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

By Edward Cody
Saturday, June 12, 2010; A07

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.

But then articles appeared in U.S. and French newspapers suggesting that some of the world's most famous bubbles might be genetically modified. LVMH, fearful for its image, pulled out its money immediately, sinking the project.

A scientific study group concluded in 2004 that the experiment should be resumed, this time in Alsace. But the Agriculture Ministry, with a minister who embraced the fears of winemakers, refused to authorize renewed research. Only a year later, after a change of minister, did a four-year permit get pried out of the bureaucracy.

It was 2006 before the new research site got rolling. But in September, the project was interrupted again; a local environmental activist, Pierre Azelvandre, sneaked into the experimental vineyard one night and ripped out all the plants.

Azelvandre was put on trial in a Colmar court the next month. In what was seen as a reflection of local sentiment, the judges fined him one euro.

About the same time, an Alsatian administrative tribunal ruled that the research permit was invalid because the Agriculture Ministry had not followed proper procedures back in 2005. In any case, researchers pointed out, their permit was about to expire, putting the project in doubt yet again. After months of debate, Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire granted another four-year permit two weeks ago.

Bove and fellow environmentalists issued their complaints. But this time the Alsatian winemakers' group held its fire. For in the five years between the first permit and the second, the project's top scientist, Jean Masson, had softened opposition by consulting with a committee of winemakers, local elected officials and other Alsatian notables whose concerns have been taken into account.

The institute's new vineyard is isolated from other vines, for instance, and security cameras have been installed. Perhaps most important, the institute has pledged that sprouts will be stripped from the vines before any turn into grapes, guaranteeing there will be no production of genetically modified fruit or, even worse, genetically modified wine.

"Every question, every worry, is respectable, and it is treated as such," said Masson, who runs the Colmar center and is a wine lover.

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