book that is highly relevant for the wine industry today, George Gale describes the biological and economic disaster that unfolded when a tiny, root-sucking insect invaded the south of France in the 1860s, spread throughout Europe, and journeyed across oceans to Africa, South America, Australia, and California—laying waste to vineyards wherever it landed. He tells how scientists, viticulturalists, researchers, and others came together to save the world’s vineyards and, with years of observation and research, developed a strategy of resistance. Among other topics, the book discusses phylloxera as an important case study of how one invasive species can colonize new habitats and examines California’s past and present problems with it.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A fantastic book and was a great read from cover to cover. . . . If you're at all interested in the history of wine, ecology, entomology, or just overall good writing, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book!"--The Academic Wino

"Describes for the first time in great detail the worldwide grape blight of the late 19th century."--College & Research Libraries News

"A fascinating read for anyone interested in grapevines and/or the philosophy of science."--Choice

The Academic Wino

“A fantastic book and was a great read from cover to cover. . . . If you’re at all interested in the history of wine, ecology, entomology, or just overall good writing, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book!”
College & Research Libraries News

“Describes for the first time in great detail the worldwide grape blight of the late 19th century.”
Agricultural History - James Simpson

“It should be read not just by curious wine drinkers, but also by those with a serious interest in the history of plant disease.”
Choice - G. S. Howell

“A fascinating read for anyone interested in grapevines and/or the philosophy of science.”
The Economist

"Fascinating. . . . [Gale] brings fresh insights to the tale."
Zester Daily

"Explores the crisis with fresh details and stunning insights. Nominated for a 2012 IACP Award, Dying on the Vine is an excellent and immendsely readable history of wine and its continuing transformation in the wake of an environmental disaster."
Wine Spectator

“[A] fine reference for the botanically inclined and researcher alike. So why dwell on a plague that happened almost 150 years ago? Because it is still with us, waiting to mutate, as it did in California in the 1980s, eventually destroying thousands of acres of vines.”

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
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9.10(w) x 6.26(h) x 1.02(d)

Read an Excerpt

Dying on the Vine

How Phylloxera Transformed Wine

By George Gale


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-26548-6


Disaster Strikes

"All your vines are fatally condemned to disappear, Monsieur"


In summer 1866 a few grapevines in an obscure vineyard along the Rhône, in the South of France, withered and died. Others around them began to show signs of the same progression. Over the next thirty years the withering disease would spread throughout France and Eu rope and into North and South America, Africa, and Australia, destroying traditional wine growing and wine making everywhere it invaded. What was the nature and origin of this dreadful disease? More importantly, what could be done to stop it? Answering these questions generated enormous debate among scientists, much heat, and, at first, not much light. Just getting to the point where the cause of disease was understood and agreed upon by most involved took nearly seven years from the time those dying grapevines were first noticed.

In the end it was not the scientists but the practical and resourceful people on the ground—grape growers, winemakers, landowners—who led the way in resolving the scientific controversy, thereby making possible the renaissance of wine growing, and wine itself, around the world. The story is long and complicated, so let us begin at the beginning.

It is not precisely known when the la nouvelle maladie de la vigne—"the new disease of the vine"—first appeared. According to J.-É. Planchon, Montpellier's famous botany professor and one of the central figures in the story, in the late 1860s "an unknown disease menaced certain vignobles, on both slopes of the Bas-Rhône; at Pujault, in the Gard, there were perhaps vague glimpses of this disease in 1863" (Planchon 1874, 546). But by the summer of 1866 there were clear signs that something was dreadfully wrong in the vineyards of St-Martin-de-Crau, near Arles. Toward the end of July leaves on a large number of plants had lost their healthy green color and become dark red. The problem had spread from a small number of originally affected vines to those nearby, and from those to others, radiating in circles like "the gradual spreading out of a spot of oil" (Planchon 1874, 553). The first published report on the problem was provided a year later by M. Delorme, a veterinarian from Arles, in a letter to the president of the agricultural exposition at Aix-en-Provence. Dr. Delorme notes that, after the reddening of the leaves, the disease "withers the bunches of grapes, dries them out, as well as drying out the tips of the roots" (Cazalis 1869a, 225). By the spring of 1867 all the affected vines were dead, and by end of the 1867 growing season, "vines dead or sick occupied an extent of about five hectares, which produced next to no crop" (quoted in Pouget 1990, 10).

Planchon's description cannot be bettered: "Everywhere the gradual invasion presented the same phases: after a latent period, some isolated points of attack appeared; during the course of the year, these local points enlarged themselves.... At the same time multiplication by new foci—advance colonies thrown to distances of several leagues around the centers developed the preceding years; in a word, the radiating aggravation of an already confirmed evil" (Planchon 1874, 553). Although la nouvelle maladie de la vigne spread rapidly enough, until 1869 its effects were confined to six departments of the lower Rhône, where grapes destined for ordinary table wine were grown in mass production vineyards. But, "apparently after an in de pen dent introduction," the disease spread to the Médoc region near Bordeaux, one of the most important areas for producing high-quality wine in all of France (Stevenson 1980, 47).

At first the growers did not realize either the seriousness of la nouvelle maladie de la vigne or its genuine novelty, attempting to see in the new disease the shape of a familiar one. "Always disposed to connect new facts to ones already known, the peasants of the Vaucluse called the disease le blanquet, or root rot" scoffs Planchon, "even though the conditions—of soil, of weather, etc.—for the latter were clearly not met by the actual situation of the new disease" (Planchon 1874, 546). As Pouget remarks, "The presence, in some cases, of rot on the dead roots led some to think for a while of the damage from pourridié (Armillaria root disease). But very quickly it was realized that the attacks of the disease could not be explained by this cause alone, most notably because of the great speed of the symptoms' expansion" (Pouget 1990, 10–11). Yet even given the speed of the expansion, the disease's effects were at first swallowed up in the immense tracts of land given over to growing vines: in 1865, the peak year of French wine growing, almost 2.5 million hectares were planted in wine grapes. Moreover, "phylloxera did not appear everywhere at once, and its impact was variable in time and space" (Pouget 1990, 50). For example, even by the mid-1870s in the Hérault, the most intensively planted department, "some communes possessed not a single producing vine, while others, often quite nearby, registered a record harvest" (Pouget 1990, 50).

Reactions to the new disease varied enormously from vignoble to vignoble. In those most affected, the unease of the winegrowers, who were "seeing their vines grow enfeebled and then irremediably perish," grew rapidly, especially because "the cause of their perishing was not known, and a way of combating it was scarcely envisaged" (Pouget 1990, 11). But in those vignobles that were as yet unaffected, people appeared unconcerned. Attitudes ranged from straightforward denial to wistful hope against hope. But once the plague hit, the reaction was ever the same: "The French winegrower ... passed from indifference to incredulity, then to inquietude, and finally to despair" (Garrier 1989, 45). In the Hérault, belief came slowly. Wrote F. Cazalis in an editorial in Le Messager Agricole du Midi of Montpellier in 1871: "Despite these repeated warnings, the population of this rich département does not want to believe that the scourge which menaces their vineyards could lead ... to the almost complete destruction of their vines" (quoted in Stevenson 1980, 59).

Regardless of human interests, the spread of the nouvelle maladie was rapid and destructive. In the three major vignobles in the Midi, the 1870s saw precipitous drops in vine-growing area: le Gard, which had 88,000 hectares of vines in 1871, had only 15,000 in 1879; during a similar period, the Hérault plummeted from 220,000 to 90,000 hectares; and the Vauclause went from 20,000 to 9,000 (Lachiver 1988, 416).

Though these statistics refer only to the southern growing regions, wine growing was one of the most significant national institutions. As Vialla noted in 1876, "The ravages of the Phylloxera do not cease extending; the Minister of Agriculture recently told the Chamber of Deputies that, of fifty-five départements in France that cultivate the vine, already there are twenty-three of them under attack" (Vialla and Planchon 1877, 3). In 1870, eight million people in France lived directly off the vine (Millardet 1877, 82); 17 percent of the French work force was involved in wine production, which amounted to 25 percent of the farm economy. For the individual small landholder, a hectare of wine grapes provided 400 percent more value than any other crop. But by 1880, nearly half of overall French wine production had ceased, ruining enormous numbers of smallholders, throwing large numbers of people out of work, and, in the end, causing vast numbers of local economic dislocations, all of which made it entirely clear that the nouvelle maladie had achieved disastrous proportions (Pouget 1990, 5).

But what must not be lost in all this is the human dimension. While the plague was certainly a disaster in national and economic terms, it was at every juncture an individual and personal disaster as well. Joseph de Pesquidoux, a grower from the Gard, provides a gripping account of what the times were like:

One downsizes equipment and material, lets people go, reduces expenses. One retreats into oneself as in a depression. The beast wins everywhere. In its wake solitude invades all the land. And the horizon takes on an unfamiliar aspect, made up of empty and desolate space. As a palpable sign of the plague, one sees all along the roads huge carts overladen with dead vines, leading one to the funeral pyre. (quoted in Garrier 1989, 50)

A tragedy of grand proportions was unfolding, and the nation was forced into mobilization against la nouvelle maladie de la vigne, whatever it was.


Discovering the nature of the malady was the first job. On 6 July 1868, at the request of the Société d'agriculture de Vaucluse and M. Gautier, the mayor of Saint-Rémy, a three-member commission was appointed by the Société centrale d'agriculture de l'Hérault (SCAH) to inspect stricken vineyards on the west bank of the Rhône. Members of the commission included Gaston Bazille, president of the SCAH; Jules-Émile Planchon, a physician and professor of pharmacy and botany at Montpellier; and Felix Sahut, a well-regarded winegrower. The commission began its work on 15 July, spent three days at the task, and immediately reported their results in all available media.

At first they focused upon dead vines, examining the shoots and their remaining foliage, and then they dug them up to inspect the roots. Nothing of interest was found. After some time at this fruitless activity, someone—it remains unclear who it was—suggested that a neighboring healthy vine be pulled up, over the protestations of the grower. Magnifying glasses in hand, the committee turned their attention to the living roots. Their results were so striking that they deserve quoting at length:

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 pucerons that one perceived, all in various stages of development. They are everywhere: on the deepest roots as well on as the shallow, on the thick underground parts as well as on the most delicate rootlets.... During three days we found—at every place the malady had attacked—these innumerable insects. At Saint-Rémy, at Gravaison, in the Crau, at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, at Orange, everywhere on the roots of the suffering vines, the loupe showed us thousands of lice sucking the sap.... Great and small proprietors, simple workers, each grabbed the loupe in order to see for himself the enemy that had been discovered. ... We cannot forget the nearly joyous exclamations of two or three peasants from the neighborhood of Orange, who cried "Ah! There's the enemy. It's good, we will make it perish! Courage, our vines can be reborn, our ruin is no longer certain, at last we can defend ourselves." (Cazalis 1869a, 237)

The effect of this discovery upon Planchon and the other members of the commission was immediate: "It is useless to look elsewhere for the cause, unhappily too evident, of the malady and the deaths.... What is now necessary to find is no longer the cause of the malady, it is its remedy" (Cazalis 1869a, 238). Unfortunately, it was not to be nearly that straightforward.


Face to face with the sucking bugs, which Planchon soon dubbed Phylloxera vastatrix (devastator of vines), the committee took their observations to be conclusive: they were watching the vines die before their very eyes from the depredations of the insects. And knowing what we know today about the disaster, it is all too easy to agree with the Montpellierians that, of course, the bug was the cause of the dead and dying vines. Yet we—and Planchon and the others—would be in the distinct minority here. Most of the rest of France, and especially the scientific establishment, immediately rejected the southerners' theory about the cause of the disease and advanced in its stead a contrary theory, one based in the long-standing dominant medical model. It was this contrary phylloxera-effect theory, in which the appearance of the bug was taken to be only an incidental consequence of an earlier disease, which was to stand in opposition to the committee's view throughout the next seven years of intellectual conflict. Planchon's description of the contrary theory is trenchant:

Fundamentally, the diverse theories about the role of phylloxera in the new malady of the vine may be reduced to two: the phylloxera effect and the phylloxera cause.... According to the first theory, phylloxera would be the result of an enfeeblement, a previous alteration in the health of the vine, due, according to some theorists, to long-term monoculture, or wrong training of the vine (too short, too long, too severe pruning); according to other theorists, intemperate weather, or, as in other fruit-tree culture, because of asexual reproduction rather than via seeds. (Planchon 1874, 554; emphasis added)

According to Planchon's litany here, the original disease, the "enfeeblement," might be due to five different causes: monoculture, training that was too long or too short, intemperate weather, or asexual reproduction. Although these putative causes vary widely in their nature, the effect is always the same: a stricken plant, open to invasion by the phylloxera.

In opposition to this is the phylloxera-cause theory, Planchon's own, which maintains that it is the bug's sucking per se that debilitates and eventually kills the vine. It is this theory that the scientific establishment, centered principally in Paris, rejected out of hand based on their long-term allegiance to the officially mandated medical model of disease. As Legros remarks, "The experts of the capital, without ever leaving their offices, uttered their advice on the malady hitting the vines of the Midi. For them, the bug was not the cause of the malady" (Legros 1997, 33). As members of the establishment, the experts in Paris were believers in the official theory, the phylloxera-effect theory.

The differences between the two groups of scientists may be put quite straightforwardly: When Planchon and his colleagues from Montpellier observed the bugs sucking on the roots, they saw the event as the phylloxera causing the vine's decline. But when Guérin-Méneville or Signoret observed the bugs sucking on the roots, they saw the event as the phylloxera as an effect of the vine's poor health.

Part of the difficulty facing Planchon and the committee was professional and disciplinary. Although the three committee members were experienced in matters of the vine and botany in general, they were not entomologists. This counted against them: while the discovery of phylloxera made a sensation in the viticultural communities of the south, "it was not the same in the scientific world of the time since some, putting in doubt the role of Phylloxera in the withering of the vines, ironically called Planchon, Bazille, and Sahut, 'the entomologists of l'Hérault'" (Pouget 1990, 12). In response to the critics' irony, the ever-outspoken Duchesse de Fitz-James, own er of a large wine estate, defended Planchon, Bazille, and Sahut: while it was true that "not one of them is an entomologist by profession," in the end they were right, and "the number of ignoramuses who think they know more defies arithmetic" (Fitz-James 1881, 889). Since none of the three were insect scientists, it was easy to ridicule their theory that insects were the cause of the new vine disease.

But not only entomologists opposed Planchon and his colleagues. Among those arrayed against the Montpellierians, the four most significant were:

F.-E. Guérin-Méneville: an entomologist who solved the silkworm pébrine problem, thereby saving the silk industry;

Charles Naudin: botanist and director at the Jardin des Plantes, the national botanical garden in Paris;

Victor Signoret: president of the Entomological Society of France;

A.-H. Trimoulet: leading entomologist in Bordeaux and secretary for the Linnaean Society of Bordeaux.

Each of these men had a well-deserved reputation as a serious scientist in a field applicable to the dispute. Certainly their backgrounds explain some of their hostility to the ideas of the southerners.

Yet professional jealousy and disciplinary protection are not the most important forces in the controversy between the scientists. Underlying the dispute is a significant theoretical difference between the two sides. In the end, what sustains the seven years of intense debate between the Montpellierians and the scientific establishment is a fundamental intellectual collision between two opposed sets of scientific beliefs. These dynamics deserve full discussion.


Excerpted from Dying on the Vine by George Gale. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"A fantastic book and was a great read from cover to cover. . . . If you're at all interested in the history of wine, ecology, entomology, or just overall good writing, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book!"—The Academic Wino

"Describes for the first time in great detail the worldwide grape blight of the late 19th century."—College & Research Libraries News

"A fascinating read for anyone interested in grapevines and/or the philosophy of science."—Choice

Meet the Author

George Gale is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the author of Theory of Science. He has written about phylloxera for The World of Fine Wine magazine and other publications.

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