Ask just about anyone about American wine, and chances are they’ll think of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay… or perhaps White Zinfandel.
And they’re very likely to mention the Napa Valley, which is, after all, America’s most famous wine region.
What they almost certainly won’t know is that winemaking on the North American continent originated more than two centuries ago in the soils of Virginia and Missouri.
In “The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine” (Clarkson Potter; $25), author Todd Kliman sets out to unravel the lost story of the Norton grape – a variety that produced a gold medal-winning Missouri wine at the 1873 international exhibition in Vienna.
Norton was poised to become the first truly American wine to rival that of the finest Italian and French vineyards. But today, hardly anyone knows about Norton. Why did it disappear?
To understand the mystery, Kliman takes us back to the beginnings of this nation. Winemaking drives early exploration to the New World, as the English crown is determined to establish its own vineyards and eliminate its dependence on wines from Spain and France.
From the first settlers in Jamestown to Thomas Jefferson himself, these enterprising winemakers fail fantastically, unable to recognize the importance of terroir – the uniqueness of a region’s climate and soil. They keep transplanting European vines that cannot withstand the harsh American winters and sweltering summers.
A breakthrough comes from the most unlikely of characters, the suicidal Dr. Daniel Norton. Having tragically lost both his wife and infant son, Norton’s only pleasure is tending to his experimental garden in 1820s Richmond, Va. Half on purpose and half by chance, he creates a hybrid grape from native strains, one that is able to endure the climate and also produce a good, drinkable wine.
Through a series of fortunate events, the grape makes a name for itself and gets picked up by German immigrants in a Missouri town with a long history of winemaking. Here, that historic 1873 bottle is produced, giving rise to the Weinstrasse or “Wine Road” – the Napa Valley of the 19th century, a full hundred years before California wines gain acclaim.
This is the age of Twain, Whitman and jazz – and Norton is their bold, earthy, wild counterpart, reflecting the spirit of the time. But the glory is short-lived. When Prohibition arrives, the government mandates the burning of all vineyards. Norton, on the brink of greatness, fades away.
But the grape is tenacious. Bootleggers keep the vines alive in backwoods plots. Thanks to the efforts of former Air Force pilot Dennis Horton, who grew up near the very winery that produced the 1873 Norton, the grape makes a comeback in its native soil in Virginia. And here, dot-com millionaire Jenni McCloud, on an improbable journey of her own, is today’s ultimate Norton champion, staking her entire reputation on this little-known grape. Her Chrysalis Vineyard near Richmond is currently the largest producer of Norton.
Propelled by an unforgettable cast of renegade characters, “The Wild Vine” is a brilliant, fast-paced and provocative unveiling of untold American history.
The Norton grape and its elusive, inky drink embodies the American spirit of innovation and reinvention, and its story may forever change the way you look at wine.