Sharpshooters Take Aim At Northern Californian Vines

Agriculture inspectors are the ever watchful guardians of the Northern California wine industry, worth $600 million, from a small but deadly adversary.

The glassy-winged sharpshooter is a sap sucking insect just over 1cm long. They are the main carrier of Pierce’s disease, an incurable condition caused by the bacterium, Xylella Fastidiosa, which starves an infected plant of water and nutrients.

Pierce’s disease affects vital economically important crops that grow in the warm climates of North and South America. It affects plants supplying as almonds, blueberries, citrus fruits, coffee, peaches, plums and yes you’ve guessed it, grapes.

Pierce’s disease has a history that is almost as old as the California’s wine industry.

In 1857 the Los Angeles Vineyard Society settled in the Santa Ana Valley. Within 25 years the area was producing over a million gallons of wine annually. Then in 1883 almost all of the vines inexplicably died. For ten years farmers tried unsuccessfully to rejuvenate the industry but to no avail. The Southern Californian wine industry effectively ceased for forty years, finally killed by the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) in 1919.

In 1889 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dispatched Newton B. Pierce, to Santa Ana to determine the cause of the disaster. After extensive research he finally concluded in 1892 that the vines had been killed by an incurable microorganism.

It is only relatively recently that Pierce’s disease, as it came to be known, was more understood and recognised as a threat to vines. However, it took a major outbreak caused by glassy-wing sharpshooters in Temecula in 1999, to galvanise action.

Initially spread by the blue-green sharpshooter, Pierce’s disease is now far more effectively spread by the glassy-winged sharpshooter. Introduced accidentally to Southern California in 1989 through imported nursery stock from the southern U.S., the glassy-winged sharpshooter spreads Pierce’s disease with great speed. This insect is a voracious feeder and breeds quickly creating a multitude of offspring.

So great is the threat of the disease and the insects carrying it that the U.S. government has committed more than $60 million to try and defend California’s $3 billion wine industry. Worldwide there is a huge amount of research going into stopping this disease. Researchers in Sao Paolo, Brazil, have even mapped the genome of Xyella Fastidiosa.

This is not just an American problem. Southern Italy reported an outbreak of Pierce’s disease last year and now has more than a million infected olive trees. Vinis Vinifera, the European vine, has no immunity. Research into breeding resistant vines is ongoing.

Pierces disease is costing California over $100 million a year according to the Center for Wine Economics. Northern California, largely free of glassy-winged sharpshooters, is only able to remain so thanks to hard working agricultural inspectors and constant vigilance.

Image by Reyes Garcia III, USDA Agricultural Research Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Man’s Best Friend To Keep Vineyards Safe

No, we aren’t talking about guard dogs.

A few years ago whilst waiting in an airport for a flight to Koh Samui, Thailand, we encountered a little cocker spaniel. She ran up to us and started pointing at our hand luggage. Having nothing to hide and feeling slightly bemused we dutifully unpacked our bags. It turned out that the clever dog had smelled the 5,000 Thai Bhat in small bills we were carrying.

Sniffer dogs are wondrous animals; highly trained and able to detect people, explosives, narcotics and even, as we found out, the ink on printed money.

If you thought they couldn’t get any more useful, it seems they will shortly be able to protect vineyards from pests and disease.

Sonja Needs, a researcher at Melbourne University, is training sniffer dogs to detect phylloxera, the scourge of vineyards. This tiny relative of the aphid feeds on the roots of grapevines, sucking the sap from them. The resulting damage leaves the vine susceptible to disease. If you want to know more about phylloxera, read our recent post.

Phylloxera is currently present in Australia in Victoria and New South Wales. The rest of the country has remained unaffected. Dogs capable of sniffing out this pest could be vital in keeping phylloxera from spreading.

Australia puts a lot of resources into wine production. Grafted vines are key to this. North American vines are more resistant to phylloxera. Grape growers can graft their vines onto the rootstock from North American vines to allow them to grow the variety they want whilst reducing the chances of phylloxera taking hold. According to the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia, in 2012 76,000 hectares of vineyards were planted in that state, which is more than double the total amount planted by the whole of New Zealand for the same year. Of those vines planted around a fifth were planted purely for their phylloxera resistant rootstocks – a huge investment in fighting this disease.

Vines under attack from phylloxera often show no noticeable evidence of this above ground. Dogs capable of sniffing out this pest could play a vital role in preventing it spreading. Areas that are cleared of phylloxera can be frequently checked, as can harvesting equipment to ensure the disease is not being accidentally spread. Most of Australia is phylloxera free, and these dogs could keep it that way.

Training a dog for detection is basically a process of getting it to recognise a smell, and then playing increasingly difficult hide and seek games with a reward each time.

With phylloxera, Ms Needs thinks the key will be training the dogs to sniff it out at increasingly deeper depths in the soil, between three and four feet down. Phylloxera is dormant in winter so the ideal scenario would be to detect it when it is not active.

Ms Needs is also helping to give unwanted dogs something to do. Apparently dogs that tend to be hyperactive or difficult to control make excellent sniffer dogs – all they need is a job to do.

So, just in case you needed another reason to appreciate Man’s best friend, thanks to them for working to keep vineyards pest free!

Full story in ABC.

Image is “a nose for fun” by Salem Eames [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How Victorian Botanists Unwittingly Changed European Winemaking Forever

A few select European wines are sold as:

“produced with grapes from ungrafted rootstock”

Ever wondered what that means? Let us tell you!

Vitis Vinifera, the common Europe wine grape, has between 5,000 and 10,000 varietals. Of these, only a few account for nearly all European wine production (we posted about the lack of grape diversity previously).

The current method for growing vines in Europe relies on grafting Vitis Vinifera onto the rootstock of North American vines. A small number of wines are produced using grapes from “ungrafted” vines, but these are usually phenomenally expensive.

Grafting is time consuming and can be difficult. So, why don’t we use ungrafted vines for all European wines?

The short answer is, we can’t.

Grape phylloxera, the scourge of vineyards, makes the use of ungrafted vines impossible almost everywhere in Europe. This tiny relative of the aphid feeds on the roots of grapevines, sucking the sap from them. The resulting damage leaves the vine susceptible to disease.

Grape species native to North America, such as Vitis Labrusca, have developed some resistance to phylloxera. The roots of American vines can secrete a sticky sap that clogs the mouths of phylloxera. If the insect manages to cut into the roots of American vines then once they have moved on the vine can grow a layer of tissue over the wound to prevent bacterial or fungal infection.

North American vines are equipped to defend themselves against phylloxera. However, Vitis Vinifera is not.

French colonists tried to grow Vitis Vinifera in North America in the 16th Century but the vineyards inexplicably failed. Discovering the cause was made all the more difficult by the behaviour of phylloxera. Once the roots have lost a large percentage of sap the pest moves on. Usually, this is before the vine shows any signs of distress. Digging up a dying vine will not likely reveal any of the insects in the roots.

It was subsequently assumed that European vines simply couldn’t be grown in North America. Nobody could understand why.

In the 19th Century it became common practice to import exotic non-native plants into Europe. This was very much a feature of the Victorian era, with Botanists excitedly experimenting with growing plant species gathered from far away places.

With the advent of steamships, crossings of the Atlantic could be carried out in record time. Hence, it is thought that phylloxera began to survive the crossing in the roots of North American vines imported into Europe.

Of course, the inevitable happened, and European wine making was forever changed by what became known as the Great French Wine Blight of the 1850s. That century somewhere between 66% and 90% of all vineyards in Europe were destroyed by the ensuing phylloxera epidemic.

The only known method found to combat phylloxera was proposed by two French wine growers, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, in the 1870s. This technique, namely rootstock grafting, is still in use today. European vines are grafted onto the roots of North American vines. This allows the vines to produce fruit as normal and the roots to have some chance of surviving phylloxera.

A few vineyards did escape the phylloxera epidemic and now produce the only examples of European wines as they were before the epidemic. These ungrafted vines produce grapes which are made into very expensive wines, such as Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Françaises Champagne, and Quinta do Noval’s Nacional Vintage Port.

The debate about whether or not grafted or ungrafted vines produce the best grapes is still ongoing to this day.

Image is “Phylloxera cartoon“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Crazy For Cabernet? Chile Has The Goods

Let’s start off with a bold statement:

“Our Undurraga T.H. Pirque Alto Maipo 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is excellent”

even if we do say so ourselves. It scored 18/20 in Decanter Magazine’s March edition. At the same time it lives in the £12-15 price bracket, it is incredibly good value.

Every time we crack open a bottle of Undurraga we are blown away by the combination of fruit and spice balanced beautifully with a graceful body. It is undoubtably one of our favourite wines.

However… why is it that people typically don’t open a bottle of Chilean Cabernet for a special occasion?


Chile is a country with a long and proud history of wine making in general, and Cabernet in particular. Cabernet vines have been grown in Chile since the 1850s making up just under a third of the 130,000 hectares of vineyards in the country.

It must be incredibly galling to the Chilean wine industry that its products do not demand higher prices abroad. For example, if you were looking for an equivalent vintage Bordeaux you would pay at least ten times as much as you would for a Chilean Cab.

However, their loss is our gain. Red wines coming out of Chile have never been better or more popular.

Whilst the producers are struggling to raise the price point on their wines, take the plunge, grab yourself a bargain and crack open a Chilean Cab on a special occasion. We are willing to bet, neither you nor anyone else enjoying your wine, will be disappointed!

If you are interested in our cab, it’s available here.


Russia Moves To Tackle Counterfeit Wine

Counterfeit alcohol is big business in Russia. Decanter Magazine recently covered new steps taken by the government to do something about it.

The Independent reported in 2010 that an official from the Federal Service for Alcohol Market Regulation stated that 50% of wine and 70% of cognac on sale in Russia was counterfeit. That year around 927 million litres of wine was consumed, constituting off-trade sales of around £5.2 billion. That’s of lot of money!

To combat this Russia is introducing minimum pricing for wine, expected to be around 100 Roubles per litre, (or 75p) for a 750ml bottle. A similar strategy was taken in 2010 to combat counterfeit vodka. This has reduced the volume of counterfeit vodka sold by 25-30% and is expected to have a similar effect on the counterfeit wine trade.

75p a bottle might seem cheap but average wages in Russia are around 40,000 roubles a month, or £400. In the UK the average monthly salary is more than 5 times higher than that at around £2,200 before tax. Apparently wine retailers in Russia are concerned that setting a minimum price might drive people to cheaper alcohol.

We recently wrote about Russia increasing investment in it’s wine industry. The anti-counterfeit measures coincide with an initiative to grow Russian vineyards from 90,000 to 140,000 hectares by 2020, a 55% increase. A third of the existing 90,000 hectares was gained when Russian annexed the Crimean peninsular in 2014.

According to The Moscow Times, this is all part of a push to restore Russian wine production to the glory days of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s the USSR had around 200,000 hectares of vineyards. In contrast, France has around 867,000 hectares of vineyards.

Today Russia’s vineyards are subsidised by the government to the tune of around £5.8 million annually. This represents between 10-20% the cost of growing grapes. However, this pales into insignificance when compared to the subsidies France provides.

France receives around £9 billion under the European Union (EU) Common Agricultural Policy and will be spending an EU grant of £230 million this year just on promoting it’s wine outside the EU. French vineyards receive subsidies of between 60-80%.

Full story in Decanter.

Image by 17Rising17 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons