How Darwin Possibly Saved the Wine Industry

By | 4 May 2024

Professor Michael Summerfield makes the case for the great English evolutionary biologist’s profound influence on wine.

By Michael Summerfield

For Charles Darwin, the grapevine was exceptional in illustrating so powerfully his theory of the modification of species. But did his work, in turn, play a crucial role in overcoming the phylloxera crisis and saving viticulture as we know it today? Professor Michael Summerfield delves deep into Darwin’s correspondence and ponders whether this might indeed be among the many remarkable achievements of one of the towering figures in modern science.

The Darwin Correspondence Project began publishing all the known extant letters of Charles Darwin in 1985, and its 30th and final volume appeared after nearly four decades, in 2022.1 The early correspondence traces Darwin’s nascent interest in natural history, then it proceeds to record his epic five-year voyage around the world on the surveying ship HMS Beagle, before expanding into his work on evolution and the diverse array of geological and biological topics that occupied him for the rest of his life. Containing more than 15,000 letters to and from Darwin, it has been a monumental endeavor of meticulous research and editing that has created an extraordinarily detailed insight into the intellectual and personal life of one of the towering figures of the 19th century. Its completion prompts thoughts about what his ideas contributed to our world, and with Darwin there are so many avenues to consider. But what of wine? Nothing much to consider here, surely. Well, perhaps there is, and I would like to pose this question: Did Darwin save wine?

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, in 1809. His experiences with wine paralleled those of several wealthy, middle-class men in 19th-century Britain. His father, the physician Robert Waring Darwin, was a strict teetotaler. Nevertheless, Charles often drank wine during most of his adult life, both for recreation and as a form of medication.

During his time as a student at Cambridge, he said he shared, “many a glass of wine.” He also indicated in his autobiography that he kept company with some “dissipated low-minded young men.” And, at times, he admitted, he “sometimes drank too much.”2 Further, he revealed to Joseph Hooker, a close friend and a botanist, that he got drunk thrice in his younger years. He described being drunk as “the greatest of all pleasures.”

In 1854, following a visit to London, he remarked to Hooker quite jokingly that he had started “to think that dissipation, high living, with lots of claret, is what I want.” But, according to physician Ralph Colp, who conducted an extensive study of Darwin’s health and family life, Darwin was also wary of the peril of drunkenness.3 His paternal great-grandfather and grandmother had both succumbed to alcoholism. He may have believed that alcoholism is an inherited trait. His paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had talked in public about the hazardous effects of alcohol. Beyond that, Darwin wrote to Benjamin Richardson, a leading figure in Britain’s temperance movement, expressing that “no cause has led to so much suffering and inherited ill-health as the consumption of alcohol.”

Post his occasional student excesses, Darwin’s wine consumption throughout his adult life was moderate, yet noteworthy. In 1857, he wrote to Syms Covington, who served as his personal servant during the Beagle journey before emigrating to Australia. Darwin related that he had “lately dined with one of your great Australian potentates, Sir W. Macarthur. I heard a lot about Australia and sampled some exceptional Australian wine.” In his later years, his sons George and Francis frequently helped him procure wine. In one of his letters, George informed him about a corked bottle of Champagne bought from London wine dealers Carbonell & Co. During this period, Darwin used to partake a glass of Sherry at lunch and supper. In 1874, George wrote to his father that he had asked Carbonell to “return the brown sherry & to send some other different & drier.”

Darwin’s adult life was punctuated by persistent illness. During those times, like it was an accepted norm, he was often prescribed wine as a part of his therapy. Oddly, despite his abstentionist ideology, his physician father recommended Port for children’s fever treatment. This cure was also given to Charles Darwin’s children. One of his sons survived the scarlet fever by consuming “Port-wine every 3/4 of an hour day & night.” Darwin himself treated a feverish episode aboard the Beagle journey by “eating cinnamon and drinking port wine.”

After Darwin moved to Down House in Kent in 1842, stumbling under bouts of ill-health, the family physician prescribed him wine. In 1858, Darwin wrote to one of his sons that “Mr Williams has ordered me a pleasant prescription of two glasses of wine for dinner & he wished me to have three.” Darwin consulted various physicians throughout his life, and, in 1860, a Dr Headland proposed “drinking some wine” as part of his health regimen. Two months before he passed away, Darwin confessed in a private letter to a journalist that despite doctors asking him to drink, he would “be better without any, though all Doctors urge me to drink some or more wine as I suffer much from giddiness.”

When Darwin pondered over joining the worldwide surveying expedition of HMS Beagle in 1831, he feared that he might have to compromise on his fondness for wine. He wrote to his sibling, Caroline, detailing his meeting with the commander of the ship, Robert FitzRoy, who he was supposed to accompany. (FitzRoy was sensitive about commander’s loneliness on long naval voyages, aware of the previous commander’s tragic end due to the same). Darwin shared with Caroline that “If I live with him he say I must live poorly, no wine & the plainest dinners.” However, shore visits during the trip offered numerous chances to indulge in the local wines. This is hinted at in a correspondence from Caroline, whom he was to meet in Rio de Janeiro. In this letter, she wondered why she hadn’t received any word from him and theorized that it was because he was enjoying “too much good wine at the Madeiras.” Though Darwin’s experiences with wines on the Beagle trip are limited, one interesting encounter is of note – he got to meet James Busby, one of the pioneers of Australian viticulture. This meeting took place in December 1835 on New Zealand’s North Island, in the Bay of Islands.

Busby, who had moved to Australia from Edinburgh in 1824, was knowledgeable in viticulture and his works greatly contributed to Australia’s wine industry. He had also served as a British Resident in New Zealand from 1833, where he acted as a go-between for the Māori population and European settlers, without any direct administrative or military support from the British government. Darwin’s description of his meeting with Busby appears in his publication of the voyage in 1839. Later, before the Beagle left New Zealand, Busby provided Darwin with a letter of introduction to one of his acquaintances in Sydney.

After the Beagle returned to England in 1836, Darwin was at the crossroads of deciding his life path. Financially independent thanks to his affluent father, he chose to shift his focus to his evolutionary ideas and botanical interests over geological studies and exploration. He stuck close to his home in Britain, where he raised his family, equipped his garden and home with necessary tools for research, trained his gardeners, and nurtured a global associates network via letters.

Darwin found respite in his botanical studies from the backlash that was triggered by his evolutionary ideas post-publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. His experiments on plants were targeted to explore the details of his theory of evolution. Early 1860s saw him engrossed in studying climbing plants like the grapevine, particularly from the genus Vitis, being fascinated by their special structural adaptations. Darwin explored how they “move spontaneously from side to side” making elliptical revolutions and also seemed to be light-sensitive. For Darwin, the grapevine particularly symbolised his theory of species modification.

After developing his concept of natural selection post his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin dedicated nearly two decades gathering evidence for his theory. His original plan was to publish a comprehensive volume encompassing all this evidence, but a letter from fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace changed his course. Wallace’s letter included a draft scientific paper detailing a theory of species modification very similar to Darwin’s own. Consequently, a paper with contributions from both Darwin and Wallace was presented to the Linnean Society in London in 1858. Nevertheless, Darwin, wanting recognition of his work on this theory over the past two decades, quickly began writing a short book summarising his theory along with supporting evidence. This went on to become the edition of On the Origin of Species released in November 1859. Nevertheless, Darwin still had the ambition to produce a large book on species.7Though he never finished this plan, he did manage to compile his extensive notes on domesticated plants and animals into a significant work in 1868.8 His work, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, is an expanded version of Chapter 1 of Origin, including a detailed section on grapevines and its varieties.

In his book, Darwin initially describes the geographical origin of the European cultivated vine. He discusses how numerous “semi-wild” forms found in southern Europe could have escaped from cultivated forms due to their variability. In particular, he highlights how “the vine varies much when propagated by seed” and how new varieties “are produced almost every year”. Farther along, he discusses various varieties of Vitis vinifera and their particular characteristics, which he gathered primarily from Odart’s Ampélographie Universelle (1849). He also talks about the vines disease in France and how it had affected certain groups of grape varieties more than others. He concludes his discussion with records of variations in fruit colour, form, the process and outcomes of grafting and comments from some of his correspondents.7

He also comments on the environmental restraints on viticulture in Europe. He observed a southwards retreat of the line of practical culture since the middle ages but considered it could be related to commerce, noting how wine had become easily accessible over the ages. Vineyard expansions towards the north were halted, leading him to conclude that “acclimatisation has made no progress during several centuries”. He notes the suitability of different grape varieties to various climates and introduces the concept of terroir through a letter from WC Tait, a botanist based in Oporto.7

Darwin’s study of domesticated species modified by intentional human selection was instrumental to his argument for natural evolution by selection in Origin. Essentially, his idea of natural selection was: Offspring resemble their parents but with some variations. More offspring are born than can survive. The ones that are most inclined to survive and reproduce, and hence, pass on their characteristics to future generations, are the ones most adapted to their environment. Thus, species can evolve over time, and under certain conditions, for instance, geographical isolation, new species can develop.7

Darwin considered external conditions like climate or food availability as just single part of an organism’s environmental modification factor, he suggested that the interaction of different species is a significant element too. He introduced the concept of ‘coadaptation’ in the initial part of his book, Origin. This theory expanded on how species adapt to each other (for instance, a specific plant species being pollinated by a particular insect species). After the 1860s, Darwin dedicated various articles and books towards the “contrivances” which made it permissible for orchids to be fertilized by specific insect pollinators. This notion of coadaptation greatly influenced a person like Charles Valentine Riley, State Entomologist of Missouri, who was highly involved in the relationships between insect pests and crops and played a pivotal role during the phylloxera crisis which badly damaged the wine industry globally during the late-19th century.

Riley was born in London during 1843 and moved to America in 1860. While working at an agricultural journal in Chicago, he became aware of the destruction to crops by insects. Throughout his career, he connected with other top American entomologists like Benjamin Dann Walsh. Walsh introduced Riley to Darwin and Darwin’s evolutionary theory in 1868, and soon Riley became a fervent Darwinian like his mentor Walsh. Riley first met Darwin in person during his visit to Down House in 1871 and 1875. He wrote about his visit to Darwin’s house, “The Darwin residence is a plain, but spacious, old-fashioned house of the style so common in England, and which, with the surrounding well-kept grounds and conservatory, convey that impression of ease and comfort that belong to the average home of the English country gentleman.”

Riley came to know about the phylloxera infestation in France through some French and English publications. He started communicating with the French colleagues who were dealing with the crisis. The disastrous situation spread rapidly after its onset in the southern Rhône Valley during the early 1860s. The matter was so serious that by 1868, a committee of experts was formed in Montpellier, led by Jules Emile Planchon. They confirmed that an aphid-like insect was responsible for killing the vines. This insect, initially named Phylloxera vastatrix, now known as Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, infested the roots of the vines and sucked out the sap, causing the vines to die. Recent genetic studies have confirmed that there were at least two independent introductions of phylloxera into European vineyards.

By 1870, the crisis had taken a national turn, with the Ministry of Agriculture offering a monetary reward for an effective cure for this disease. Having already theorized that the root-sucking phylloxera of France was the same organism known to infest the leaves of American vines, Riley visited Planchon in Montpellier in 1871. The French authorities sent Planchon to the United States to learn about phylloxera there in a far-sighted move in 1872. Riley was his guide during his visit to American vineyards, nurseries, and botanical gardens. Planchon was initially skeptical about Darwin’s ideas, but probably as a result of discussions with Riley, he soon became more receptive. For instance, in his third report published in 1871, Riley made an argument based on Darwin’s theory that American vine species had become resistant to the effects of phylloxera because vine and pathogen had evolved together. The idea emerged of either planting American species in France or grafting French varieties onto the phylloxera-resistant rootstock of American vines. Regardless, big questions remained and needed answers.

During the phylloxera outbreak, diseases were largely seen as effects of the environment instead of being attributed to active agents like tiny insects. Often, phylloxera was linked to poor viticulture methods or planting vines in unsuitable places where the vine-weakening insects could easily affect them. The idea proposed by Planchon and Riley, based on natural selection and co-adaptation, was largely disapproved of, especially since Darwin’s theory lacked a good mechanism for inherited features’ transmission. Mixing French and American vines was resisted due to cultural reasons and different proposed solutions were tested like quarantines and flooding, though chemical treatments were the most adopted ones.

Unfortunately, these chemical strategies, often costly, didn’t stop the destruction of vineyards in poorer areas. However, amidst the destruction, American vines thrived. Riley, as the state entomologist of Missouri, was able to make the comparison between the flourishing American vines and the fast-disappearing French ones. By the 1880s, grafting European vine varieties onto American rootstock became widely accepted, which called for a large scale replanting. This was followed by identifying suitable rootstocks for French vineyards’ various soil conditions. For instance, Bordeaux and Burgundy vineyards soon underwent large-scale replanting, although exceptions were the prestigious La Romanée-Conti which didn’t see replanting with grafted vines until 1947.

Unfortunately, the phylloxera crisis was a disaster for rural France and many other viticulture regions, with French vineyards and wine production declining significantly. This crisis particularly changed the map of viticulture in France and the world at large. One question that then arises is, did Darwin save wine?

Although not directly, the ideas of Darwin held immense value in the resolution of the phylloxera crisis through grafting. Darwin stayed very knowledgeable about the events that were happening in the vineyards in France and other parts of Europe. His correspondence with persons like James Torbitt, a Belfast-based agriculturalist, provided useful insights. Torbitt, who was working on creating a blight-resistant potato variant, saw the potential application of his approach to the production of phylloxera-resistant vines. He reported his successful experiment with a resistant vine from a phylloxera-infested Portuguese district to Darwin.

Darwin did not directly contribute to the experiments on phylloxera, but his theories of natural selection played a monumental role in addressing the crisis. His thoughts on evolution were published around the time when phylloxera was wreaking havoc in the south of France. The timely revelation of Darwin’s theory paved the way for the scientific underpinning of the grafting strategy. This method involved grafting resistant American rootstock to European vine breeds. Despite resistance, owing to institutional and cultural reasons, Darwin’s theories provided the basis for the successful application of the grafting strategy.


1. The letters between Darwin and other individuals, along with his other publications and manuscripts are available through the Darwin Online platform. A printed collection of Darwin’s correspondence can be found in the work, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, edited by F. Burkhardt and others. This book, comprising of 30 volumes, is published by the Cambridge University Press.

2. F Darwin (ed), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin Including an Autobiographical Chapter, three volumes (John Murray, London; 1887).

3. R Colp Jr, To Be an Invalid (University of Chicago Press, Chicago; 1977).

4. Originally published as C Darwin, Journal and Remarks 1832–1836, Volume III of R FitzRoy (ed), Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle Between the Years 1826 and 1836, three volumes (Henry Colburn, London; 1839). For further reading on James Busby, consult Alex Maltman, “Brisk Wine from Granite but Delicate from Sand: The Geological Legacy of James Busby (1802–71),” WFW 75, pp.104–09.

5. R FitzRoy, C Darwin, “A Letter, Containing Remarks on the Moral State of Tahiti, New Zealand, &c,” South African Christian Recorder 2 (1836), pp.221–38.

6. Originally introduced as C Darwin, “On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants,” Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, 9 (1865), issues 33 and 34. It was later reproduced in a second edition as a book form; C Darwin, The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (John Murray, London; 1875).

7. C Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (John Murray, London; 1859).

8. C Darwin, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, two volumes (John Murray, London; 1868).

9. My heartfelt thanks to Ben Bradley, a friend and Darwin enthusiast, for highlighting the significance that Darwin placed on coadaptation as evidence supporting his theory of evolution by natural selection.

10. On Riley, Walsh, and their relationship to Darwin, see G Kritsky, “Darwin, Walsh, and Riley: The Entomological Link,” American Entomologist 41 (1995), pp.89–96; EH Smith, JR Smith, “Charles Valentine Riley: The Making of the Man and His Achievements,” American Entomologist 42 (1996), pp.228–38.

11. CV Riley, “Darwin’s Work in Entomology,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington DC 1 (1882), pp.70–80.

12. On the phylloxera crisis, see G Gale, “Phylloxera vastatrix, devastator of vines,” WFW 2, pp.46–51; C Campbell, Phylloxera: How Wine Was Saved for the World (Harper Collins, London; 2004); G Gale, Dying on the Vine: How Phylloxera Transformed Wine (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles; 2011).

13. J Tello et al, “Major Outbreaks in the Nineteenth Century Shaped Grape Phylloxera Contemporary Genetic Structure in Europe,” Scientific Reports 9, 17540 (2019);

On the collaboration between French and American scientists during the phylloxera crisis, refer to A Fusonie, “Missouri and France: The Charles Valentine Riley Connection,” Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 69 (1996), pp.109-21; Y Carton and others, “A model cooperation between French and American entomologists during the Phylloxera crisis, France (1868-1895),” Annals of the French Entomological Society 43 (2007), pp. 103-25; WC Sorensen with others, “Charles V Riley, France, and Phylloxera,” American Entomologist 54 (2008), pp. 134-49. All with links.

For a captivating examination of the contrasting viewpoints in the phylloxera discussion in France and their resolution, see W Kwon, P Constantinides, “Ideology and Moral Reasoning: How wine was saved from the 19th-century phylloxera epidemic,” Organization Studies 39 (2018) pp.1031-53. Link.

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