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Time to throw away the suitcase

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There’s been talk of suitcase clones ever since I’ve been in the biz. I wrote about the rise of illegally-imported budwood in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. Back in the 1990s, winemakers, mainly Pinot Noiristes, bragged about bringing in special stuff from Romanée-Conti or wherever. Some of their reputations were based, in part, on their scoundrelly behavior; they were legends for being outlaws. Even though it was always soto voce — under the table — everyone knew who’d done what. California’s a big state, but the wine community is a little village.

To tell you the truth, I never stopped to think about the downside of bringing in budwood that hadn’t gone through the proper channels. It seemed pretty harmless to me. After all, these winemakers or growers had good motives: to increase the quality of California wine. All they were doing was going around a slow, bumbling bureaucracy, right? So who cared?

Well, as things turned out, maybe we all should have cared. Check out this article, Moth forces wine country’s secret into the open,

reported from the Associated Press but widely repeated in the last 24 hours. This is good journalism, folks, and it’s made me rethink my formerly casual attitude toward smuggling in illegal budwood.

Turns out this new European grapevine moth that’s threatening Napa vineyards may well have hitchhiked straight into the heart of Napa Valley on smuggled wood. There’s no proof, but “Agricultural officials say that had the European grapevine moth (Lobesia botrana) innocently evaded inspectors on a container ship, the first trapping of the grape eater would have been near a port,” not 60 miles inland as Napa Valley is from my hometown port of Oakland, the leading port of entry into Northern California.

Makes sense to me. I guess what I don’t understand is why anybody would need plant material that’s not already widely available in the U.S., especially in Napa Valley, where the smuggled wood would almost certainly have been a Bordeaux red variety. Isn’t there enough good Cabernet, Petite Verdot, Merlot, etc. available commercially? Why would somebody need a few sticks from Pavie or Latour or wherever? Asimov had a nice post on suitcase clones a few years ago, in The Pour, where his money quote was this: “But the truth is that the origin of a vine, whether from a clone boldly swiped from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or meekly purchased from the local nursery, is at best meaningless.”

True, true, true. It would be like me playing a Stradivarius: no matter how good the instrument, the noise it made in my untalented hands would be awful.

We’ll probably never know how exactly the moth came into California, and even if the authorities could prove it was from vine wood, we’d never know who the culprit was who brought it in. The culprit himself might not even know. So California vintners and growers, it’s time to stop this dubious practice. It’s had its advantages in the past; no more. No more suitcase clones, period.

  1. Now we know why things should be done “in decent order”, that’s what the old folks in the South say all the time. Stuff happens and usually bad stuff when we don’t follow rules. In this case it was costly as well!

  2. While I agree that suitcasing budwood is reckless, and likely to have a low chance of being an “improvement” over CA certified budwood in most cases, I think jumping to the conclusion that the moth came on budwood is just that – jumping to a conclusion.

    The moth overwinters as a pupa in a silk cocoon. These are usually found in cracks in bark on the underside of cordon arms, not on 1-year canes which might be cut for budwood. Eggs are laid on flower clusters (therefore, on green wood not likely to be harvested for budwood) or berries.

    The range of host plants is large, and includes some popular ornamentals and flowers as well as other fruits and olives. To me it seems more likely that the pest arrived in landscape plants, as the glassy-winged sharpshooter probably did. I think adults were first found in Napa because that is where people are on the lookout for grapevine pests.

    Or maybe some pesky European slipped it into a shipment of something else altogether, in order to do deliberate damage to the California industry. Or maybe it was a local, sick of all the vineyards encroaching on their viewshed and poisoning them with all those nasty agricultural chemicals. Hey, I can theorize with the best conspiracists.

  3. There is also an element of “I’m better than you, and matter more”. Whether this moth came on grape wood, is not particularly the problem, because other pathogens do come from bud wood. Lets look at the arising virus / mealybug issue that Debora Golino and cohorts are trying to bring attention to. I don’t have first hand knowledge of every vineyard in Napa, but from what I understand, there is a clear spreading of virus, using the mealybug as a vector. While the mealybug may not have come from grape wood, the virus certainly did. This possibly comes from a lot of the most popular clones. Different pinot clones, Merlot 181, Cab Sauv 337, etc. Many of the sources for this wood in the early to mid 90′s was infected, and there are stories of whole blocks failing due to virus. Yes, I know that many of the clones have now been through the cleanup procedure but there are still many plantings of infected wood.

    Forgive me for the rambling but it is a topic near to my heart, as I have planted with certified materials, that cost me a little more. Sometimes directly from FPS, but still need to worry about virus, because I can’t trust my neighbor to do any research to find out what has virus, or not. There are laws against importing materials without the proper forms, we should enforce them, and not let people profit off of reckless behavior.

    Ok, everyone, back to having a great day.

    And Steve, thanks for putting the suitcase clones in something other than a romantic light.

  4. David Graves says:

    Vine mealybug is a suitcase importation issue. And a headache even without the possibility of virus transmission.

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