Wild Bell County grapes saved the French wine industry

Vitis Berlandieri grapes. (Texas A&M photo)
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BELTON, Texas (KWTX) In the mid-1800s the wine industry in France was teetering on failure because grapevines were dying by the wagonload, but a transplanted Texan, and wild grapes from Bell County, saved it all.

Actually it wasn’t the grapes themselves, but the root stock the grapevines grew on at a place called Dog Ridge, about nine miles west of Belton, where the savior grapes grow still today.

“They don’t grow just in Bell County but in several places near and in the Hill Country,” Gary Slanga, master gardener and grape specialist in Bell County, said.

The great French wine blight in the mid-19th Century wiped out as many as 40 percent of the ancient grape crops in France and devastated the wine industry there.

Ironically it was a native American insect, there still is debate but probably Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, commonly known as grape phylloxera, that was attacking French grapevines at their root and killing the plants.

The bugs were imported from America by French vineyard masters in the 1850s that unknowingly brought the aphid-like creatures when they took vines from the U.S. back to France.

While French vineyards were considered to be the worst affected, the bugs did damage throughout Europe’s wine industry.

French vintners were frantic watching as their ancient plants withered and died in their fields and nothing, not chemicals or other remedies, worked.

Damage to the French economy at the time was estimated to be more than $10 billion Francs.

But there was this guy, a transplanted Texan, who had made it his life’s work to study grapes; how they grew, how they reproduce, what problems affected them and how to overcome those problems.

When French farmers found Thomas Volney Munson in Denison, he had an answer.

Munson suggested the French use root stock from a wild grape that grew in Bell County, a bit east of Belton, then graft their ancient plants onto the roots that were resistant to the insects.

Munson recommended the Europeans use a Texas native grape called Vitis Berlandieri, the leading candidate, or cinerea and cordifolia (vulpina) grapes secondarily.

Munson specified the types of native Texas grapes because he realized that the soils in Bell County closely mimicked the limey soils in French vineyards and those particular varieties were very tolerant of high pH limey soils.

The grape, which still grows wild in parts of Texas, is hearty and quite different from Mustang grapes, which also grow wild in Texas,” Slanga said.

“There are 13 varieties of wild grapes that grow in Texas,” Slanga said.

“These Berlandieri produce large stems of grapes, unlike the Mustang grape that may have only four or five grapes on a stem, Berlandieri will have a dozen or more.

“But they’re very small, almost like peas,” he said.

From a Texas history website: “For four months in south central Texas, from Bell to Bexar counties, Munson organized dozens of workers and land owners who collected 15 wagons of dormant stem cuttings for shipment to France.”

Slanga seconded that: “I’ve always heard there were 15 wagon-loads,” he said.

“Most importantly, all lots were identified by species and shipped via three ships to southern France,” the historic website said.

“Hundreds of villages were saved and thousands of grape growers were able to grow grapes again.

“The rootstocks used throughout the world today originated in Europe from the Texas native grape material from Munson,” the article said.

Munson worked with French agriculturalists to perfect the root stock and identifying hybrids, the French used it and the wine industry was saved.

Still today there is no remedy for Phylloxera, or the disease associated with it and it still poses a real threat to vineyards not planted with grafted rootstock.

Munson, born in Astoria, Ill. in September 1843, at an early age began studying horticulture and it was a passion for him, especially grapes.

After graduating from the University of Kentucky he moved to Lincoln, Neb., where he became interested in the various ways he could improve all the various species of grapes that grew in the United States.

He planned to do extensive work in the areas of pollination and hybridization, his biography says.

His experiments in Nebraska failed and soon he re-located to Denison, where two of his brothers already lived.

He was a skilled botanist and viticulturist and wrote a book for the U.S. Department of Agriculture called Native Trees of the Southwest.

For more than 30 years Munson travelled both the U.S. and Mexico, recording more than 50,000 miles by train, on horseback and on foot, documenting grapes.

He repeated his work in France in California in the 20th Century when a similar infestation threatened vineyards there and caused more than $1 billion in damage.

While primarily known as a horticulturalist, Munson also was widely known as a member of the Freethinker movement and was regarded as an inventor who is credited with an early design of the helicopter.

He served two terms as treasurer of the Texas Liberal Association, first elected to that post at a meeting in Waco in 1890.

He died in Denison in January 1913, but for his work with the French the French government named him Chevalier du Merite Agricole of the French Legion of Honor, and Cognac, France, became a sister city to Munson's home of Denison.

The industry in France didn’t stay dormant long and today it’s huge,

Data for 2016 show France produced 47,857,000 liters of wine; only Italy produced more at 51,496 liters, according to numbers posted by the Commission Europeenne Direction Generale de L’Agriculture et du Developpement Rural.

“Wine production is France’s second-largest export sector, and it directly or indirectly employs more than 558,000 people,” France Diplomatie, a French government website says.

“Wine production is France’s second-largest export sector, and it directly or indirectly employs more than 558,000 people.”

But the legacy Munson left behind has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry in Texas, too.

People who keep track of such things for the State of Texas say the Lone Star State was the home of the first vineyard established in North America when Franciscan priests planted vines on land that eventually would be called Texas in 1662.

There are some that disagree, saying European immigrants planted vineyards on the east coast earlier than that.

Whichever, the wine industry in Texas accounted for $2.27 billion to the state’s economy last year and had more than 4,000 acres of vineyard farmland in cultivation.

The industry employed more than 12,750 fulltime workers and paid them $528 million in salaries and wages.

More than 1.8 million guests visited Texas’ 400 wineries last year and while there spent $482.9 million.

The oldest continually operating winery in the state is the Val Verde Winery, in Del Rio, established in 1883 by Italian immigrant Frank Qualia.

“He found Lenoir grapes flourishing under the warm Southwest Texas sun, and founded the winery,” the winery’s webpage says.

“After his death in 1936, his youngest son, Louis Qualia, took over the vineyards, who in turn passed the winery to his youngest son, Thomas, in 1973.”

There are several wineries in Central Texas, too, including the Salado Creek Winery, the Salado Winery and Salado Wine Sellers, Chupacabra Craft Beer and Salado Lone Star Winery, all in Salado.

There’s also the Nolan Creek Winery and Wine Bar, in Belton, the Dancing Bee Winery, in Rogers, Kissing Tree Vineyards and The Vineyard at Florence, both in Florence and Pilot Knob Vineyard, in Bertram.

(Information presented in this account was gathered from the Texas State Historical Association’s website, from French government websites, from data collected and maintained on a Denison, Texas website and from personal interviews)