The spread of phylloxera – the vine-destroying American aphid – through Italy in the late nineteenth century has often been described in print but only rarely in English. The following is the most extensive passage in that language known to this author and comes from George Ordish’s The Great Wine Blight (Sidgwick and Jackson 1987), 172-175.
‘Though the phylloxera was probably present in Italy in 1870 it does not appear to have been recognised until 1875 or to have become at all general until 1879, when it was found at Lecco and Agrate, Milan Province. The reason for its slow spread was the comparatively isolated nature of Italian vineyards and the habit of growing many vines through trees on long extension shoots. Such plants tend to have deep roots in firmly pressed ground. There is thus no opportunity for the aphids to enter through cracks in the soil and attack the roots.
At first the Italians saw the phylloxera in France as a great opportunity for them. ‘L’Italian può diventare la prima cantina d’Europa’. Sempé found their statistics difficult. He says: ‘…they are no shining example of fixity and permit all sorts of conclusions to be drawn from them, allowing the viticultural papers on the others side of the Alps great opportunities to make some very strange calculations.’ And later he refers to their bizarreries and the contradictions in them.
The usual course was followed, it being realized finally that American roots were the answer. At first it left the provision of the new plants to private enterprise and to some wine-growers’ organisations, but later some government control became essential (Royal Decree of 4th March 1888 (3rd series), unifying the decrees of 24th May 1874) to overcome the ignorance and fraud prevalent at that time.
Vignerons were in great haste to ‘reconstitute’ their vineyards and the ‘wood-merchants’ prospered, ‘for the wretched purchaser is not in a position to complain very much until two or three years have passed, if he has been supplied with fraudulent or unsuitable material. Many a bundle of ‘first-class American wood’’ in passing from hand to hand changed its variety as many times, now being 420A, now 3309, now 41B, according to local preference’. The State encouraged viticultural associations (consorzi) which were easily formed in the north, if they did not already exist, but had to be pushed in the south, and came to exercise more and more control over the sale of rootstocks.
Trained teams were sent out to destroy foci and frequently met with considerable resistance, as in the Côte d’Or, France. The Government bore half the cost of these measures, mostly abandoned during the First World War, which gave the pest a chance to spread. At the end of the war the appalling results of some of the early ‘reconstitution’ plantings were but too obvious, and energetic steps were taken to regularize the nursery business (Law No. 1363, 26 September 1920). A feature of the earlier campaign was the establishment of a nursery on the island of Monte-Cristo where half a million genuine American plants, true to name and free from phylloxera, were raised and distributed free throughout Tuscany. The Government distributed free cuttings of Americans, particularly York-Madeira, and 120 k. of American vine seed and gave subsidies to growers who would establish vineyards with this material.
The Italians produced a number of distinguished phylloxera specialists, such as the famous Professor Battista Grassi, who published an exhaustive study of the genus (thus including other species of Phylloxera, such as quercus) in 1912. Even at this late date the infestation was not large. Grassi estimated that out of 4.5 million ha. of vines in Italy just under 4 million were still unattacked. But he also points out that this is no reason for complacency. The member of the Chamber of Deputies who maintained that there was no need to worry about or to vote funds for phylloxera defence because France had been attacked and had overcome the pest by means of American vines, said Grassi, forgot to mention the trifling fact that it cost their neighbour11 million thousand francs! One did not have to be a prophet, or the son of a prophet, to predict that if steps were not taken the phylloxera would not stop until it had destroyed every vinifera in Europe.
In addition to being a great scientist Grassi was a remarkably practical man with an ability to put across his ideas in striking terms. He laid down a successful Italian policy. In 1908 he pointed out that the country did not have the money to destroy the phylloxera; no minister dared ask for the sums needed, which would be at least 100 million lire a year, when the total vote was but 1.5 million, the same sum now with 600,000 ha. attacked as when there were 60. Here he quoted an old saying: ‘The cake is always the same size and all we get is smaller slices of it.’ Even the great German ‘success’ in Alsace, where they spent a million marks in destruction of foci was all talk. A recent inspection showed Alsace to be infected in spit of the million spent. It was too late to destroy foci one by one because that would not stop the pest spreading. What was needed for people to know the pest and to delay its attack whilst reconstituting on American roots. The pest was spread by rooted cuttings and plants and never by bare cuttings. The legislation prohibiting the movement of all vines should be repealed and applied only to plants and roots. By allowing the innocuous cuttings to move freely one would avoid the temptation at present existing of smuggling roots around the country and thus spreading the pest. Grassi’s hearers were not to think that he was advocating a ‘free phyloxera in a free Italy’ (a reference to Cavour’s slogan, ‘a free state in a free Italy’) but just common sense. His policy was adopted in essence and, as noted above, considerable control was exercised over nurseries.’
SYTags: George Ordish, Battista Grassi