Science, traditions of Alsatian winemakers collide in France over fanleaf virus

By Edward Cody
Saturday, June 12, 2010

COLMAR, FRANCE -- A War of the Worlds is being waged in this little corner of eastern France.

On one side are Alsatian winemakers whose sacred traditions reach back more than two millenniums, men and women close to the soil who pour their art, science and souls into the alchemy that starts with a grape vine and ends up with a tart Riesling glowing in a high-stemmed glass or a silken Gewurztraminer, adding sweet notes to a smoky Munster.

On the other is a battalion of super-educated PhD's at France's National Institute for Agricultural Research, scientists trying to discover whether genetic manipulation of grape vines might help protect against fanleaf virus, a disease found in up to a third of the world's vineyards. The disease sucks the vigor out of plants, reduces the number and size of grapes and cuts short their lifespan.

The main battleground is a little plot behind the institute's Colmar laboratory, where 500 normal grapevines have been planted and, in their midst, 70 diseased plants were topped this week with a genetically modified graft designed to shield against fanleaf virus and its transmission by an earthworm whose idea of a good meal is to burrow from vine to vine, munching on the roots.

Although the nearest commercial vineyards are on a gentle slope about two miles away, not far from the Rhine, local winemakers have been suspicious about the experiment from its inception, arguing that the genetically modified material could invade their vineyards -- and fatally tarnish their image -- via insects, breezes, itinerant worms or even malicious gossip.

Their suspicions are part of a broadly shared fear in France and other European countries that genetically modified food is something akin to science-based witchcraft that represents a danger: to consumers' health, perhaps, and certainly to the traditional way of doing things.

"People in France do not want to eat and drink things from genetically modified plants," said Pierre Frick, who produces a line of wines in Pfaffenheim, six miles south of Colmar, and is a member of the Professional Organization of Bio Agriculture in Alsace.

The clash between tradition and science in Colmar is an example, among many, of the tension running through European societies as people struggle to preserve ancient and cherished ways of life even as their economies modernize, their countries evolve and the 21st century intrudes on the eternal verities of folklore.

Nowhere perhaps is the tension more evident than in French vineyards, where vintners depend for their sales, and therefore their livelihood, on a concept called "terroir." Although hard to define, the term embraces the soil, weather, skills, art, authenticity, traditions and ultimately the "feel" that come together to fill a bottle with something good to drink.

But what the term does not embrace is genetic manipulation. As a result, the National Institute for Agricultural Research's attempt to experiment with genetically modified vines has been a battle almost from the time it began in the 1990s.

"There is history, there is terroir, and in particular there are other solutions to that disease," said Jose Bove, a member of the European Parliament who has long agitated to preserve authentic eating traditions in France and once demonstrated his resolve by trashing a McDonald's.

A first research project in Champagne, the region northwest of here where authentic bubbly comes from, was organized by the institute in collaboration with the National Scientific Research Center and funding from Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH), the luxury group whose holdings include major champagne brands. Research there hummed along quietly from 1996 to 1999.

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