Missouri's state grape is an American original
It was the fifth night in a row that the Washington, D.C., area had been without power. Todd Kliman sat with friends in the candlelight as a bottle of wine was uncorked.
Perhaps it was the darkness and the quiet, Kliman said, but the first sip of wine brought with it a moment of mystery and power.
Kliman, food and wine editor of Washingtonian magazine, knew wine — but not this one.
"I couldn't quite place it," he recalled. "Was it Californian? Was it European?"
He held his glass to the candlelight. The wine was so opaque that it looked black, not red. The taste was earthy, almost wild.
What was it?
A Norton. Yes, the very same varietal as Missouri's state grape.
Kliman's curiosity about this unusual wine led him on a journey through history, horticulture and Hermann, Mo.
He found plenty of information to satisfy his inquisitive mind, but developing a friendship with ardent Norton advocate and Virginia vintner Jennifer McCloud led him to write "The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine" (Clarkson Potter, 2010, $25, 280 pages).
Although Kliman's work will probably be shelved in the wine section of bookstores throughout the country, it's not a wine guide or atlas. By chronicling his evolving friendship with McCloud, owner of Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Va., Kliman tells the story of a true American grape that won top international awards in the 1800s and was predicted to become the rival of European varietals.
"The Norton story is interesting. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. But it wasn't enough for me to want to write a book," Kliman said. "It was learning about Jenni. Jenni is Norton incarnate."
McCloud is earthy and warm, he said. She's a rugged individualist. She also used to be a man.
"To me this is very much about being on the outside," Kliman said. "I saw this as a book when it became something larger for me, something metaphoric."
McCloud, a dot-com millionaire, cashed in her tech fortune to change her identity and start Chrysalis Vineyards in 1997. The winery is named for the rare nectar of fine wine emerging from the barrel in the same way a butterfly emerges from the cocoon.
Chrysalis is committed to restoring Norton to its position of prominence as a source of world-class wines. In fact, McCloud is so passionate about the varietal that she trademarked the slogan "Norton, the Real American Grape!"
In the book, Kliman describes McCloud's reaction to a New York Times review nearly a decade ago in which R.W. "Johnny" Apple described a Norton as "rather off-putting."
McCloud responds that Americans are too hung up on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
"All these big alcoholic fruit bombs from California. ... I would rather make the world's best Norton than the 450th-best Merlot. I would. What's the point of that? This is our grape. It's ours, OK, it comes from here. And it tastes of here."
And indeed, it should. The grape is believed to have been propagated around 1821 by Daniel Norborne Norton, a Virginia physician and amateur horticulturist who had a 27-acre property called Magnolia Farm northwest of Richmond, Va. One of his dreams was to develop a hardy, disease-resistant grape that would make a good, drinkable wine. Half on purpose and half by chance, he created a hybrid grape from native strains that went on to be marketed as "Norton's Virginia Seedling."
The book traces the Norton grape's journey to the German immigrants who settled in Hermann, Mo., and are credited with bringing the grape to prominence.
By 1870, Missouri led the nation in wine production. Of the 320,000 gallons produced in Missouri at that time, 200,000 came from Gasconade County. Of those, vintners Michael Poeschel and John Scherer, who started Stone Hill Winery in 1847, produced 50,000. (Stone Hill is now owned by the Held family.)
According to Stone Hill's website, the winery won its first of eight World's Fair gold medals in Vienna in 1873. That year Henry Vizetelly, a noted critic, predicted that Norton from Missouri would one day rival the great wines of Europe in quality and quantity.
Perhaps that might have happened if Prohibition hadn't started in 1920. The U.S. government mandated the burning of vineyards, and Norton began to fade away.
Luckily, bootleggers kept the vines alive in backwoods plots. The grape eventually began to make a comeback in its native Virginia thanks to Air Force pilot Dennis Horton, who grew up in Hermann and had played in the catacombs that once held casks of Stone Hill's wine. He began growing grapes in front of his house in Aroda, Va., and in 1988 asked Stone Hill to send him a shipment of Norton vines. The "Horton Norton" hit retailers' shelves in 1992.
In 1995, Horton told the legend of the Norton grape at an enology and viticulture conference in Charlottesville, Va. McCloud, who was still a man at the time, was in the audience and felt an affinity for the grape. "Who knew but that its rebirth was, in some strange way, a kind of parallel to his own?" the book says.
To Kliman, the Norton legend entwined with McCloud's second chance at life illustrates what it means to be American.
"This is about being as singular as possible … I don't want to be derived from something else … I want to be as individual as I can be,'" Kliman said. "I think it's a beautiful story of self-determination. It's quintessentially American."