Just when you thought you knew your American wine grape history, along comes Todd Kliman to turn your world upside down. Todd is the food and wine editor of The Washingtonian. He’s also a restaurant critic. Todd was definitely perfectly poised to write this one, and a fine book it is. His writing is highly acclaimed, having won a 2005 James Beard Foundation Award for his newspaper column in the Washington City Paper. He has many more convincing credentials, but you don’t need them right now, as much as you need to know that this book belongs in all serious wine libraries… period.
His new book, The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape And the Untold Story of American Wine is what this blog posting is all about. (Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers of New York ($25.00)
Being the founding executive director of PS I Love You, I recently went to the Midwest Grape & Wine Conference to talk about the challenges of operating a single variety advocacy group. After working with this grape and its advocates for the last 10 years, I’m very familiar with its history as an American heritage variety. I’m deeply respectful for those who support the cause, and am challenged daily by those who would rather ride our coattails.
At this stage of it all, I qualify as the world advocate for Petite Sirah… being the go-to person when anyone in any country around the globe has a question. I’ve gotten so thorough with it that when I get an email in another language, I just use a translator on-line, get the gist of the question, then translate the answer back to the person querying me. This grape keeps me busy and out of mischief.
By looking at the Midwest Grape & Wine Conference program while there, I was able to figure out their curiosity… Missouri has a history with the Norton grape, an important Vitis variety that’s native to the United States. How important the Norton was, I had no idea. I was soon to learn, but only after my trip to Missouri. Now, I wish I had known then what I know now, but I hadn’t been prepped for this one… Just asked to share my challenges with Petite Sirah. I also didn’t know that the state of Missouri has a government agency that supports their wine industry. Boy, where was California when that concept was created?
The Norton Grape: A Yin/Yang variety, known as both Norton and Cynthiana, is an American Vitis aestivalis cultivar. It’s hardy, small berries produce beautiful, red wine. It’s better suited to the East Coast and the Midwest. It’s also the most disease resistant wine grape in the US… Think “green,” and you’ll know which wine grape is likely to have the least herbicides/fungicides spayed on it from day one. Yup… Norton…
The Wild Vine
A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine
Where to begin… I found my soul sister, Jenni McCloud, of Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Virginia in the book. While we’ve both had separate struggles in life, like we all do, fighting for a single grape variety completely ties us together. And, when I say fighting, I mean fighting. Jenni has taken on the Norton with the same focused passion, the same sweat equity, and the same persistent determination that I know all too well. She began in 1997… My wine journey began in 1993; although, not headed toward fighting a cause in the beginning, I was definitely prepping for it, as Jenni was in her life, too… She on the East Coast, I out here in California… Both of us headed toward championing an underdog with great passion and intensity that would bring us both some satisfaction.
Jenni McCloud’s recent moment of knowing that she was slowly winning her battle came when she addressed the governor of Virginia in their rotunda. The event happened with all of her Virginia wine colleagues looking on, as she gave a toast to everyone, including the Virginia Wine Board… I have those same moments every time we have another Dark & Delicious event. I see consumers, media people, and trade people espousing the virtues of Petite all under one great big, happy roof. It does happen, this change we’re both looking for, ever so slowly; and, Jenni and I are on the same path… Perhaps we could form a two member, mutual admiration society support group. She’s got my support, at least, believe me. We both know what we know, the yin/yang of championing a grape variety worth fighting for…
You can read more details of Jenni’s journey in this really well written book. I can’t give away all of Todd’s discoveries. You won’t be disappointed with the intriguing twists and turns of this part of the book’s focus. Trust me, I’m deliberately going to leave out a lot that you’ll enjoy discovering for yourself.
Where does Thomas Jefferson come in?
With his passion for wine grapes, of course; however, you’re about to learn a bit more about history… Let’s just call it beyond coming to America to escape religious persecution. You’ll learn that the British crown had reasons to send people to the Americas, and it involved winemaking. Todd gets into minute details not revealed before that I’ve ever read or thought about. Perhaps that’s why he dared to subtitle, “A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine.”
Where do Daniel Norton and Dennis Horton come in?
Like Dr. François Durif, Daniel Norton names a grape variety after himself; thereby guaranteeing that eventually he would get credit for something as worthy as a wine grape and its history. Kliman gets into the minute details, much the way any investigator gets to the bottom of anything worth knowing. Yes, Virginia, journalist still do exist.
Dennis Horton hears a Who… I’m sorry, I’m confused with Dr. Seuss. (I couldn’t get this out of my head as I continued to position Norton and Horton. It comes from years of raising children.)
Dennis Horton takes over where Daniel Norton leaves off, keeping the dream alive…and then along comes Jenni McCloud.
Do you need this book?
The Wild Vine belongs in any and every library of serious consequence that involves American history and the history of winemaking. Discover many hidden secrets of wine history never revealed before, presented by Kliman. If you love wine and you love digging deeper in that passion, The Wild Vine belongs in your library, too. It’s a really great read and highly recommended for all people who love wine and its American origins.
- Book Review: The Wild Vine by Todd Kliman (lenndevours.com)
- Norton: The Little Grape That Couldn’t (vinotrip.com)
- The Rodney Dangerfield of Wine (wineeconomist.com)
It is a great read and the twists are fascinating. But the final result is that it makes me want to seek out and taste some Nortons!
Norton is an interesting grape, at least from an American perspective. Missouri is the Norton State, but Virginia is trying to catch up. I tasted the Chrysalis Vineyards Norton and wrote about it here http://schiller-wine.blogspot.com/2010/07/norton-and-other-wines-of-chrysalis-in.html
Mike, my sentiments exactly.
I’ve got to taste the Chrysalis, too. I’ll read your review. Thanks.
It was fun to read your review that doesn’t spill the beans/grapes. I agree with you that the best of Nortons can be found in Missouri and Virginia, but also amazed that there are now 246 Norton wineries in 23 states. After tasting over 110 Norton wines, we’ve found credible Norton examples in places as White Oaks (AL); Mount Bethel (AR), Three Sisters (GA); Elk Creek (KY); Heinrichshaus, Stone Hill’s Cross J, Augusta/Montelle, Westphalia (sulfite free drink now Norton), Peaceful Bend (MO); Stone Mountain Cellars (PA); Century Farms (TN); Stone House Vineyards (TX); Castle Gruen, Cooper (consistently best Virginia Norton year in and year out), DuCard (the new kid on the block) and Chrysalis’ Locksley Reserve (if you are willing to put this $35 bottle away for a few more years) (VA).
It was fun to read your review that does spill the beans/grapes. Thanks, TNWT, for your insight into who’s doing what where. (LOL)
P.S., If I had spilled the beans/grapes, there would be no incentive to read this fabulous story. It needs to be read on a lot of levels.