An alternative title to Christy Campbell’s The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved For The World might well be “How French Politicos Tried to Set Wine Science Back 200 Years, Putting All of the World’s Vineyards in Perilous Jeopardy, Yet Somehow Told Without Conveying Much Suspense.“
To be fair, The Botanist and the Vintner is well-written, impeccably researched, and expertly manages to make the topic of the phylloxera epidemic interesting (even for non-history-buffs, and non-wine-geeks).
Campbell’s chapter explaining the strange reproductive cycle of the phylloxera louse alone is probably worth the purchase price of the book. It’s no wonder that the complicated sexual life of the pest confounded some of the greatest scientific minds of the late 1800s – any species whose short-lived male variant has no anus, no mouth, and no digestive system is so frighteningly bizarre, there’s no way you could dream that up something that odd.
And yet, I walked away from this book feeling oddly underwhelmed and a little unfulfilled.
If you’re a fan of wine, eventually you will come across mention of the tiny vineyard pest that came perilously close to wiping out the world’s supply of fine vinifera. In summary (and this is a very, very high-level summary), the little sucker feasts on the vine, and uses various parts of the vine as breeding ground.
The trouble for European vinifera is that it didn’t evolve with the louse as did the vines in North America, so when international travel and shipping became viable in the 1800s, the pest finally had a means to travel from its native land. Many American vines have rootstock that can recover from the scars left by feeding phylloxera – most European vines didn’t, and they began to die at an alarming rate as the louse spread across Europe. Because of its complex sex life, it took 19th Century scientists years to come to agreement on how to stop the pest (grafting onto American rootstock).
The Botanist and the Vintner takes you through this journey of vine destruction, and exposes you to the frustrating world of European politics (which, by most accounts sadly has made little appreciable progress since the 1800s), which delayed action on recognizing and then implementing the final root cause solution to the deadly invasion.
Not to mention the sizable financial prize that was due to those that found the real cure, most of which never got paid out by the French government (let’s not go there).
The book handles all of this well, but during the telling suggests a potentially dire future facing the vineyards of the present day that are grafted onto seemingly “safe” American rootstocks. It appears that some of those rootstocks are again becoming susceptible to an evolving phylloxera.
But after teasing us with the potential of another winemaking Dead Zone, The Botanist and the Vintner decides not to go there. Which is a shame, because the book starts there in its Prologue, which begins by describing an aerial surveillance of spreading phylloxera infestations in California in 1994. We are taken back to the present in the Postscript… to take a look at wine conisseurs chasing after wine from ungrafted viniferia vines as if they were the El Dorado treasure of the wine world.
No modern phylloxera update. Why start there if you’re not going to finish there? It felt like a bit of unrealized suspenseful potential to me.
So, if you’re looking for the history of the first world phylloxera louse epidemic, The Botanist and the Vintner is your book. Just don’t expect a full-circle treatise on the topic for modern times.