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
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
most certain and most profitable fruit that could
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
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.