The American Roots of Viticulture: How the U.S. Saved European Viticulture

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson was appointed as Minister to France and moved to Paris.  During this time, he cultivated political relationships in service to the fledgling United States, and drank a lot of French wine.  This wine became one of his lifelong passions.  Upon returning home to serve as Secretary of State in 1789, Jefferson brought with him 680 bottles of wine and a plan to grow and produce fine wine at his home in Virginia.  Jefferson knew that all successful wine -- be it Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon -- came from one species of vine native only to Europe -- vitis vinifera.

For the rest of his life, Thomas Jefferson repeatedly tried in vain to establish vinifera vineyards at his home in Monticello.  The vines were planted successfully, but never yielded much, and would die after a few years.  What baffled Jefferson, and other vinifera pioneers, was that wild American grape vines abounded in the area.  How could it be that they survived, thrived even, while these European vines withered and died?  The answer related to an unseen scourge -- small aphids, known as phylloxera -- native to the soils of the eastern United States.  Phylloxera attacks the roots of vines, eating them, while also injecting a toxin that prevents healing.  This allows for secondary infections that ultimately kill the plant.  America’s native vines, having been exposed to these pests over the course of time, had evolved a defense.  When phylloxera began to feed, viscous sap would flow out and impair the phylloxera’s tiny jaws.  The vine would then produce a layer of cork and seal off the wound.  Europe’s vinifera vines, having never encountered such an attack, had no opportunity to develop a defense.

Back on the other side of the Atlantic, American flora had no difficulty in taking to the soils of the Europe.  It became fashionable for the aristocracy to show off their access to the exotic by importing plants from the New World and establishing lavish, private gardens.  Vines, such as the Virginia Creeper, became popular in Victorian England in the 1850s.  Some of the roots must have had unseen pests as hangers-on, and vineyards in England began to suffer mysteriously soon thereafter.  Then, in 1863, vineyards in the south of France began to die  inexplicably.  It took 5 years for biologists to identify the cause as phylloxera, but by then it had taken hold in almost every major wine region.  For the next 20 years, phylloxera ravaged European vineyards -- France’s in particular -- and wine production cratered 70%. 

Panic.  Thousands of farmers were watching their lives and legacies die in front of their eyes, and once the enemy became known, a frantic search for solutions began.  Desperation demanded that everything be tried.  Flooding the vineyard to drown the pest was somewhat effective, but impractical.  Burying a live toad underneath the vine to draw out the poison had its advocates, but didn’t seem to help.  Injecting liquid poison into the soil throughout the entire vineyard was, for a time, the preferred method, but it was extremely costly, dangerous and an environmental disaster.

The solution came from the joint work of French and American botanists who realized that the European vinifera vine could be successfully grafted onto American roots.  This enabled the vinifera plant to take advantage of the evolutionary benefit of phylloxera resistance without the off-putting flavors endemic to American grapes.  Over the course of decades, vineyards throughout Europe were re-established in this way.  Today, phylloxera is present in almost all parts of the world, and American roots continue to serve as the basis for almost all wine production.  Thus, while Thomas Jefferson was unsuccessful in his personal attempt to grow fine wine in the United States, he can take posthumous pride in America’s continued contribution to the greater wine world.

A Few Good Bottles

There will always be those who believe that the grafting of the wine has some detrimental effect on the quality of the wine.  While I don’t subscribe to this view, I have had a few excellent wines from ungrafted sources, ironically enough, in the US.  Clos Saron, in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, and Betz Family Winery, in Eastern Washington state are both worthy of seeking out if you want to taste wine from rarely seen, ungrafted vinifera vines.