It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen as Mr. Baco finished up work on his most recent case. A peculiar thing it is, people and their tendencies toward situations that prove dangerous by most accounts. This is only amplified by the ever-present human pursuit of dominion over peers. Power, greed, influence; pick your poison.
Mr. Baco specialized in a special kind of work: murder. Specifically, plant murder. It would be a more tiresome task to think of a single type of crime scene he hasn’t investigated than to list those that he has: fungus, disease, insects, and arson, just to name a few. This thing that had come up from the labyrinth of insect evil in the late 19th century was something new, something devastating.
All over France this gruesome epidemic unfolded leaving the same autopsy: microscopic, pale yellow sap-sucking aphid-like insects were feeding on the roots and leaves of grapevines. For precious vinifera, the resulting deformations on roots and secondary fungal infections gradually cut off the flow of nutrients and water to the vine. Terrible way for any vine to go, and with each scene Mr. Baco was called upon, his heart grew evermore weary.
He built up his case and decided to do what any detective worth his magnifying glass would do- find patient zero. Vigorous sleuthing led to knocking down doors on dark rainy nights, making cold calls and drinking hot coffee, until a breakthrough in the case led him to an eccentric botanist’s Victorian England home. After a few glasses of wine, this fellow opened up about his trips to America in the 1850s and all the specimens of vines he brought back. Unbeknownst to him, a lurking evil had come along for the ride: phylloxera.
Baco quickly sent telegraphs to vintners all over Western Europe informing them he had cracked the case, and working with a scientist in Missouri, they had discovered a solution. The tiny beasts came from America and America would help fight them. Hybridization was the lone weapon to combat the bug because American vines had been fighting them for centuries.
These vines (vitis labrusca, aestivalis, and riparia) have evolved to have several natural defenses against phylloxera. Their roots extrude a sticky sap that repels the nymph when it tries to feed from the vine by clogging its mouth. If the nymph is successful in creating a feeding wound on the root, American vines respond by forming a protective layer of tissue to cover the wound and protect it from secondary bacterial or fungal infections. Elementary.
It was not too late, but it was close. The epidemic had spread all over France and the death toll unspeakable. Some estimates hold that between 1875 and 1890, over seventy-five percent of all European vines were destroyed. All hope was not lost though, and through the work of Mr. Baco and that brave Missourian, vines were hybridized by the millions and the wine industry was saved. Mr. Baco, fueled with interest after cracking the case, embarked on his own personal grape research on the side. Using vitis vinifera (folle blanche) and an unknown variety of vitis riparia from America, produced a grape that we now know as Baco Noir.
The resulting vine had its homecoming to America in 1951without much fanfare, although it embodied the idea and the parentage that saved wine as we know it. Working in the shadows and being the hero the wine world didn’t deserve is exactly how Mr. Baco preferred it.
Crime Noir. Film Noir. Baco Noir.
*As a reminder, entries in the “fiction” series are short stories conjured up using a mix of facts and imagination with the hope that they might help readers develop a better appreciation and understanding for the lessor known varietals grown around the Midwest. Going to a local winery and citing these entries as facts could garner some confused looks and is not recommended. Instead, take a stroll through the whimsical world of wine that grows and ferments in my head with an open mind and pair the reading with the varietal that is the focal point of the story. If nothing else, you may rekindle the joy that comes from reading fiction: something we all need more of in this hectic modern world!