Book Review: Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Wine by George Gale

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Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Wine, by George Gale, is a highly educational and well-written book covering the phylloxera crisis starting in the late 1800s and how the world continues to struggle with the pest even today.  For over 150 years, this tiny little bug wreaked havoc on grape vines all over the world, the details of which this book describes the steps that were taken initially in France and the lessons learned (or not learned) by other grape growing regions around the world.  This book will appeal to anyone in the wine industry, as well as ecologists, entomologists, historians, and generally anyone interested in human behavior in times of crises.

The first half of the book (Chapters 1 through 4) takes the reader on a journey through time starting from the very first discovery of what was to become known as the phylloxera crisis in France through the controversial attempts at eradicating the pest.  Was the phylloxera bug the cause of the vine death?  Or was there an unknown disease already weakening the vines that attracted the pest?  Surprisingly, this debate went on for many years, with scientific research to back up such claims at times falling far behind.

Over time, several “solutions” to the phylloxera problem were employed in France, including planting in sand, vineyard submersion, and sulfiding.  Though these methods worked some of the time, none of them were long-term strategies that would be effective against the phylloxera worldwide, nor were some of them particularly good for the environment (re: sulfiding).  Over the next few decades, the best minds at the time eventually determined that they only way to effectively stop the phylloxera from spreading all over the country and destroying all of the vineyards (and ultimately the only source of income for many families at the time) was to graft the vines onto American rootstock.

Of course, since it was ultimately discovered that imported American vines were the cause of the initial phylloxera outbreak to begin with, acceptance of this grafting onto American rootstock method caused much contention and controversy throughout the French countryside.  Over time, however, this proven method was eventually embraced by vineyards across the country, though there would always be some debate about whether or not a better method existed that would keep French vines “pure”.

Chapters 5 and 6 describe how the phylloxera spread throughout Europe, Australia, and South Africa, and details how each country took to solving the crisis.  One would think that each country would simply look at what happened with the French vines and learn from their mistakes, however, the book describes how surprisingly many of the locales would put up a “it can’t happen here” front and completely ignore any of the work done previously in France.  It was as if each location that was affected by the bug was starting from scratch, with no one wanting to believe that this disaster could happen to them.  The book provides fascinating descriptions and insight into how each country handled the situation, and makes one think about human behavior in crises and the ability (or inability) to learn from past mistakes.

Chapter 7 takes us back to France and describes how French people during this time were taking to the new American rootstock and the American vines planted on French soil.  Though many detested the “foxy” wine produced from these American vines, many people realized their choices were limited and gradually learned to enjoy the beverages.

Finally, Chapter 8 describes how phylloxera broke out not once, but twice, in California and how people in America struggled with finding a solution just as much as the Europeans, Australians, and South Africans did regarding how to handle the eradication of the bug.  From reading the book, it amazed me how much different cultures ignored the mistakes and successes of other cultures regarding the phylloxera crisis and how foolishly proud each was.

Overall, I thought this was a fantastic book and was a great read from cover to cover.  I even found myself reading each of the three appendices, which is something I wouldn’t normally do if I did not enjoy the subject matter or the author’s writing abilities.  This book made me curious as to how this crisis affected the overall psychology and health of the people involved, which is a topic of interest of many scientific research studies, including one summarized here on this blog.  Since the focus of this book was on the ecological/viticultural side of things, I knew not to expect answers to these questions; however after reading this book by George Gale, I want to know more!

If you’re at all interested in the history of wine, ecology, entomology, or just overall good writing, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book! 

You may purchase is on Amazon by clicking on this link:  Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Wine

 …or you may buy it directly from the publisher by clicking here:  Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Wine

Happy reading!
I am not a health professional, nor do I pretend to be. Please consult your doctor before altering your alcohol consumption habits. Do not consume alcohol if you are under the age of 21. Do not drink and drive. Enjoy responsibly!