BRENNAN: St. Louisan’s Legacy Lives Wherever a Bottle of French Wine is Opened

If not for the work of one St. Louisan, there would be no French wine

Charlie Brennan
January 24, 2019 - 11:24 am

(Dreamstime)

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Wednesday, Guillaume Lacroix, Consul General of France in Chicago, bestowed the French Legion of Honor to Eugene J. Harmack, Glenn A. Harrison and Alfred C. Villagran at the Soldiers Memorial in downtown St. Louis.  The men received the award, France’s highest honor given by its president, because of their bravery and heroism in France during World War II.

There are many connections between St. Louis and France.

Our city is named after King Louis IX of France.

Our first settlers were French.

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Singer and St. Louis native Josephine Baker was one of France’s greatest entertainers while also joining the French Resistance and receiving the Legion of Honor Award.

St. Louis’ Charles Lindbergh flew the “Spirit of St. Louis” to France in 1927, and became the first person to fly across the ocean non-stop. 

And, as far as I’m concerned, all St. Louisans should be able to drink free wine in Paris. After all, if not for one St. Louisan, there would be no French wine.

In the nineteenth century, a pest destroyed 2.5 million acres—about one-third—of French vineyards. The louse ate the roots of grape vines. The French tried hundreds of ways to rid their country of the insect. None proved successful.

In 1870, Charles V. Riley, an English-born state entomologist working in St. Louis, identified the pest as the grape phylloxera. He also discovered a North American grapevine—Vitis
 labrusca—resistant to this insect. He suggested grafting European grapes to the Vitis labrusca rootstock.

These trials were conducted in St. Louis and at two other Missouri nurseries. They proved to be the only reliable way to end the grape devastation in France. By 1880, millions of vines and cuttings were sent from Missouri to France. The French hailed the entomologist in St. Louis for saving their wine industry. Riley was awarded the French Grand Gold Medal and was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1884.

Sadly, Riley later moved to Washington, D.C., where he died in 1895 in a bicycle accident. However, this St. Louisan’s legacy lives wherever a bottle of French wine is opened.