Missouri pest nearly destroyed world wine industry

Friday, November 21, 2008 | 2:00 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Once upon a time, the Missouri wine industry saved the world. But not before it almost destroyed it.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration – except to French winemakers. In the late 1870s, the Missouri wine industry was at the top of its game and world renowned. By the turn of the century, Missouri's Stone Hill Winery in Hermann had entered several World’s Fairs and consistently took home gold medals. French vintners were stunned. Determined not to let themselves be outshone, the French fought back and imported Missouri rootstocks.

Neither Missouri nor French winemakers were aware that Missouri grapevines sheltered a pest called phylloxera.

The tiny insect had no effect on Ozark grapevines, but once exported, the bug immediately attacked susceptible French vineyards like a rabid plague, sweeping across the country and devastating the wine industry. The French, and the rest of the world, feared the worst until two Missourians discovered a cure.

By grafting sensitive French vines to strong American rootstocks, George Hussman and Hermann Jaeger created phylloxera-resistant plants, saving French wine and paving the way toward more efficient wine production.

In no small thanks to Prohibition, Missouri’s grape-growing glory was short lived. The making and selling of alcohol was largely shut down in America in 1920. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the country was deep in recession. Europe became the master of winemaking until California wines brought some attention back to the U.S.

Missouri’s industry never made a full recovery.

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