In the mid-1860s, grapevines in southeastern France inexplicably began to wither and die. French botanist Jules-Émile Planchon was sent to investigate. Magnifying glass in hand, he discovered that the vine roots were covered in microscopic yellow insects. The aphids would be named Phylloxera vastatrix — “the dry leaf devastator.” Where they had come from was a mystery. Soon the noblest vineyards in Europe and California came under biological siege. No one could slow phylloxera’s maddening, destructive pace.
The French government offered a prize of 300,000 gold francs for a remedy, and increasingly bizarre suggestions flooded in. Planchon believed he had the answer and set out to convince the skeptical winemaking and scientific establishments. Aided by the American entomologist Charles Valentine Riley and a decade of research into the strange life history of the insect, Planchon at long last proved that the remedy rested within the vines themselves.
The Botanist and the Vintner is an astonishing account of one of the earliest and most successful applications of science to an ecological disaster. And even now, the story continues as new strains of phylloxera attack vineyards in France, California, and New Zealand.
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