Marilyn found the following article about wine in the Joplin, Missouri newspaper that was interesting. She first learned about Hermann Jaeger when she was taking a wine making class in grad school about 30 years ago. It is nice to see him recognized, but she hadn't known of his tragic end.
The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO
February 1, 2012
Crowder College exhibit recalls role of local man in saving European wines
By Josh Letner
NEOSHO, Mo. — Were it not for a Newton County winemaker who lived more than a century ago, a tiny insect might have spelled the end of some of the world’s finest varieties of wine.
The unlikely hero was a Swiss immigrant named Hermann Jaeger who is now the subject of an exhibit at Crowder College. Jaeger moved to Neosho in 1865, and began growing grapes and producing wine. He took a particular interest in many of the wild grapes growing in the Ozarks.
Laszlo Kovacs, professor of biology at Missouri State University in Springfield, said winemakers in Europe had been using the same species of grape — Vitis vinifera — for thousands of years. All of the varieties of wine that people have become accustomed to, including merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, derive from it.
But during the 1870s and 1880s, European vineyards were under attack from the tiny insect phylloxera, which attacked the roots of grapevines. The insect was a native of North America and was introduced to Europe by scientists studying American grapes. Kovacs said phylloxera devastated European grapes because they had not developed a resistance to it.
“The interesting thing is that it didn’t show up sooner because people started exchanging those plants back in the 1600s and 1700s,” Kovacs said. “The reason that it showed up in the mid-1800s was because they started using the steam engine on boats, so the boat crossed the ocean in eight or nine days. These pests survived the trip, and the European grapes became victims of globalization.”
Because the pest originated in America, European scientists hoped to find a solution in the many species of wild grapes that grew in the New World.
John Smerdon, who now lives on part of Jaeger’s old farm outside of Neosho, said American grapes had evolved their own answer to the pest.
“America has more than 30 varieties of wild grapes,” he said. “American grapes had thicker root walls that were resistant to phylloxera. The European grapes had very thin root walls.”
Smerdon said Jaeger took a special interest in “rock grapes,” or Vitis rupestris, that had “roots like armor” and were resistant to phylloxera.
Kovacs said Jaeger and several other Missouri winemakers sent about 20 rail cars of grapevine cuttings to Europe, where growers grafted their grapes to American root stocks, thus saving their livelihoods. The grafting allowed the American roots to provide a defense to phylloxera while the European scion still bore the grapes that provided the flavor to which Europeans had become accustomed.
“A grape, even today, is not grown on its own roots. It is grown on roots from American grapes,” Kovacs said. “They are two plants forced to live together. The fruit is exactly the same as it was, but the roots are much stronger.”
Jaeger also crossbred different varieties of grapes in an attempt to find a variety that possessed both flavor and disease resistance. His most successful hybrid was a grape known as Jaeger 70. Kovacs said Jaeger 70 is a cross between Vitis rupestris and a local species commonly known as post oak grapes. He said the hybrid was popular in Europe, where growers continued to develop new variations based on Jaeger 70.
“Jaeger 70 became a favorite seed parent for several breeders in Europe,” Kovacs said. “They produced hundreds of varieties in the early 1900s, and many of them have this Jaeger 70 as an ancestor. A study was completed last year, and it found that many of the hybrid grapes from around the world have genes from Jaeger 70.”
For his part in saving one of the largest industries in France, Jaeger was awarded the Chevalier du Merite Agricole in the Legion of Honor in 1888. It was the highest honor the French government could bestow on a foreign civilian for service rendered to France.
According to the exhibit at Crowder, Jaeger’s fame did not last, and by the late 1880s the public perception of alcohol was changing in America. An ordinance was adopted in Newton County prohibiting the sale of “spirits.” Jaeger briefly circumvented the law by selling cookies that came with a complimentary glass of wine, but over time the law cut deep enough into his profits that he sold his property near Neosho and moved to Joplin. On May 16, 1895, Jaeger bade his family farewell and left to take care of some legal business in Neosho. He was never seen again.
A few days later, a letter arrived, postmarked from Kansas City, in which Jaeger wrote in German, “When you read these lines, I will be alive no more.” He indicated that he intended to commit suicide. The letter was signed “Your unlucky Hermann.”
Smerdon said his mother- and father-in-law bought the Jaeger home in 1960 and demolished it in 1973. While demolishing the house, they discovered several Jaeger artifacts, including his award from the French government. While no monument to Jaeger exists in the United States, a bronze statue on the grounds of the French agricultural university in the southern city of Montpellier recalls his role in saving the French wine industry.
The Jaeger exhibit will be on display through Feb. 10 in the Longwell Museum at the Elsie Plaster Community Center at Crowder College. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. The exhibit is on loan from the Discovery Center in Springfield.
I am not much of a wine drinker, dogs and alcohol do not mix well.