Hanging On The Vine
Pierce's Disease could be Mother Nature's wake-up call or her bomb threat.
Thursday, February 22, 2001
That nature rules is unpalatable but undeniably true. We may fool ourselves into thinking that we control the universe, and, perhaps, we may not have to face the truth during our lifetime. But our lifetime is quite short in the scheme of things. The forces of nature will be around long after we are gone. Nature, like good wine, requires balance. We destroy it, and it bites back eventually.
California''s vineyards are in danger of eradication by a bacterial disease known as Pierce''s Disease. A voracious insect, the glassy-winged sharpshooter (GWSS), is spreading the disease just as our wine industry enters its prime. Is this nature''s way of saying "slow down, folks"? Vineyard development is more agreeable than death by concrete, but it still has powerful repercussions on the environment.
Pierce''s Disease is nothing new. It was observed first in Anaheim and Pomona during 1884 and described by federal plant pathologist Newton B. Pierce as "California Vine Disease." By 1895, it had destroyed close to 40,000 acres of the state''s vineyards. By the 1920s, it wreaked havoc in the San Joaquin Valley.
The original invader--the blue and green flying sharpshooter--was smaller than the GWSS, fed on the tips of the shoots, and preferred a riparian habitat. The GWSS is larger, able to fly for miles, feeds lower on the vine, and is able to survive in a wide range of plants. The GWSS transmits the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa from its intestines into the main artery of the vine. Eventually, the vine dies as the bacteria clog up the artery and block the flow of nutrients and, most crucially, water.
Bonny Doon Vineyard''s Randall Grahm was one of the first in the state to lose his vineyards to Pierce''s. He predicted several years ago that the disease would reach the crisis levels we are seeing now, but no one wanted to hear it. Today, the GWSS is big news, garnering major mainstream media attention.
But more than attention is being paid. Last month, Governor Gray Davis designated $19.6 million of his proposed 2001-2002 California budget to combat the GWSS and Pierce''s Disease. Last June, then-Vice President Al Gore announced that the feds would provide an additional $22.3 million in funding beyond the $25.3 million already earmarked by government and industry sources.
Karen Ross of the California Association of Winegrape Growers says, "This is a multiple-commodity issue. It also has environmental and public health interests that must be addressed, and that is why it is appropriate for government to put funds into the containment program."
This kind of support is unprecedented, but is it enough? "We''re feeling like we''re sitting on a time bomb," says Robert Dowell, chief entomologist for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. "It''s just sort of ticking away, and the problem is that nobody knows where the bomb is, and nobody knows how fast it''s ticking, and nobody knows how much time is left."
Weekly Wine Recommendations
Clos LaChance Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 1999
The message in this bottle is "You have won an all expenses paid vacation to the tropical island of your choice." Golden yellow and viscous, the wine offers up aromas and flavors of kiwi, starfruit, mango and pineapple, plus baking spices and toasted whole grain bread (do you think they eat white bread in Santa Cruz?). The soft, silky texture and minerally restrained palate is very Burgundian (classic French chardonnay from the region of Burgundy usually has this seductive texture), but the wine is as bold as an aloha shirt. >$19
E & J Gallo Sonoma Barelli Creek Vineyard Zinfandel Alexander Valley 1998
Zinfandel is as typically American as apple pie--it is usually rich and sweet (not in actual residual sugar, but the extremely ripe fruit and high alcohol, together with American oak, gives a sweet impression)--and fits as snugly into the comfort food category. In fact, many of today''s new releases are so over the top, so port-like, that I serve them as dessert wine. Not in this case, though. This example from Alexander Valley offers sultry, spicy, mocha and raspberry aromas, and has a full, polished, expressive palate. It is big but balanced. >$19
Luce Red Wine Toscana IGT 1997, Marchesi di Frescobaldi & Robert Mondavi
This looks and smells like a really good chianti, which is a good sign. It is from Italy, from Tuscany, from the home of chianti, after all. But so many wines--especially at this price point--are so "international" in style, so deeply extracted, so heavily oaked, and so devoid of local color. This blend of 50 percent merlot and 50 percent sangiovese (the grape of chianti) is not a Brutus. Cherries, cinnamon, cigar box, cedar chest and cocoa aromas and flavors blend together in a seamless, smooth, silky package. >$75
Because of the culture editor''s stupidity, the following passage was transformed into a silly jumble last week: European wines are only this rich when the grapes have managed to fully mature despite all odds against it. Sorry.