T.V. Munson was a celebrated viticulturist and horticulturist hailing from Texas via Illinois. A self-confessed “grape-lover,” Munson spent his professional life researching native American varieties, as well as perfecting innovating viticultural practices including grafting.
Such was his stature within these fields that the French turned to Munson to save Europe from the devastating effects of Phylloxera. His subsequent efforts earned him numerous accolades in France as well as a cementing his name in history as the American who helped saved the European wine industry.
Great French Wine Blight
In 1863, the first documented phylloxera attack occurred in the Languedoc region of France. Wine makers noticed the effects of the aphid on vines and rootstock, though it took more than a decade for local scientists to discover the cause of what they were seeing. The delay was costly, affording the pest time to cause widespread depredation throughout the vineyards of France as well as spreading to the rest of Europe.
By the time root-eating phylloxera aphid was identified as the cause of the blight, 6 million acres of vineyard had been lost throughout France, Germany and the rest of Europe. (Read on in "How the Great French Wine Blight Changed the Global Wine Industry.")
Meanwhile, in Denison, Texas, T.V. Munson was hard at work researching and grafting vines.
Early Life and Career
Thomas Volney Munson was born in Astoria, Illinois, on September 26, 1843. From an early age he showed a keen interest in horticulture, eventually studying agriculture at the University of Kentucky. After graduation and a short stint teaching, Munson married Ellen Scott Bell on June 27, 1870.
Munson soon began working with Ellen’s father, Charles Stuart Bell, in the family-owned nursery business. Yet, it was with grapes and viticulture where his passion lay and before long, the young couple moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. Here, Munson began his horticultural practice, noting the differences in the way that imported and native vines reacted to local conditions, pests and diseases.
Life and Research in Texas
Thomas and Ellen then moved to Denison, Texas, an area which provided more optimum and consistent conditions for grape cultivation. It was here where Munson was able to start his comprehensive research, particularly into native American vines and grape varieties. Following extensive travelling, Munson had soon built a collection of over 300 varieties in his vineyard. Yet it was for his research into rootstock and grafting that he would ultimately become famous.
Over the years, Munson had observed that European vitis vinifera were more susceptible to local conditions and diseases. However, it was these imported vines that produced the higher quality wine that was wanted by consumers. In turn, the various native American vines were well adapted to local conditions and resistant to many of the diseases and pests that harmed the vitis vinifera. Unfortunately, the wine produced from the fruit of these vines was of a much lower standard.
And so began his work to graft vitis vinifera vines to native American rootstocks. The idea was to produce European quality grapes on vines whose roots were resistant to the many pests and diseases that were killing the imported vines. Grafting, Munson thought, would finally allow the risk-free production of high quality wines in the USA. What he never could have imagined was that this technique would also become the savior of European wine.
An All-American Solution to an American Problem
After realizing that it was the American phylloxera aphid that was destroying vineyards across France and beyond, French scientists deducted that the origin of the solution was the same as that of the problem. Like Munson, they recognized that American vines were resistant to the pest as they had evolved alongside it.
News of his work successfully grafting vitis vinifera onto American rootstocks filtered across the Atlantic and Munson, along with his grafted vines, were soon called in to save the day.
The grafted vines were a success. Their resistance to phylloxera allowed successful cultivation in the now infested European soils. Their introduction allowed the regeneration of millions of acres of vineyards across Europe, areas which only a few years previously had been decimated by an unidentified problem with an unknown solution.
Grafting, or ‘reconstitution’ as the French went on to call it, offered the solution to phylloxera. This technique would also later be utilized to provide rootstock resistant to numerous other pests and diseases.
While the technique has been successful, it hasn’t cured phylloxera as the pest exists to this day. Indeed, the French and European wine industries are completely reliant on grafted American rootstocks. Put simply, without them, European wine production would be impossible.
For his contribution, the French government named T.V. Munson Chevalier du Merite Agricole of the French Legion of Honor, and Cognac became a sister city to Munson's home of Denison. More importantly, however, he will forever be remembered as the American that saved the European wine industry.