During the winter of 1888, Thomas Volney Munson led an expedition into the Texas hills between Bexar and Bell Counties. The fruit of his efforts would be fifteen wagon loads of sticks and one knighthood.
The reason behind Munson’s great twig hunt had it’s roots five thousand miles away.
In the late 1860s, a mysterious sickness began killing French grape vines. By 1884 over 60% of the grape vines in France had been wiped out and more were being destroyed every year. Unless something was done, French viticulture would not see the twentieth century.
And it was not just France that was losing it’s grapes. Vineyards in Italy and Germany were also being devastated.
The government of France offered 300,000 francs in gold for anyone who could produce a cure.
Everything from bovine urine to sealing wax to volcanic ash was tried, but nothing slowed the creeping death. In one place several miles of railroad track was torn up because it was theorized that iron leaching from the rails was the culprit.
It was finally determined the responsible party was Phylloxera Vastatrix, a type of aphid. The critter was American and had invaded France on the roots of vines imported from the New World for grafting experiments in the 1850s.
American vines had been introduced to France earlier, but those plants had come on sailing vessels which crossed the Atlantic at a speed slow enough to break the insect’s life cycle. The vines responsible for this plague had crossed on steamships.
Back to Texas and T. V. Munson.
He was a horticulturist from Denison famous for his work in collecting in identifying wild grape species. Known as the Grape Man of Texas, in his travels he had identified several species resistant to Phylloxera Vastatrix.
Which is what brought him to the south central part of the state that winter. Munson and his team were gathering dormant cuttings of Vitis Berlandieri (Winter Grape or Spanish Grape), Vitis Cordifolia (Riverbank Grape or Frost Grape) and Vitis Cinerea (Sweet Winter Grape.)
Those fifteen wagon loads of Texas grape cutting were sent to France, where they provided the resistant rootstock for European wine grape species to grow from.
A grateful French nation awarded Munson the Legion of Honor and knighted him Chevalier du Merite Agricole. But he didn’t get the gold.
Growing French vines on Texas roots didn’t meet the technical definition of a cure. That award would go to whoever could kill the bug. It is yet to be collected. Nothing kills Phylloxera Vastatrix.
If you have an old family recipe, you might want to try for the prize. But even if you have no mind for bugicide, it’s fun to note that all those fancy French wines have Texas roots. And it’s not just the French wines.
The sacramental wine used by the Pope when he celebrates mass in Rome is made from Vitis Vinifera grapes grown on vines sustained by Texas roots.