I went to Virginia for three main reasons: to visit people I love, to have fun, and to drink a Norton wine. Mission Accomplished!
Wait, you’ve never heard of the Norton grape!? Honestly I’m not surprised, I hadn’t either until a reader of Griffy on Wine suggested I read the book The Wild Vine by Todd Kilman. It’s the story of a forgotten grape, and an untold story of American wine history.
The Norton grape was developed Dr. Norton, a medical doctor by trade and amateur horticulturist. In 1821, he did what not even the great Thomas Jefferson had been able to do; develop a grape in America that would yield a good-tasting, long-lived wine. American colonists had been trying since 1607 when they landed in Jamestown, VA, and over two centuries and a revolution later, Dr. Norton finally succeeded.
Convinced he had a grape of immense promise, Norton sent his fruit to the Linnaean Botanic Garden and Nurseries of Long Island. This company was the leading supplier and authority on plants in early 19th Century America. Hard to believe they were located in Flushing, NY. They helped develop the Norton grape for distribution and planting. West, across the Appalachians, Dr. Norton’s seedlings spread to Ohio, Missouri and Arkansas.
Now before there was a Napa Valley in California, America’s Napa Valley was located along the Missouri River. Hermann, MO was ground zero for American wine production from 1827 to 1900. Grown by mostly German immigrants, wine was big business in the years before and after the American Civil War. In 1848 an unlikely wine maker, a baker by trade by the name of Jacob Rommel, pressed the first bottle of Norton.
Enter Martin Husmann, who settled on 200 acres about four miles from Hermann. He began making wine in 1851; Norton, of course, and a white wine called Catawba. I bet you never heard of that wine either, but it was so popular that even the great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about it. He even predicted that one day the wines along the Ohio will challenge the wines of Europe. He was right!
Fast forward to Vienna in 1873, at the Universal Exhibition a Norton wine made by Poeschel & Scherer won first prize, beating Europe’s best. It won again in Paris in 1878. In 1868, Phylloxera had begun to wipe out most of the European root stock and the French began looking at Norton as an alternative. If grafting hadn’t succeeded your Bordeaux today might well have been a Norton.
France rose again and the Norton fell back to earth. The transcontinental railroad had opened California, and by 1900 the state could produce a pound of grapes for half the cost of Missouri. Even Husmann moved to California. The Norton didn’t grow well in the West, however, and following the era of Prohibition the Norton disappeared.
Dennis Horton grew up in Missouri, but his and Norton’s future was in Virginia. After a three year tour of Duty in the Air Force, Dennis was building an office supply business in Springfield, VA. In the mid 1980’s, Horton’s business took off when he got a call for three commercial paper shredders. The caller need the shredder, “Today, not tomorrow,” so Dennis made a personnel delivery to a parking lot where he was given $6,000 in cash for the shredders, from that point on a government agency would send him a check. The official he had met in the parking lot was Oliver North. Dennis wanted to get into the wine business, but what to grow? “God can’t grow Pinot Noir in Virginia, he’d give up and go back to Jerusalem,” so Horton planted Norton!
My wine was a Horton Norton from Orange County Virginia. Nice strong nose with the fragrance of plumbs. The color is a deep, deep purple, while the taste is something of a mix between Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot, with a really cool hint of cinnamon and spice. This wine was every bit as good as any Cab I had ever drank, maybe not as refined, but easily as good. There is something wild about this wine, and I like it. Not only that, I love the history of the wine; the stories and the heart of the current growers. As one said, “I had a choice, I could be the 3,650th-best producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, or the best at producing Norton.” I chose Norton.
When I look around at the world of wine today, I begin to question the French obsession with terroir. I do understand it and I know it exists. Cabernet Sauvignon is grown all around the world, and in the final analysis no matter where it’s grown it’s still Cabernet. The homogenizing effects of market taste are robbing us of wine history and truly different wines. Uniquely American wines like the Norton, Concord, Catawba, and Delaware are all but gone. South Africa’s Pinotage and Chenin Blanc are being ripped out for Syrah; do we really need a South African Syrah? I hope Portugal will be able to maintain its distinctive wines.
I know it’s us, vineyards grow and produce wine people want to drink, but the Wine Magazines and wine writers are in fact are telling us what we should be drinking. So, in some small way I want to try and make you want to drink something else, I want you to try something new and decidedly different.
“For the richest and best, is wine of the West that grows by the Beautiful River.”
Longfellow, Ode to Catawba Wine