There is nothing quite like an epidemic to motivate innovation. Imagine the year is 1887 and the ground you are standing upon is only a few moons removed from the wilds of Comancheria. In the distance of autumn’s golden dawn, you can make out 15 horse-drawn covered wagons. They’re filled to the brim with thousands of carefully selected and identified native grapevine cuttings from scattered limestone creeks, plateaus, and riversides. Each wagon wheeling its way up and down the Texas Hill Country carries its precious cargo toward a single destination—Cognac, France. These humble scenes are the beginnings of one of the most significant comebacks in agricultural history. This story is of 19th century French and American scientific pioneers who hopped on and off trains steaming out onto the vast uncategorized, untapped natural ecosystems, beyond the reach of western society, to solve a crisis in man’s most ancient and honorable wine trade. Amongst the great titans of this age, few casts as tall a shadow of achievement and influence as the internationally-renowned plant breeder, horticulturist, and inventor, Thomas Volney Munson.1
The Phylloxera Invasion
Phylloxera was first discovered in England in 1863 and made its first appearance in France, in the Gard region, in the mid-1860s. Ironically, imported American vines were integral to introducing the disease to Europe as they were used as grafts for their resistance to oidium (Powdery mildew). The phylloxera infestation spread quickly across all European countries, and by 1880, the entire wine industry was suffering from this pest that devastated millions of vineyard acres. Several hundred remedies were submitted for consideration, but all had problems or faced disapproval from local communities.
The First Attempt
To find a solution, the French sent Pr. Jules-Emile Planchon in 1873 to the United States with two goals: to learn more about phylloxera and determine the best American phylloxera-resistant vines for grafting. Planchon met with Charles Valentine Riley, the former state entomologist of Missouri. He had made the first serious study of phylloxera and relied on his suggestions on the best phylloxera-resistant vines for grafting. Pr. Planchon returned to France with a potential solution to the phylloxera problem, and French vineyardists started grafting as quickly as they could, but the grafted vines died quickly. What was going wrong?
It appears that the vines used, mainly American labruscas, didn’t like the chalky, limestone soil of France; they developed chlorosis and died. Moreover, the vines were tender and hard to graft.
The Second Attempt
In 1887, the French sent another professor, Pierre Viala, viticulturist at Montpellier University to the United States on a new mission of searching for varieties that grow on chalky soils comparable to those in southern France. During his trip, Viala met Thomas Volney Munson, who changed the entire story.
T.V. Munson was born on September 26, 1843, in Fulton County, Illinois. He inherited from his mother her talent of gardening. Throughout her life, Maria Munson had a green thumb and business capacity par excellence, cultivating remarkable gardens of her own original flower varieties, passing down the arts of grafting, budding, and pruning to her son, T.V. When not in school, T.V. and his siblings worked at the family-owned farm where he honed his talent in gardening and farming.
In 1870, T.V. graduated from Kentucky A&M majoring in mathematics and civil engineering and got married to Ellen Scott “Nellie” Bell in Lexington, Illinois. The same year, he continued as an adjunct professor of chemistry and natural history. He retired from the faculty after only a year due to health issues. Afterward, he went to work at his father-in-law’s private nursery business. After the economic depression that struck central Kentucky and the death of his two sons, T.V. decided to start his own nursery business in a new region.
Depression, Drought, then Denison
T.V arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska in September 1873 and started his fruit and vegetable farm. He also established his first vineyard from American grape seeds brought from his mentor’s vineyard, Dr. Robert Peter. However, with the national economic depression in Lincoln, drought damage in 1873, and the hopper invasion in 1874, T.V. and his family moved to Denison, Texas in April 1876. T.V. was excited by Texas biodiversity and the grape hybrids that had naturally developed in the region. He began to lay out his life’s work: to improve the American grape by describing and classifying all the grapes and developing new varieties through scientific crossbreeding of both native grapes and commercial cultivars, including vinifera. For the next fifteen years, he devoted his days to his wild grape studies and established a new nursery that would become the world-famous Denison (later Munson) Nursery, the largest in the South.
Throughout his many grape collecting trips in Texas, other US states, and Mexico, he was able to write many articles on the classification, hybridization, and varieties of grapes.
In 1885, T.V. presented a paper about a new classification of all known American grapes species to the Mississippi Valley Horticultural Society that brought fame to his work. In 1909, he published the Foundations of American Grape Culture that became a definitive source for horticultural authorities. His studies led to the introduction of more than 300 grape varieties.
T.V.’s extensive knowledge about American vines from his years of grape-hunting helped to direct Pr. Viala, who was on a mission to find phylloxera-resistant vines that could thrive in chalky soils. Thanks to T.V., Viala had found what he was looking for in the Hill Country in Texas—an area known for its limestone and marl soils. In the poor soils of the Temple-Belton area (Bell County), he found abundant examples of Vitis berlandieri that both he and T.V. thought would be most useful in France. Viala had also seen splendid examples of Vitis cinerea and Vitis cordifolia growing in the limestone of Texas.
To combat phylloxera, Viala recommended three species: Vitis berlandieri, Vitis cinerea and Vitis cordifolia – “All Texans”. Saving the French vineyards from phylloxera could be done by grafting upon native Texas vines.
The French started to graft and plant, especially with berlandieri. But the difficulties in rooting the cuttings, which Viala reported, appeared as an emerging problem. In response, the French began genetically developing their own rootstocks by cross-pollinating the phylloxera-resistant American grapes with European ones. They used berlandieri, rupestris and riparia to create hybrid rootstocks for grafting. Berlandieri crossed with Chasselas yielded the rootstock 41B, and berlandieri crossed with Cabernet-Sauvignon produced Number 333 School of Montpellier. Both rootstocks were resistant to phylloxera and chlorosis and were used to replant the Champagne and Cognac regions. Later crosses included Number 99 Richter, 110 Richter, 1103 Paulsen, and 140 Ruggeri.
Well done, Munson!
In 1888, T.V. Munson and two other Americans (Jaeger and Lamson-Scribner) were named Chevaliers de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole—a great honor from France.
During his life, Munson received numerous other awards and honors, and in 1906, the University of Kentucky awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science degree.
After resolving the phylloxera problem, T.V. settled down to his business, his family, his writing, and his educational work. He continued to live in Denison with his wife and seven children until he died on January 21, 1913.
Some heroes don’t wear capes; their brave labors forge a legacy that grows so well into the future; it stretches onto a frontier beyond. Thank you, T.V. Munson, for your great achievement, and thank you, Texas, for your generosity… the state that saved the wine industry.
* Additional acknowledgement to Trevor Vaughan for participating in this article
1 Facts in this article are referenced from McLeRoy, Sherrie S., and Roy E. Renfro, Jr., Ph.D. Grape Man of Texas: The Life of T.V. Munson. Eakin Press, 2004