GARDENING: Texan saved French wine industry

By Jeff Floyd

Certified horticulturist and arborist

The science of growing grapes and making wines has marched steadily forward through history from what was certainly an accidental discovery to today when more good wines are produced at lower costs than ever. Most of us probably associate fine wines with Europe and particularly France, but there was a time when a Texan had to step in to save the French wine industry from disaster.

In the mid-1800s, a small aphid-like insect called Phylloxera had begun to decimate French vineyards. The feeding activity of this pest cuts off the flow of sap and eventually leads to the death of the vine. Just as was true then, there is no effective method to control or eliminate Phylloxera today. By the time the culprit had been identified, nearly one-quarter of the wine grapes in France had been lost.

Meanwhile, around this time in Denison, Texas, a horticulturist named Thomas Volney Munson who had been extensively collecting, describing and breeding grapes, was talking to the French viticulturists tasked with finding a solution to the problem. Together they determined that American vines had also been attacked by Phylloxera. However, unlike their European cousins, the American vines were not killed by the pest. This led Munson to suggest grafting French vines onto root stocks collected from Central Texas locations which had conditions like those in French vineyards. In fewer than ten years it was clear the strategy had worked.

The French vineyards had been saved by Munson and his Texas grapes. Today Grayson College in Denison is home to the Munson Memorial Vineyard which has many of the vines he developed. Unfortunately, more than two-thirds of his grapes have either been lost to the ravages of time or have not been located. Each fall as the Munson vines are pruned, hundreds of cuttings are collected and shipped to growers and scientists who requested them.

The next time you enjoy the earthy notes of a full-bodied Cabernet from the Bordeaux region, remember that the vines which produced the juice may have been held up by Texas rootstocks.

Floyd is a private green industry consultant. He can be reached at [email protected]