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Vintage Virginians

The palatable saga of wine in America.

Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By SUSIE POWELL CURRIE
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The Wild Vine

A Forgotten Grape
and the Untold Story
of American Wine
by Todd Kliman
Clarkson Potter, 288 pp., $25

My favorite Dilbert cartoon starts with Dilbert trying to impress a date at a fancy restaurant. Holding his goblet aloft, he begins to wax poetically about bouquet, finish, and undertones .  .  . until the waiter says, “That’s your water glass, sir.” That’s what I feel like saying when I read most articles about wine—not because I think I know more than your average suburbanite staring vacantly at shelves of Chardonnay while trying to pick one, but because I have a sneaking suspicion that the writer doesn’t, either.  Or if he does, it’s unlikely that a rube would get past the pedantry to learn at the master’s feet. 

Todd Kliman is not that kind of writer. And this debut book is not all about wine. He describes it as “part travelogue, part biography, part memoir, and part history.” It’s also part mystery, all somehow woven together seamlessly into a story that’s hard to put down.

It began at a candlelit dinner party during Hurricane Isabel, the deadly 2003 storm that left hundreds of thousands of homes along the Eastern seaboard without electricity for days. That night, Kliman’s host poured a Virginia wine made from what he called the only American grape to produce drinkable wine: the Norton. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t feel too bad; neither had Kliman, and he was an award-winning food writer. But that first taste left an impression. He made a mental note of the bottle’s source: Chrysalis Vineyards, near Middleburg, which has the largest single planting of Norton grapes in the world. Later, he tracked down the vineyard’s owner, one Jenni McCloud. A self-described “Nortonian,” McCloud transmitted her enthusiasm for the obscure grape and served as muse when Kliman set out to unravel the story behind it.

It turned into the story of winemaking in America. Spanning four centuries, the tale hopscotches from Virginia to Missouri to California and back again—with side trips to France thrown in for good measure—and includes all manner of European grapes, nobles, and vignerons (who cultivate the vineyards). Along the way, we meet the 19th-century Richmond physician who created his namesake grape almost by chance; the flamboyant London publisher who judged Norton wine one of the best at two international competitions in the 1870s; a Gourmet magazine critic who helped bring it back from the brink more than a century later; Missouri bootleggers who tended the grape during Prohibition; and contemporary Norton evangelists and detractors, among many other memorable characters. 

Daniel Norton, on the brink of suicide since his young wife and first child died during the birth, succeeded in solving the dilemma that had baffled all who tackled it, from Jamestown colonists to Thomas Jefferson. In a nutshell: 

The problem with native grapes was that they were a poor match for winemaking. The problem with European grapes was that they were a poor match for American soil and climate. The vines were ill-suited to the heat and humidity of Virginia and unable to adapt to the inevitable diseases and pests that preyed upon them. It ought to have been a mighty lesson learned. But the mistakes were repeated, over and over, for nearly two centuries.

It became nearly an obsession to some. In 1619 the Jamestown burgesses required all households to plant 10 vines a year—“on paine [sic] of death.” Later, Jefferson picked up the baton. More than a hobby, his passion for wine translated into more than 20,000 bottles purchased during his eight years as president: In his first term, he spent a third of his income on wine. If you don’t associate Jefferson’s name with wine, writes Kliman, that’s because creating a native varietal is one of his very few failures. Something else I learned: In America, “the Napa before there was really a Napa” was, of all places, Hermann, Missouri. In the 19th century the town was home to a thriving community of German immigrants who quickly discovered that the unforgiving landscape meant that “wine was to be not one among many pursuits, but for all intents and purposes, the one and only.”

By the time of the Civil War, Missouri was producing more wine than any other state. The Norton grape had migrated there by a strange twist of fate, and its hardiness appealed to some vintners. Nortons from one Hermann winery captured medals at international wine festivals in Vienna in 1873 and Paris in 1878. Then came Prohibition. Kliman is understandably chagrined to note the catastrophic setbacks to the wine industry when whole vineyards were ripped out and the work of decades vanished. 

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