‘The Botanist and the Vintner’

Root of the Matter

‘The Botanist and the Vintner’ a 19th-century detective story

By John Freeman

British writer Christy Campbell was not a wine expert. Nor, for that matter, did he know much about gun powder, battle ships or Queen Victoria before he began writing on those topics, either. “That’s the great thing about working at a newspaper,” says the one-time journalist, folded into a beetle-black taxi quickly scuttling us across London. “You learn to take up any topic and write about it. And have a good time at it, too.”

Statements like this might elicit gasps of quelle horreur from French wine experts, but Campbell is not about to genuflect to tradition. After all, his new book, The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World (Algonquin Books; $24.95), is a tale about the power of thinking outside the proverbial box. Like Richard Preston’s mega-bestseller The Hot Zone, Campbell’s book describes one monster of a disease pandemic. But where Preston depicted microbes that prey on humans, Campbell shows how a tiny insect nearly destroyed the storied French wine crops of the 19th century.

The source of this scourge was a nasty little bugger called phylloxera, a microscopic aphid first imported into Europe from America by accident in the mid-1800s. It then latched on to the roots of European vines and sucked away until it had killed them, moving on to healthier roots, eating up entire orchards in the mid- to late 1860s. Wine as we know it nearly disappeared.

Campbell, who is in the North Bay this week for four bookstore appearances, first learned of this plague at the national archives in France. He was looking for information about British spies in Paris, but he kept stumbling across information on phylloxera instead. “These newspaper reports seemed to say something very strange and politically important had happened in France,” he says. “They talked about troops being called out, about social breakdown.”It might sound like overkill–the viticultural equivalent to shutting down America due to an anthrax scare–but not if you remember how important wine is to French culture. As Campbell explains in The Botanist and the Vintner, wine was a mysterious, treasured and worshipped cultural product.

Reading about it a century and a half later, Campbell knew he had a story. “This was the ecological equivalent of having a corpse in the drawing room,” he says, now tucked into a back table at a Fleet Street bar. He takes a sip of Australian red, draws on his cigarette and raises his eyebrows. “Who did it?”

Campbell has written books on the plot to assassinate Queen Victoria and on a maharaja of India, but this was different. “Of all the subjects in the world, this is the most jealously guarded, snobbish, impossible topic,” he says. “It was like writing about fox hunting or football.”

But as he had done before, Campbell simply researched his way into expertise. He visited Charles Darwin’s home and examined his cache of vine studies. He trekked off to libraries around the world, including one at UC Davis, digging up newspaper reports in the press about the menacing spread of this mysterious disease. “The beginning of the plague was all played out in French newspapers,” he says. “As a writer, this was great, because I could assemble characters and mood, actually be in the tasting room as they sip the wine.”

The irony of all this mummery over wine as a topic, however, is that French vines and American vines were once the same thing–just a very, very long time ago. “Sixty million years ago, there was a thing called the vine, or vitis,” says Campbell, stubbing out another half-smoked cigarette. “And when America floated off from Europe, the vines went with it. And that vine formed differently than the one in Europe.”

The difference in how these vines evolved is crucial to the story of The Botanist and the Vintner, because while European vines became tasteful producers of delicious wines, native American vines produced wine that was “just ghastly,” as Christy puts it. Even in the 1860s, American wine was called pissat de renard, or “fox piss,” in Paris.

Making matters worse, European vines did poorly on this soil. “They put them on boats, put them in the ground, and they all died,” Campbell says. “And they didn’t know why. Well, they died because in American soil there is this little aphid that got along fine with American vines but loves to eat up the European vines.”

The race to solve this problem makes The Botanist and the Vintner a weird sort of slapstick thriller, in part because the French attempts to save their crops were so extreme, so ridiculous. They flooded their vineyards, replanted vines in sandy soil along the coast, sprayed sulfur on the vines and even tried to plant American vines in French soil. None of it worked.

In the end, it was collaboration that saved the day. A botanist from Montpellier had successfully identified the source of the scourge, and American entomologist Charles Valentine Riley crossed the Atlantic to prove him correct. Over the course of a decade, they discovered that the only true way to prevent phylloxera, not just in France but in much of the world’s vineyards, was to graft European vines onto American rootstocks.

And so, long before Thomas Friedman was telling us that the world is flat, a tiny little aphid had already taught us that globalization is here to stay. Campbell, who is very cynical about today’s wine industry, thinks this is a lesson we ought to remember. “For the French, this was the pinnacle of their culture. And yet everyone from the humblest peasant to the grandest farmer was equally afflicted.”

And then, in the spirit of populism, Campbell pays our bill, hails another cab and essays to show me the best cheap bars in London where one can get drunk on all kinds of pissat de renard for a pittance.

Christy Campbell reads from and discusses ‘The Botanist and the Vintner’ at the following bookstores: June 22, Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, 415.927.0690; June 23, Readers’ Books, 127 E. Napa St., Sonoma, 707.939.1779; June 24, Copperfield’s Books, 3900-A Bel Aire Plaza, Napa, 707.252.8002; June 25, Healdsburg Public Library, 139 Piper St., Healdsburg, 707.433.9270. All events are at 7pm and are free.

From the June 8-14, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.

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