After nearly two centuries of failed attempts, it was evident the Virginia climate was too harsh for the fragile European vinifera grapes. Virginia had hot summers, freezing winters, high rain fall and storms, amongst other contributors that were not ideal for vine growth and wine production. In addition, the vines were prone to disease and succumbed to phylloxera, a pest that was found in the soils of Virginia.
After struggling with grape vine growth and production, it was discovered the vines of the fragile European vinifera grapes could be crossed with the resilient native grapes of Virginia to produce a sturdier vine capable of growing in the Virginia climate and resisting disease and pests like the phylloxera. This process is known as grafting. In short, to succeed in crossing the different plant varietals to produce a stronger species, they would need to cut the rootstock of one vine and attach another slice from a different varietal snuggly into the fresh cut in the rootstock, securing the two crosses so they meld and grow together. Grape grafting is an art, and this art helped the wine industry in both Virginia and overseas in France prosper. The grafting of vines and the new varietals that were created and produced quality wines became known as the French-American hybrids.
Grafting grape vines did not prevent some other fungal diseases from taking ahold of vines, and it did not typically keep the wild animals away. However, the grafting of vines helped to change the future of the wine industry in Virginia and for the French who were also affected by the phylloxera pest. It has been debated on who first thought of the grafting of the European with American vines, and when exactly the grafting of vines was determined to be an effective solution to the phylloxera problem. However, it is believed the grafting of vines was first exercised for this purpose around 1869/1870 and was discovered by possibly Charles V. Riley or Leo Laliman. While grafting was not a new concept, it was an innovation that changed the wine industry and helped to create a sturdier, more resilient vine for both the Virginians and the French. This opened the door for new grape varietals to be experimented with and grown in Virginia.
For more information on grafting, read R. de Treville Lawrence, Sr.’s section on “Grafting” starting on page 177 in his book “Jefferson and Wine” (1976) or read the Horticultural Reviews, Volume 35 article on “A History of Grafting” (2009)