Our New Phylloxera: Finding a Silver Lining for Wine During the Coronavirus Pandemic

By 1881, when the International Phylloxera Congress at Bordeaux had convened, the wine industry faced a global catastrophic threat. Vineyards across Europe were decimated, killed deep underground at their roots by a mysterious and virulent disease. The sickness reproduced asexually at a logarithmic rate, creating circular rings of expanding contagion in one vineyard that were inadvertently transported to adjacent vineyards where new deadly hot spots would emerge. 

The outbreak could not be contained, and it would eventually be transmitted from France to the rest of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and back to the United States—ironically, where it had originated. It spread stealthily and determinedly by ship, locomotive, carriage and even on the bottom of a boot. Following just a few decades after the painful Great Potato Famine that redrew world migration maps, the Great Wine Blight had traveled full circle around the globe causing more dire economic and social consequences. Agricultural systems and cultural and political institutions were forever changed. At its peak, the entire wine industry risked total collapse.

Today, our industry faces a new pandemic threat. Only this time it comes as a biological threat to humans, not to grapevines. It comes from a disease that paradoxically limits our ability to inhale oxygen, not unlike the manner in which a root disease limits a plant’s ability to absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale. 

The new coronavirus (COVID-19) is poised to disrupt the wine industry by threatening production, shutting down channels of distribution and temporarily, but abruptly, severing fine wine from its natural markets and faithful consumers in restaurants, small retail shops and direct-to-consumer tasting rooms. Not since the 19th century has wine faced such profound and far-reaching challenges. So much about the coronavirus feels like a repeat of phylloxera.


What Lessons Did We Learn From Phylloxera? 
Dactylasphaera vitifoliae, commonly known as phylloxera, is a microscopic bug, a yellowish aphid that feeds on the roots of vines. It does not distinguish between vines planted haphazardly in a peasant’s backyard or those in the most coveted and carefully manicured cru classé vineyards of a distinguished château. In death and destruction, it is the great equalizer. Once infected, farmers had no choice but to rip out their vineyards and burn the dying wood in giant bonfires. 

Even by the time of the emergency congress in Bordeaux in 1881, there were few working theories on what caused the disease. Some suggested it had to do with changing weather patterns, others hypothesized that it stemmed from poor farming practices. A few shrugged it off as God’s wrath or punishment for our vices. The outlook was grim: somewhere between two-thirds and nine-tenths of all vineyards in Europe had vanished. 

However, phylloxera was eventually overcome at the dawn of a new century, thanks to a welcome handshake between agriculture and science. It was never definitively defeated, because the little louse still lives and continues to produce periodic outbreaks, but we have most assuredly put it in our rearview mirror.


The post-phylloxera years opened an exciting new chapter for wine, and new fortunes too, thanks to the lessons learned during that darkest time. Wine would take the greatest leap of all, going from lowly aliment to an international luxury good, a lifestyle aspiration that transcends travel and food—and a significant percentage of gross domestic product for its biggest producing nations. 

Historians debate the many positive outcomes that phylloxera had on the wine industry, and most agree on at least three broad-brush benefits. First, and most concretely, we have our current designation of origin regulations that came about largely because of the disease. Wine tastes better, ages longer and commands higher prices thanks to geographic boundaries applied to growing areas, limits on yields and defined production methods. When replanting started on a mass scale following phylloxera, government bodies implemented production guidelines in the form of AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) classifications in France, DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) in Italy and eventually the AVA (American Viticultural Area) designations in the United States. These systems started in France in 1935, and every important wine region in the world today is home to similar legislative bodies that set geographic and quality production standards for the mutual benefit of the vintner and the consumer. 

The second and third outcomes are slightly less tangible, and they remain works in progress to this very day. On the one hand, we have a much better grasp on the biological consequences of globalization thanks to our experience with phylloxera. On the other hand, we have created fully collaborative synergies for comprehensive problem-solving between the institutions of agriculture, science and government. 

The question now is: what, if any, opportunities might we gain after this new coronavirus crisis has subsided? It’s too early to make real conclusions, and the realities of fear, uncertainty and loss weigh heavy at this most active and destructive period of the pandemic. However, we can start to see a few glimmers of optimism that shimmer and sparkle in the very remote distance.


Appreciating Our Biodiversity
One cannot help but feel that nature is mocking us. We’ve all seen the images of jellyfish in the crystalline canals of the Venetian Lagoon, sea turtles nesting on quiet beaches, badgers sauntering down shuttered storefronts in Florence, wild boars roaming free in Rome, squirrels furiously taking over Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, coyotes howling in downtown San Francisco or a pride of lazy lions snoozing on the warm asphalt of an empty highway in South Africa. This photographic evidence serves to remind us that nature moves forward according to its own timetable, with or without us. Is she batting us a flirtatious eye or flipping us the proverbial finger? The image that resonates most with me is that of blades of grass growing tall and strong between the sampietrini, the cobblestone pavement in Rome’s Piazza Navona. Nothing is indeed eternal about the Eternal City except for the grass. 

If we suspect we are being mocked on some deep and visceral level, we are likely prompted to reconsider how we interact with our planet and how we can better manage our invasive tendencies into fragile ecosystems. We are urged to recalculate our dynamic with the natural world and the toll we take on biodiversity. We got a first lesson in this subject matter thanks to phylloxera, but we’re now getting an intense crash course thanks to COVID-19.


The wine community is in a unique position to champion these causes. For one, we traffic in biodiversity and embrace it, thanks to our impassioned regard for grape varieties, vintage, soils, weather patterns and the magical confluence of environmental factors that feed our almost mythical notion of terroir. As a wine writer, I write hundreds of thousands of words per year, all meticulously focused on a single specimen of fruit, the wine grape. I’m sure no other fruit on the planet is the subject of such obsessive and plentiful prose. My work constitutes one tome in a massive library of content produced by my colleagues and fellow wine scribes. Our collaboration is a recorded history of grape biodiversity. 

Winegrowers are the physical guardians of that biodiversity, and although there is always room for improvement, fine wine is a pioneering force in sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming practices. Indeed, the very credo of fine wine is expressed as: “let nature do her thing,” “great wine starts in the vineyard,” and “good wine starts with good fruit.” I’ve never met a winemaker comfortable with taking full credit for his or her vinous creation. Top billing in fine wine always goes to Mother Nature. Wine was among the first commercial industries to harness the benefits of green buildings, with underground cellars instead of air-conditioning and gravity instead of pumps. These pro-environment initiatives are in the very DNA of wine. 

Sure, we can use this time during the lockdown to reflect on our own sustainability achievements, and we can plot out a course for more significant systematic improvement. More importantly, we must press for synergies between other areas of agriculture, plus the greater food and travel industries to create a collaborative movement for achieving our goals. 

Phylloxera was ultimately resolved thanks to a coalition of international agriculture, government and research interests. The challenge would mark the beginning of so-called Big Science, defined as scientific progress driven by the coordinated efforts of governments and international organizations during and after World War II. Big Science enjoyed large-scale funding and spurred such lofty and ambitious achievements as high-energy physics, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Apollo program. If science was big back then, it needs to be even bigger today. Bigger Science is key to protecting our planet in the after-virus. 

During this time of COVID-19, we yearn for our old routines, we dream of getting back to our pre-lockdown activities (I’d be happy with a hair cut), and we wish that things would go back to the normal we know. In truth, none of us should want to go back to normal. We can aspire to more. We should want to jump far past normal and go directly to better once this is all over.


Shelter in Place
There is no better place to be on lockdown than on a vineyard. I am writing this essay from my family’s property in California. Around the world, we have amply surpassed the quaranta giorni in Italian, or “forty days,” after which quarantine is named. Beyond my computer screen is a window that opens onto a panorama of ancient oak trees, tall grasses and splashes of bright green from vines out of dormancy. 

Each afternoon, I talk a walk though the vineyard and appreciate countless new discoveries that I feverishly attempt to document with my iPhone camera. These are little snapshots of the sudden burst of energy that comes with budbreak, the momentous unfurling of new leaves and now the miraculous birth of tiny clusters or swelling inflorescence. The growing season has kicked off with more green intensity than I remember from any spring of my past. It feels like the first time I truly watched a vineyard awake. It feels like the first time I stopped to smell the grape flowers, with those fleeting and ephemeral aromas of honey and violets that carry with a soft breeze. 

Speaking for myself, I have not experienced such an intense moment of creativity, new ideas and enthusiasm for backburner projects since I was in my 20s. My thinking has suddenly become so lucid, almost startlingly so. I walk around the house with a little notepad in the front pocket of my baggy hoodie so that I can jot down all these exciting new ideas before they are overshadowed by the next crashing wave of creative thinking. Lockdown has done wonders to my tired, stressed and fatigued brain.


There is great value in staying at home and purpose in being locked in place. For one, we are forced to think locally. Our summer travel plans have been canceled and hopefully refunded, our children are learning at home, and special efforts are being made to care for our elderly. We are trying new recipes, feeding our starter yeast for bread baking and picking up old hobbies. We are physically closer to all the things and people who are most important to us. That aspirational net once cast afar to distant and exotic destinations with so much fidgety restlessness is now locked and stowed in place, at home. 

Phylloxera proved the perils of movement. It demonstrated that disease could spread across continents with devastating consequences. That lesson is being tragically magnified to the nth degree today. Back-to-back news cycles have dutifully plotted the course of a novel virus that presumably spread from a bat—or another animal or a lab—to a person in one corner of the world to a person in another corner with whiplash speed thanks to the 40 million commercial flights our planet accommodates in a normal year. 

Motion, or forward momentum, is a human aspiration and is often synonymous with progress, personal enrichment and financial prowess. However, staying at home is an equally important value that is articulated thanks to catchy slogans like Support Local, Staycation, Farm to Table, Chilometro Zero, Food Miles and many of the social and sustainability movements sparked by grassroots groups such as Slow Food.


Faster, fresher and friendlier is the prescription we need to change the mindset of the consumer. European countries accomplish these goals reasonably well thanks to strong local and regional identities assigned to wine and food. However, the shortcomings of globalized economies are painfully exposed during a global pandemic. 

Wine in corporate distribution is reportedly selling well, but small, family-run wineries face devastating economic consequences despite their eagerness to home deliver, discount or do whatever it takes to move their bottles within local range. Importers started off the year on shaky feet because of tariff threats, and many European wines were never shipped out as a result. We have the almost total shutdown of smaller distribution channels, from retail (wine shops), to on-premise (wine bars and restaurants) and direct-to-consumer (tasting rooms). The fate of the neighborhood restaurant is particularly frightening, with some already selling off their wine libraries to pay back rent. Now that the growing season has started with such vigor, wineries will struggle to find labor for summer canopy management, fruit thinning and harvest. Some producers have already suggested they might be forced to let their fruit rot on the vines if they don’t find seasonal workers to pick it. 

Despite these immense challenges, vineyards tend to be fertile ground for optimistic thinking. Giorgio Rivetti of La Spinetta in Piedmont said it best: “We are farmers, and when you lose three harvests out of ten because of hail or bad weather like we do in Barolo, you instinctively know how to deal with a crisis like coronavirus. The virus is just like any other hail year to us.”


The Art of Grafting 
Phylloxera was eventually overcome when it was discovered that European grapevines would succumb to the plague but that American grapevines could defend themselves and survive. All European wine grapes—up to 10,000 varieties and counting—are part of the Vitis vinifera species. By the simple fact of being a monoculture, they are more vulnerable to infestations and diseases. American vines species like Vitis labrusca evolved to develop natural defenses and immunities through mutation. Their roots create a secretion, like glue, that suffocates the feeding bug and repels it. If damage is done to the roots, the American vine responds with a protective layer of tissue like a Band-Aid. 

Because of lax agricultural regulations in the 19 century, enthusiastic botanists eagerly swapped plant material from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. They were unaware of the negative impacts produced when previously isolated biotypes were mixed indiscriminately. Phylloxera was native to the Eastern part of the United States, researchers say, and it caught a ride on ships carrying American vine clippings or other plant specimens bound for Europe sometime during the mid-1800s. The epidemic spread quickly around the globe, sparing only isolated pockets in South America, Australia, Colares in Portugal and a few Mediterranean islands. However, the disease then ricocheted back to the United States, because by then American winegrowers had embraced Vitis vinifera and a European wine culture. Once finally isolated, French scientists aptly named the disease phylloxera vastatrix, or “the devastator.”


Fixing phylloxera turned out to be shockingly simple. If European vines were grafted onto American rootstocks, the vines would acquire resistance and wine would be saved. With the exception of a few remote vineyards that managed to survive (mostly planted on sandy soils that naturally inhibit the disease), practically every vineyard we know today represents a grafting of genetic material from the Old and New Worlds. 

Grafting is used as a literary metaphor in poetry and writing since the time of the ancients. Those of us who love Italian wine often refer back to the encyclopedia of knowledge—astronomy, mathematics, botany, agriculture, horticulture and more—left to us by Pliny the Elder. His work, Naturalis Historia, offers a detailed record of the indigenous grapes that made wine during the Roman Empire and that continue to make many of the wines we drink today. 

The classicists seized onto the concept of grafting, widening its imaginary meaning to include a union of opposites or a complex transition between worlds. It is a metaphor for social interactions between various economic classes, and it is a political symbol of imperial rule in foreign lands. It is an allegory of fertility and the union of a man and a woman or that of a parent and child. Grafting is a metaphor for the passage between life and death, and ultimately our fragile relationship between God and nature. 

When boiled down to its essence, it is a symbol of only one thing: resilience. If the strength of both the human and natural worlds helped us emerge victorious from the ravages of the past, we can count on resilience to carry us forward now.

This image of harvesters was borrowed from the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture in Briones, Spain. The old-vine photography above is mine. I hoped to capture the singular personality of every plant, each an enduring symbol of strength, life and resilience.

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