Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 214:
GRAPES

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we save the cognac crop. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Ever since France and America were linked by the French and American Revolutions, the two countries have been joined in many enterprises. The oddest of these was one in which we almost destroyed the French cognac industry and then saved it.

In 1865, a decade before the French began building our Statue of Liberty, French wine-makers did grafting experiments with American grapes. Some of these grapes carried small plant lice, and they carried a root disease. By the time the Statue of Liberty arrived, the disease had wiped out most of the vineyards in the Cognac region. The French tried every cure from urinating on the vines to planting toads among their roots.

Now grapes are normally grafted on to whatever root system works best -- you don't grow them from seeds. So the solution that would work was to return to America for root stocks with a natural immunity to the disease. The problem was that American root stocks couldn't grow in the chalk-lime soil of Cognac.

Enter now a man named T.V. Munson. In 1870 Munson was the second person to graduate from the new land-grant college that was to become the University of Kentucky. Munson's agricultural studies made one powerful impression on him. It was that grapes were, and I quote,

the most beautiful, most wholesome and nutritious,
most certain and most profitable fruit that could be grown.

By the time a French delegation arrived here in 1877 to seek a root stock that would survive in Cognac, Munson's search for the definitive grape had led him to Denison, in northern Texas. Denison proved to be a kind of grape heaven for him. By 1887, the French had been searching in vain for ten years, and Munson had begun publishing articles on his grape hybrids. The French team read his work and steered their long pilgrimage to Texas.

And there they found their holy grail. Munson led them to the limestone country of central Texas, where he showed them two usable root stocks. French cognac was saved, and Munson went on to become a kind of patron saint of American grape-growing.

In 1987 the French Cognac vineyards did a 1.1 billion dollar business in fine brandies. And my insides are warmed by it all -- no, not by the brandy, but by the knowledge that all that fine European cognac flows from a root grown in the middle of Texas.

It's also nice to know that the French cognac industry was saved because one person combined single-minded study with his own conviction that he could change agriculture.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


West, R., Root de France. Kentucky Alumnus. 1988, No. 4, pp. 14-16.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1824.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.