Vine Root Injector | C. 1890-1910 | 40” length.
Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County.

This tool, called a Vine Root Injector, is a large glass syringe that was used to fight an infestation of the phylloxera in vineyards during the late 19th century. It is more than three feet in length.

Vintners on both sides of the Atlantic began to exchange cuttings from their grape vines starting in about 1850. Microscopic insects known as Phylloxera Vastatrix, pale yellow sap-sucking insects that feed on the roots and leaves of grapevines, are native to the United States. The leaf galls caused by phylloxera are unsightly and do little damage, however, infestation of the roots can be difficult to control and cut off the flow of nutrients and water to the vine leading to severe root pruning and decline of vines. This tiny insect caused the greatest single agriculture disaster in the California wine industry. Phylloxera insects were contained to the eastern half of the country until sometime in the 1860s. A few decades later a Phylloxera epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards of wine grapes in Europe, most notably France. In California the devastation brought by Phylloxera worked its way throughout the state.

Vine leaf covered in galls, from Hilgard’s 1880 paper, “The Phylloxera or Grapevine Louse, and the Remedies for its Ravages.” Special Collections, Shields Library, University of California.

The first official diagnosis of Phylloxera was at Agoston Haraszthy’s Sonoma vineyard at Buena Vista in 1873. At first the pest spread slowly through the vineyard lands, but by the 1890s it was in full attack. Vine plantations in Napa Valley which had been at more than 20,000 acres shrank to about 3,000 by 1900. In response, the California State Legislature established an investigatory commission and asked the University of California to set up a viticulture department.

After trial and error, carbon disulfide (CS2) was selected as the phylloxera asphyxiate of choice. CS2 was extremely dangerous and its fumes were highly combustible. The application was costly and tedious. CS2 had to be administered around the vines twice a year, both in the spring and the fall. A large, syringe-like device was engineered as the delivery mechanism. Soil and climatic requirements were extremely specific. Reapplication was necessary if it rained too soon after the treatment. Because of this elaborate and expensive process only the wealthiest vignerons could administer the practice.

Phylloxera was finally tamed through the innovation of grafting. It eventually became clear that grafting European varieties onto American rootstock was the only real and permanent solution. Grafting was complicated and required the development of proper rootstocks taking years of experimentation. From our readings, it is estimated that by 1900, two-thirds of French vines were bound to American roots.