Lewis Lapham: Gold Insects Destroyed Europe’s Grapevines

In 1863, vineyards in France’s Rhone Valley began to sicken. Leaves drooped, the fruit did not ripen, and inevitably the plants died. Vast tracts were affected, yet no one knew the cause of the catastrophe.

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Finally, in 1868, a group of scientists led by Jules-Emile Planchon came to the rescue: They dug up healthy and diseased vines and compared the difference.

Planchon spotted the tiny gold insects covering the roots, each about the size of a pinprick. They sucked sap, starving the plants.

Since they resembled the insects recently found on oak leaves, Phylloxera quercus, Planchon called them Phylloxera vastatrix -- the destroyer.

This plague, as well as a devastating series of fungal infections, came from North America. As Europeans imported New World nursery stock, along came pests and diseases against which Old World growth had no resistance.

I spoke with Paul Lukacs, author of “Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures,” on the following topics:

1. Divine Gift

2. Drink & Discuss

3. Aristocratic Beverage

4. Technological Advances

5. Wine for All

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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

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