Grapes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

One of my favorite podcasts is Good Job, Brain, a weekly trivia podcast out of the San Francisco bay area. They’re a pub trivia team and they’re dedicated to trivia. On the podcast, they mix quizzes and stories about our world and they do it in a fun, engaging way.

In the most recent episode, “Cheers!”, Chris Kohler related the story of the 19th century author Robert Louis Stevenson’s brief stay with his wife in California’s wine country that was more known for mining at the time. He wrote this in his book “The Silverado Squatters”:

“Wine in California is still in the experimental stage; and when you taste a vintage, grave economical questions are involved. The beginning of vine-planting is like the beginning of mining for the precious metals: the wine-grower also “prospects.” One corner of land after another is tried with one kind of grape after another. This is a failure; that is better; a third best. So, bit by bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite. Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire; those virtuous Bonanzas, where the soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry; these still lie undiscovered; chaparral conceals, thicket embowers them; the miner chips the rock and wanders farther, and the grizzly muses undisturbed.”

–The Silverado Squatters By Robert Louis Stevenson Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers 1884 Pg. 48-49 (“In the Valley”).

It would be awhile before California wines took off. But Stevenson was prescient in his observation. He cleverly analogizes the harvest we get from plants to silver ore mined from the hills. Arguably, plants are more valuable as they provide something consumable; silver isn’t a food. California is not the only place where humans have started cultivating grapes to develop a wine industry. Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia, many states in the US as well as the older growing regions in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy are wine producers. And even more countries cultivate grapes to produce raisins, table grapes, and grapeseed oil. It is a global crop.

Domesticated grapes have ancient roots, the earliest evidence is from around 8,000 years ago. Grapes carry a deep cultural significance. Grapes are a plant with diverse methods of propagation and most are Vitis vinifera genus-species. Vines are often grafted onto root stocks for uniformity in a field. Grapes varieties can be crossed together to mix up genes and create new varietals. It all depends on what a grower wants to do. And roots of grapes can grow rather deep.

Being so important, there is a lot of research dedicated to grapes including the genome sequence published in 2007. Research into grape plant pathogens, managing vineyards, and creating a better grape varietal are all ongoing and getting more advanced as technologies have advanced. Perhaps it’s because the vines look so chaotic, though in rows, and have fantastic views that vineyards feel like they bleed into nature more than other kinds of farm.

Most reporting on the California drought has focused on almonds, livestock, cities vs. farms, and just allocating a limited water supply. There doesn’t seem to have been as much written about the effects on the wine industry lately, though I found this article from CNBC, saying that grapes have tolerated the drought rather well thus far. Flavors in wine may be enhanced under drought conditions. That said, there’s a breaking point, and if the drought continues, the wine industry will feel it even more. The article focuses on low-end (<$7 bottle) that will be particularly affected, but if the drought is severe enough, even high end growers will feel the pinch. All plants have a range of conditions they can live in. If more stories start to appear about the wine industry becoming stressed by the drought it likely means things have moved from dire to even worse. California is a land-of-plenty producing a bountiful harvest of plants. Fruits, nuts, vegetables, and dairy especially.

It seems apt that a modified protein that switches on a plant’s drought tolerance system was partly developed by researchers in California. Though it hasn’t been applied to any crop plants I know of, it may be an important technology to preserve valuable plants, and mitigate drought conditions.

Even in his time, Stevenson wrote the quote above, beautifully describing nature and humans trying to start something new, but also created Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…recognizing the possibility of people to do bad things. Ideally, science and testing by independent scientists with each new idea/product/hypothesis mitigates the chances of it all going wrong, and indeed identifies problems like climate change to which technology can be applied.

In researching this post, I ran across another Robert Louis Stevenson Quote:

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”

—Robert Louis Stevenson

California and the entire Earth needs to plant seeds for sustainable, resilient, agriculture. In the face of more extreme conditions predicted under climate change, better plants and resource management will be critical. Some of them will be real solutions enabling future generations to reap bountiful harvests. It’s what a lot of plant scientists are working towards. It’s why funding science matters. We don’t know what will pan out in the moment but need to plant seeds that will grow into the new possibilities and harvests of the future.

6 thoughts on “Grapes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

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