It's too bad that wine did not have the mainstream popularity in the 1980s that it has today, because some metal band could have cleaned up with a name like Phylloxera.
Can you imagine that word, stylized in a jagged font and splayed across both heads of a double-bass-drum set? No umlauts needed. It looks cool, it sounds cool (pronounced "fil-LOX-er-uh") and it contains an "x," the most important letter in any metal band's name, even surpassing the awesomeness that replacing an "s" with a "z" provides. Heavy metal, death metal, hair metal – anyone in leotards, leather or eyeliner could have scored big with that name.
We'll never know if Phylloxera would have succeeded as a metal band, but it's been horrible for the wine industry. Perhaps that is yet another reason it would have made for a great band name – because of the havoc it has wreaked on the livelihood of so many people.
In reality, phylloxera is no joke (neither is Anthrax, or even Poison, for that matter). It's one of those words you come across on your wine journey, and although it does not really have anything to do with your enjoyment of wine and food, it doesn't hurt to know generally what it's all about. It's one of those topics that can lead down many interesting side streets and alleyways of discovery.
Though it kind of sounds like a disease (at least to me it does), phylloxera is actually an insect, a type of plant lice about 1/30th of an inch long. To put that in nonmath terms for all of you English majors out there, it's really tiny. But massive power lies within the itty-bitty yellow body of the phylloxera bug: In the mid- to late-1800s, the root-attacking louse came close to wiping wine clear off the face of the earth.
In France alone, it is estimated that more than 6 million acres of vineyards were destroyed. Phylloxera infestation wiped out colossal swaths of vineyard acreage in other countries across Europe too. The little menace did not stop there; its destruction spread beyond Europe, to Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and even California. Only a few places in the wine world were spared: Argentina, Chile, some parts of Australia, a region in Portugal called Colares, and a few Mediterranean islands, among some other select locales.
And here comes the irony. In the ultimate example of "ugly American" travel, these bugs – impatient, rude and born in the USA – started their European destruction tour after catching a ride on native American vines bound for the continent in the 1860s. Obviously agricultural importing and exporting procedures were much more lax back then, and the exchange of plants for experimentation was not an uncommon practice. But what's that old saying? A few bad apples can spoil the bunch? All it took were a few bugs (OK, maybe more than a few) to rattle the wine industry to the point of potential collapse.
Phylloxera is a silent and stealth killer, destroying grapevines by attacking their roots. The American Vitis labrusca vines and roots, on which the insects stowed away across the Atlantic, were naturally immune to the pest. Once the bugs latched onto the roots of the European Vitis vinifera vines, the damage began. Are you wondering, then, how the same bugs were able to decimate California vineyards in the 1870s, only a handful of years after ripping through France?
The answer brings even more irony. Early California winemakers shunned native American vines in favor of Vitis vinifera from Europe, which are known for producing many of the world's finest wine grape varieties. Of course, the bugs had a field day when they reached Northern California and got a whiff of the Old World vines.
The solution, in France, California and elsewhere in the world, was to pull up the European roots and plant American roots, grafting the European (vinifera) vines onto them. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but to fix an "American" problem, European winemakers had to dig up their ancient vineyards and replant them with American roots. In California, winemakers had to do the same, grafting Old World vines onto native rootstock.
The devastating pest was finally under control, wine had been saved and there was much bacchanalian rejoicing for close to 100 years. And then in 1983 it happened again – this time in California when a new strain of phylloxera, biotype B, attacked a popular rootstock (dubbed AxR1) that had been planted widely there in prior decades. Scientists had been certain that the roots, would be phylloxera-resistant, but one of the parent vines was vinifera.
The infestation spread into Oregon and Washington, and accordingly, waves of heartbreak and enormous expense followed. Remember that if you are a winemaker and you rip up your vineyards and replant them, it can take several years before the vines are producing grapes mature enough for winemaking. There is no instant reset button in a vineyard or winery.
Today the majority of the world's vineyards grow on American rootstock, all because of a costly error made a century-and-a-half ago. From the lowliest jug wine vineyards to the most-revered plots of land in France, there are American roots in the soil. The irony is enough to make your head spin, even if you haven't been a headbanger since the '80s. And there's still time to start that band, by the way.