Raise a glass to Norton –– by Joe Bonwich
A while back, Hank Johnson, owner of Chaumette Vineyards & Winery in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., sat down with me at a local restaurant to talk about his Norton wine. Within minutes, he had unfolded his napkin and begun scribbling graphs of acid profiles for the grapes, and diagrams of the Smart-Dyson Ballerina trellis system.
By the time he'd started riffing on air flow and canopy management, he'd almost taken on the persona of a man possessed.
That shouldn't be surprising, says Dan Burkhardt, owner of Bethlehem Valley Vineyards in Marthasville, Mo.
"You put in so much management in the vineyard that you want to be so ardent in making good wine," Burkhardt says. "Sometimes, we'll drop off a good half of the fruit in early August, just to make the remaining fruit better."
Chaumette, Bethlehem Valley and 50 other wineries from across the country will participate in the inaugural National Norton Wine Festival on Saturday at the Missouri History Museum. For the $15 admission ($20 at the door), guests can sample up to 15 current vintage Nortons; the $35 VIP tickets include additional tastings of flights of multiple vintages.
The event also includes exhibitions of wine-barrel making and educational presentations about Norton grapes. A percentage of the proceeds from the event will go to the History Museum.
Norton is the state grape of Missouri, but its lineage is traced to Virginia. The grape takes its name from an early 19th-century resident of Richmond, Va., Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton, who said he'd developed it as a hybrid in his garden.
A competing theory holds that another Richmond resident, Dr. F.A. Lemosy, found the grape growing wild on a riverbank and provided it to Norton.
The grapevine eventually was sold commercially about 1830 at the nursery of William Robert Prince in Flushing, N.Y. — the probable origin of the vines carried by the 19th-century German immigrants who settled in the rolling hills adjacent to the Missouri River near Hermann.
Last month, a panel of judges from Missouri, California, Kansas, Colorado and Pennsylvania convened at Busch's Grove restaurant to judge the submissions. The panel awarded best of show to Sugar Creek Vineyards in Augusta for its 2006 Cynthiana (another name for the Norton grape, or at least for a grape that's generally thought to be nearly identical genetically) and to Bommarito Estate Almond Tree Winery in New Haven, Mo., for its 2002 Missouri Red Port.
The six gold medals for dry Norton went to Sugar Creek, Bethlehem Valley and Westphalia from Missouri; Chrysalis Vineyards in Virginia (two medals); and Mary Michelle in Carrollton, Ill.
There are strong Missouri ties to the out-of-state wineries, however: Chrysalis obtained its initial Norton vine cuttings from initial Norton plantings from another Virginia winery, Horton Vineyards; its owner, Dennis Horton, is a Missouri native who started his Norton vineyard with plantings from Stone Hill Winery in Hermann. Additional stock later came from Johnson's Chaumette Vineyards.
And the Mary Michelle Norton was produced by Lucian Dressel, the former owner of Mount Pleasant Winery, who's generally recognized as one of the driving forces behind re-establishing Missouri on the national and international wine map.
"This is a great event for everyone involved," Bethlehem Valley's Burkhardt says. "The winemakers all seem to enjoy the competitive aspect and are anxious to see how our wines stand up to everyone else's. And it gives the chance for the public to compare Nortons, which just seem to be getting better all the time."