Pierre Galet, Father of Modern Ampelography, An Interview

Ξ June 18th, 2013 | → 2 Comments | ∇ Interviews, Languedoc/Roussillon, Wine & Politics, Wine History |

An estimated 10,000 grape varieties are known to exist. This simple fact is now widely known, but the story of the patient discovery, compiling and ordering of those varieties is not. Far from it. Yet today, from wine historians and critics to commercial nurseries and especially winegrowers, all can take for granted the knowledge a quiet science, in its modern expression, has built up for over a century: Ampelography, from the (transliterated) Greek ‘ampelos’ (vine) and ‘graphe’ (writing). Along with Zoology, Geology, Anthropology, and Botany, its parent science, Ampelography was largely dedicated in its early years to the Enlightenment’s dream of cataloguing the sum total of the natural world.
 
“[I]t wasn’t until the late 19th century that it was put to commercial use. When diseases and parasites like powdery mildew, phylloxera, downy mildew, and black rot were brought from America to Europe between 1850 and 1885, ampelographers were driven to search for resistant cultivars. The need to develop more complete botanical descriptions was critical; after all, there were huge investments at stake.” From The Science of Ampelography by Fred Dexheimer, MS.
 
Pierre Galet, the ‘father of modern Ampelography’, answered the call, though, as we will read, by no means directly. Indeed, for M. Galet and his generation, Europe was torn apart and recreated by World War ll and its aftermath. Blanketed in the darkness of German occupation as France was, of those years his story is of youth cut short, of itinerant labor, eluding the police, and the search for stable employment. More, it is nearly impossible for us, habituated as we are to domestic peace and relative cultural stability, to imagine how the simple examination and illustration of a leaf, a shoot, a petiole, could become in the post-war era a civilized gesture of the highest order, too important to neglect.
 
And this, I believe, is partially why he has a reputation as an elusive interview, confirmed here. He insists on telling his life story. When I met him in his tidy Montpellier apartment last month, I was clutching a series of prepared science-based questions. Initially he would have none of this. As with journalists generally, I needed him more than he needed me; so for the first of a two hour visit, he generously spoke of his personal history, as if to say, “First listen to my life, then I’ll answer your questions.” I did not hesitate to listen. We sat down in his sunny salon, at a table stacked with correspondence and books. I turned on the tape recorder, and he began…
 
Pierre Galet “My mother once told me a Japanese proverb: sleep on a sadness, it may become a happiness. She was of British origin, born in London, christened at St Paul’s Cathedral. But I don’t speak any English! I’m a descendant of the British monarchy, you know. I was born on the day of Charlemagne’s death, the anniversary – but I’m not his reincarnation! (laughs)
 
“My father died in Cannes of TB when I was eight; he had been the director of a department store. The year after his death, 1929, there was a financial crisis. We were 4 children. There was no family support, no unemployment benefits. It was a very hard time for us. My mother didn’t have a trade or any skills, and my brother was in Brest in the Navy; so my mother put us into agriculture school in Antibes. It was in fact a horticulture school, so I learned all about roses, carnations, mimosa, orange trees. I learned about grafting, all those things. That was useful for my brother, who ended up working in horticulture.
 
“When we finished our studies, I was top of the class. My mother came to collect me, and the General Inspector of Agriculture who was also one of the judges, said to her ‘What do you plan to do with your son?’ He offered to give her a grant so I could start studying for Engineering School. I was only 16 so they had to get special dispensation, because of my age. So I got into that school and was the youngest engineer in France, only 18 years old.
 
“Then the War happened. I came out of school in July. All my brothers were called up, but not me. I was young and I had to look after my mother. I went to work in the wine cooperatives and I did some harvesting. When I came back to Montpellier, I saw an advertisement for a position as an oenologist in Lyon, and in fact I later became a chemist in a very large and important winery. They used to supply wine to the troops in the 1914-18 war. We had these enormous tanks in which we did the blending, one of 2600 hl, another two that were each 1700 lh. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world.
 
“So there I was in Lyon, and the Germans arrived. Who greeted the Germans? Me, Pierre Galet! All alone! The army had fled. My boss told me I was going to be charged with a special mission, to take away all the money we had in the office, because we didn’t know what was going to happen. So there I was, driving across the Rhone, and a Panzer division arrives right in front of me. I was only 18! And the German officer said to me, ‘Kid, move over off the pavement and we won’t mow you down’.
 
“In any event, after Lyon my mother went back to Paris and I went back to harvesting, in the Gard and elsewhere, because the workers hadn’t come back. They’d been soldiers. Now they were prisoners.
 
“Then a tragedy occurred, my elder brother died in Paris died, asphyxiated by gas. I then went to Paris where my mother said, ‘you stay here, you’re not well’. It was true. I was very thin, not really eating, no money; I must have weighed 62 or 63 kilos [135 lbs], so I became a student at the Sorbonne, studying Chemistry. This was in 1942. In 1943 I did Physics and Mechanics. Then when Adolf Hitler ordered that we should go do obligatory work in Germany [the Service du travail obligator or STO program], I skipped off to the Creuse department. There were no Germans there, and I got work as an electrician on agricultural farms, with cows and wheat… It was the summer of 1943 I did that.
 
“Soon I heard that the Germans were looking for me. I was working in the gendarmerie, doing odd jobs, and one day my boss said he had ‘good news’: He had orders to arrest me and hand me over, but he told me to take my bike and get the hell out. So I did.
 
“I travelled back to Montpellier, and as I had studied Chemistry, I ended up in a factory making canon powder in the Loire valley. By a series of happy meetings and coincidences, I eventually ended up working on a farm, with cows, milk to drink, butter, outings to the cinema; it was pretty good! The powder factory ended up exploding, but I wasn’t there at the time. The Germans took everyone away who was left…”
 
Ken Payton Your starred career was about to begin…
 
Pierre Galet “Yes. Back in Montpellier, I went to see a former employer as I was supposed to have a piece of paper certifying that I was working. But soon, in 1945, the Americans arrived in Paris, the Liberation happened. Just prior to those events, I had been hired by a former professor who was working for Contrôle des Bois et Plants de Vigne, a division of the Service de la Protection des Végétaux charged with protecting the integrity of produce. My job was to go and check up on the nurserymen. It had never been done before. After phylloxera they planted and sold whatever they liked, no official check ups. So I was one of the first people to go and do this. I didn’t know anything about vines: I knew flowers. With a friend of mine who joined me afterwards, we had to teach ourselves to recognise the various grape varieties. We had 2000 varieties of vines at our school, so we taught ourselves, we tested each other. His name was Henri Agnel. He was from Nice.
 
“So we started visiting the nurserymen; they weren’t very pleased to see us! They had to pay a small tax for the privilege of being checked, they didn’t like that at all! In Montpellier there was a very large nursery called Les Pepinieres Richter, the biggest in France, the number one worldwide. It doesn’t exist anymore. [A version of the company still exists.] The director was a former student of our school, and a former assistant of the Chair of Viticulture. His name was Bonnet, and his brother [Leon Bonnet] had founded the Chair of Viticulture at UC Davis.
 
“So we visited Richter, and on our first day I noticed that there was a mixture of rootstock in the vines. It was my first time in their vineyards, so I took samples and went back to the lab. My professor, Jean Branas, asked if everything was ok, I said ‘No! Some rootstocks are mixed together!’ He said ‘You don’t know anything. We’ll take my car and go have a proper look.’ What I’d seen was a male grape variety, but it had grapes on it. I mean, sex changes these days are common place enough (laughs) but back then – well….
 
“It turned out that this rootstock was called 3306 Couderc, a male; now, we’d learned that their flowers were sterile, but there were grapes on it! And someone there remembered reading that M. Couderc had once declared that he’d made a mistake and sold a mixture of rootstock, of 3306 and 3307. We found the article and that’s what it was. So I was right! And my professor, M. Jean Branas, said, ‘ok, you’re so clever, write me an article about this for my review’. And I did. This caused a bit of a stink, because all across France, people had been buying these mixed vines and no-one had noticed.
 
“The following year, in 1945, Branas said to Agnel and I, ‘Why don’t you write a book about root stocks?’ We were 23, we didn’t fancy it much. But Agnel said he’d do the drawings, and he did. Branas said he’d help me out a bit. Here it is.
 
‘No-one else in the world had ever classified grape varieties by their leaves. This is how I got into writing books. Meanwhile I’d got married. My wife didn’t like all the books! We printed 500 copies of this book, then a second printing of 1000, then we did a third edition. They were sold all over Algeria, where the French colonialists bought it. Even in Australia, where they translated it! The phylloxera service of Australia wanted it.
 
“I then changed jobs. I became a professor, teaching all about viticulture. I went from being a rootstock specialist to a viticulture generalist. That’s what often impressed the Americans, in California, that I knew about everything to do with viticulture, pruning, grafting, to recognizing phylloxera.”
 
KP Tell me a bit about your connection to America. And of your collaborator, *Lucie Morton.
 
Pierre Galet “Lucie Morton was my student. She’s still alive, about 62 now. We’ve lost touch. We travelled all over America looking for wild vines I wanted to see. There are 18 varieties, from Texas to Canada, and also on the Atlantic coast; but there are less and less, because the Americans kill them all with weedkiller, or they burn them. I think I might be one of the last people to have seen them. I took some US university professors with me: they didn’t even know what they were looking at.
 
“My first trip with Lucie was to the University of Dallas. Her father told me I had to pay for everything if I wanted her to accompany me. We travelled all over Texas. At the time I was the enemy here in France; I’d written books that had been successful, so it made people hate me, my boss hated me, they wanted me to die or disappear, they put me ‘in the cupboard’ as we say, I was ostracised – really!” (laughs)
 
KP Have any of the varieties you’ve catalogued over the years, disappeared or become very rare?
 
Pierre Galet “Yes. In my dictionary, Ampélographie pratique, there are listed 10,000 varieties. I’m working on the 2nd edition now. But after phylloxera, we didn’t replant ALL the varieties. So we lost varieties, yes. Fortunately there are collections where some have been preserved, but you don’t see them outside of the collections. We’re interested in them now because they’re part of our genetic heritage. Everyone’s interested now. At Domaine de Vassal [Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique] near Sète, there are about 4,000 varieties.”
 
KP Is this grape diversity important?
 
Pierre Galet “YES! Because there are parasites, there’s a wasp that’s very dangerous. When a new parasite comes along resistance can exist in other, neighboring species. We might need these varieties which, though have been abandoned, might help fight the new diseases. Geneticists are interested in this, but politicians don’t care at all. It’s very important. Keeping up a collection costs money, but our genetic heritage cannot be recreated once it’s gone. That’s it! In Savoie they are preserving ancient and rare varieties, that I pointed out to them… it’s a worldwide problem, for ALL plants.”
 
KP Should genetic material be allowed to be owned?
 
Pierre Galet No! It should belong to a body like UNESCO. It can’t go to to a private interest; it’ll end up in mismanagement and personal interests being served. A body like UNESCO, with money, should set up a collection, maybe in California. I’d like to have done it, should they ask me.”
 
KP Does the EU assist the preservation of grape varieties?
 
Pierre Galet “No! They’re too busy fighting against alcohol problems, and against wine. Europe for me is ZERO! Ha!”
 
KP Are you an avid wine drinker?
 
Pierre Galet “Oh yes. Often when I travelled I’d be asked if I drank. I’d say ‘oh yes, a bottle a day’; so that’s 365 bottles a year – and 366 in a leap year! (laughs). These days a bottle lasts me about 2 days. I have a wine cellar. Nothing very fancy, because I’ve never been rich, but I like wine. I never have a meal without wine.
 
“I don’t rate vin de cépages [mono-varietal wines]. They make them yield too much. If you make Syrah at 80 hl/ha, it’s not good wine. OK, I’m not Jancis Robinson (she has copied me! but she credits me in her book), but I’m an experienced vine expert. Cabernet Sauvignon can be ok at 40 hl/ha but otherwise, forget it. The production levels around the world are too high. Now, I only buy AOCs, blends, Pic St Loup, Montpeyroux, Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Rasteau, Banyuls, but no more Bordeaux because I can’t afford the Grands Crus, and what I can afford is no good. Burgundy is the same.
 
“Our wines in Languedoc have gotten much better. Aramon was what we used to make wine for the workers, and it was fine for that, 9 or 10 degrees; you don’t really get drunk. Now we’ve changed the planting. We’ve got wines at 14.5, 15 degrees. Not easy to drink everyday. We should have kept Aramon for the workers! Yes, it would be interesting to grow vines that have a lower alcohol tendency.”
 
KP Thank you very much, Mr. Galet.
 
Pierre Galet “You are welcome.”
 
Admin, Ken Payton
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NOTES
 
*On Sunday at this year’s VINEXPO in Bordeaux, Mr. Galet was awarded the title Commandeur de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole by the Ministry of Agriculture. By a happy turn of events, Lucie Morton, now a celebrated viticulture consultant, was the surprise guest at a dinner organised the same day in M. Galet’s honour by Jean-Luc Etievent of Wine Mosaic.
 
A new Pierre Galet biography is just out (June 14), published by Le Sang de la Terre, written by François Morel.
 
A new edition of Pierre Galet’s Dictionnaire des Cépages is being published by the same editor in autumn 2013.
 
With thanks to Louise Hurren for arranging the meeting and translating this interview with Pierre Galet.

 

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  1. on June 18th, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    What a pleasure to see Pierre Galet.
    He is probably around 90+ years old now.
    I had the pleasure to be his Ampelography student in 2001 and 2002 in Montpellier. he always did his 2 hours course without looking at his notes. He is a live viticulture library and always have a small crispy story to made you memorized clone and rootstock # .
    He and Denis Boubals were playing in a league who do not exist anymore, i do not think anybody know more than them in them field.
    David

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on June 18th, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Thank you for your comment, David. Delighted to hear from you.

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