Grapes, Grasshoppers, & Grafting

By Travis H. Brown

As a native of Ste. Genevieve County and their Route Du Vin, it is pleasing to report that Missouri now has more than 100 local wineries in production.  As regions such as Hermann, St. James, and Augusta lobby hard for local tourism dollars and regional respect, many Missourians may not realize how much le monde du vin (the world of wine) owes to Show Me State discovery.

In the 1860’s, an aphid-based plague known as phylloxera ravaged most of Europe’s most precious vines.  It was to grapes what the black plaque was human civilization, threatening to ruin entire populations of varietals within a few growing seasons.  It is such an important threat the Institut Francais de la Vigne et du Vin (IFV) has numerous research studies on its impact still today.

Then our Missouri valentine arrived.  Enter a bug doctor – Charles Valentine Riley, to be precise, Missouri’s first state entomologist.  Thanks to Riley’s tedious study of grasshopper infestations across various states, he lobbied hard for our United States Department of Agriculture to advance many of his biological control methods.  Riley helped develop a grafting technique using native Missouri rootstocks resistant to the pest, which arguably saved the world of fine wines.

I am told that Missouri had more than 200 active wineries prior to the government policy swing brought by the Prohibition Era.  A curious political twist of fate from this movement was that the alliance between the women’s temperance movement and anti-saloon league to ban alcohol ironically helped propel a national income tax.

So, the next time you met a French viticulturist, remind him that he should thank Missouri for giving his vineyard strong American roots.  If the comments back were like mine years ago in Sancerre, you’ll be saying “a la vache!”