Should America’s Native Grapes Be Saved? (The Wild Vine Giveaway!)

Vinted on October 7, 2010 binned in book reviews, giveaways

This week, we’re giving away a hardcover copy of Todd Kliman’s excellent The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine (of which I received more than one sample copy) to one lucky commenter (that could be YOU).

I should start by saying that The Wild Vine is everything that you’d want out of a good wine book; better stated, it’s everything that you’d want out of a good book, period.

There are compelling characters.  There is a stellar narrative voice.  There’s an underdog story (a few, actually, interwoven) that make you care.  There is conflict, perseverance, and in some ways, triumph.

I’m just not entirely convinced that the story needed to be told – at least, part of it, anyway.  I’m glad it was told – and in such gloriously talented fashion; I’m just not sure I “get” the importance of the tale, mostly because the heart of the story in The Wild Vine is the near total disappearance of one of America’s most seemingly promising, and at one time certainly most successful – native hybrids, the Norton.

The book takes us on tangents as wildly diverting as the un-pruned tendrils of a Norton vine: from the early 1800s near-suicidal despair of Dr. Daniel Norton (who by all reasonable accounts appears to be the originator of the Norton grape that bears his name) to the crowning of an American Norton as one of the world’s greatest wines in a late 1800s Austrian wine exhibition, to the near singly-handed modern resurgence of the Norton grape in its spiritual and genetic home in Virginia at the dedicated hands of Chrysalis Vineyards transsexual owner, Jenni McCloud.

As you have probably discerned, The Wild Vine is not without (major) drama.  And while some might bristle at Kliman’s extensive use of fictional historical narrative to get inside the heads of the book’s decidedly non-fictional characters, and others might give up on the extended storyline (Kliman literally waits until halfway through the book before posing the question of why the Norton practically went extinct), those who stick with The Wild Vine all the way through will be well-rewarded.

There’s just a part of me – the part that’s tasted some nasty versions of wine made from Norton grapes – that wonders if the grape should have been saved.

(for details on how to win a copy of the book, read on…)

Don’t get me wrong, the romantic (and the Romantic) in me both love the idea of bringing the Norton back from near-extinction.  There is something so quintessentially American about the homer making good, especially against big odds.

The skeptic in me, though, keeps popping up to say (in suitably evil mini-shoulder-devil voice), “who cares about these American hybrids. anyways – those wines totally suck!”).

Not all of them totally suck, I’m sure (I’ve never had the pleasure of tasting the Norton wines made at Chrysalis, but something tells me that a wine that compels someone as passionate as McCloud to make it and as talented as Kliman to write about it has a very, very low probability of sucking).


We are totally kidding ourselves if we think that the majority of native American grapes can produce anything other than – at best – half-decent table wines.  At worst, we’re left with the foxy, Welch’s-concentrate-sweetness of Concord “let’s-get-hammered-at-the-Renaissance-Faire” wine (nothing wrong with that, of course – I’ve actually done it, I’m just not deluding myself that the wine is worth anything more than that).

To me, it’s a bit like the argument of whether or not ground chuck can make a decent steak-style dinner– the answer is likely to be “maybe,” and your ground chuck preparation might actually be pretty damn tasty, but if you stack it up next to a cut of filet mignon, I don’t need to think too long about which one I’m choosing for dinner.


What’s your take on wine made from Native American grapes?  Sucky? Brilliant? 

Shout it out in the comments! In one week, I’ll randomly select a winner from the commenters who will go home (virtually, that is) with their own hardcover copy of The Wild Vine!







  • 1WineDude

    Thanks, dc – I've never had Chardonel! Yet another variety to add to my list for the second round of the Wine Century Club…

  • Benito

    I've tasted a lot of hybrids in several states. Most were awful–a Tennessee Baco Noir is one of my bottom five wines of all times. An Indiana Traminette was good, but given the choice I'd always pick its parent Gewurztraminer. The exception to the rule in terms of quality and profitability is Canadian ice wine, made from varieties like Vidal Blanc and Seyval Blanc.

    Will Norton be the breakout hit? Only if someone can figure out a way to sell it nationwide. There's an unfortunate cycle with American hybrids grown in "The Other 46":

    – Wine writers make an honest assessment of these wines and score them against mainstream wines, and you see some brutal articles.
    – Fans of the grape retreat and get defensive, and stick up for their state and ignore flaws or shortcomings.
    – Wine writers ignore the grapes, because it involves attacking such a weak target, and in any event, readers are probably not going to have any way to purchase the wines without driving cross country and visiting the winery.
    – Fans of the grape get angry that it is being ignored on the national stage, and demand attention from the wine community.
    – Lather, rinse, repeat.

    It also takes some time to figure out which grapes work best for a certain region, even using traditional European grapes. California started out with the Mission grape, but it's nearly gone now. During Prohibition Alicante Bouschet was hugely popular for making wine (due to some loopholes in the laws), but it's a pretty obscure grape today. It took nearly 400 years of grape growing to figure out the Zinfandels, Cabernets, and Chardonnays that worked best in their particular areas. In Tennessee, winemaking was only legalized in the 1980s, so we're still in the process of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. We're largely not a good state for growing grapes of any kind. The best wines I've had from here were fruit wines, made from apples or blackberries, because those do grow very well.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Benito – it's comments like these (intelligent, witty, etc.) that make my day!!!

      GREAT point about the Canadian icewines, of course – some of them are sublime (though I'd give the nod to the Riesling and Cab Franc versions, but the Vidal is nothing to sneeze at!). I also see much truth in your take on the "cycle of failure" :-). Not only are budding wine regions still feeling out their terroirs, but they're also feeling it out with varieties that TOTALLY SUCK in those terroirs but have mainstream recognition (Cab Sauv, Sauv Blanc…). Meanwhile, I've tasted Traminette in PA that was very, very good – complex, even! – though it might not be as recognizable to consumers, all they need do is taste it!


      • Benito

        I'll also admit to a fondness for a pure Native American, not a hybrid–the Muscadine. It grows wild around here, and as a kid I ate them raw, baked in desserts, and made into jelly. People make wine from it (mostly homemade), and I like it because of the memories associated with that very unique, funky aroma. It's a hard sell, though, if you don't personally love the grape, and like many smaller production American wines it's about as sweet as pancake syrup.

        P.S. Take me out of the book contest, I'm already way behind in my wine book reviews. :)

  • VA Wine Diva

    My husband was a big fan or norton from the fist time he ever tried it (albeit, one of the more consistent producers in VA). I took a bit longer to warm up to it, but sometimes I'm just in the mood for a norton and then nothing else will do. It definitely has a different flavor profile than the Bordeaux reds that are more familiar to most wine drinkers, but familiar isn't always good, and it's definitely not the only thing out there. I'm not scared of natives or hybrids. Sometimes you get great wine – sometimes you get unpalatable plonk (the same can be said of chardonnay, merlot, riesling, cab sauv, etc.). I'm always willing to try something new since it may turn out to be a new favorite. Here in VA, we can't grow quality gewurztraminer, but we can grow traminette, and some folks are making great wines with it (some aren't of course). It's became a great food white for me, so I'm glad people are trying to save (or create) less familiar grape varietals. The same old 10 grapes would make for a boring life as a wine drinker.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Diva – and we know you're on the level, because you are NOT one to shy away from criticizing the unpalatable plonk! :)

  • Chris

    My Norton experience is mixed, the memory of a Norton, from the conveniently rhyming Horton Winery in Viriginia was good. But on a recent re-visit found it pretty…. off.

    My favorite Hybrid red is undoubtedly Chambourcin and my recent favorite producer is Cave Ridge in the Shenadoah Valley of Virginia. Quite nice by itself, they also made a killer blend called Fossil Hill that blends Chambourcin with Cab Franc and Petite Verdot.

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Chris – funny you mention Chambourcin, I was just yesterday telling someone that it was my fave variety at a nearby winery (Chaddsford, in PA – major component in their Proprietor's red blend); talk about a kick-ass wine for pizza, I love Chambourcin with that!

      • Chris

        I've had Chadds Ford wines and may have even had that Chambourcin based Proprietors red, but that was a couple of decades ago. Lots of wine under the bridge since then, so to speak.

  • Richard Scholtz

    I'm more interested in saving these rare and native grapes more from an agricultural standpoint. Remember, it was Muscadine rootstock native to Texas that was used to replant virtually all of France after the vineyards there were nearly wiped out by phylloxera in the late 1800s. There could be other disease resistances and genetic traits in these vines that we don't know about yet; if they are gone, we'll never know.

    • 1WineDude

      Richard – you may appreciate one reaction I heard when someone I know first heard that American vine rootstock saved France's prized vineyards from eradication by Phylooxera: "Really? Honestly, is there anything that we haven;t saved them from?!?" :-)

  • science_cyrano

    Hey Joe, In part I'm commenting because it looks like a really interesting and thoughtful book.

    But when I read the summary and question two words popped into my head: Chestnut Blight.

    Whether or not native grapes make the most marketable wines, they should be preserved for Biodiversity if for no other reason. You never know. Also–you never know whether native grapes are the habitat for some perfect yeast that hasn't been identified yet. Or whether they are perfect for some kind of not-popular-yet niche brew.

    (For full disclosure, I think I might try to make a couple gallons of Niagara-mead this fall..)

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Cyrano – I do agree that pretty much any reduction in biodiversity is not a good thing. Cheers!

  • 1WineDude

    Thanks, Beth!

    I'm wondering if we should start a list of recommended Norton's to try (and maybe ones to avoid?) here… I for one would love a list of recommendations (especially in VA, where I'll be later next year for the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conf.).

    • TNWT

      I've added a comment to the blog with a listing of recommended Norton wineries, but I will tell you that our favorite Virginia Norton wines have come from: Abingdon (nice folk Norton and great location to take in an evening play), Castle Gruen (exciting tiny winery with an almost drink now Norton which you cannot find with a GPS), DuCard (a new vineyard doing all the right things near the Shenandoah Mountains); Chrysalis (if you are willing to buy $35 bottles and put them away for another three or four years); Paradise Springs (have had extremely good luck in their first two years of operation using Norton grapes brought in from other parts of the state), and maybe the best Norton wines year in and year out, – Cooper Winery Norton. Some years, Cooper has produced Norton wines that compare quite favorably to the best of Missouri wines. Since vintages and successes change annually, don't give up on any Norton vineyard with only one tasting, but make notes to yourself and go back in a year or two to see what changes have been made in their Norton production.

  • vinogirl

    Y'know, I've never had a wine made from Norton grapes…I shall have to rectify that!

    • 1WineDude

      VG – if you can make it to the WBC in VA in 2011, you may get a chance to try several (I'm hoping, anyway).

  • vinogirl

    Sounds like fun, but even though I was nominated for a Wineblog Award this year, I still see myself simply as an online diarist (if only Pepys had had the internet.)

  • Sherman

    Whether it's Norton in VA, or Marechal Foch in OR, we should try as many wines as we can. You can't discover pearls without shucking quite a few oysters — with some nice Muscadet to go with, of course!

    And it will take time to sort through the best methods of production, so it might be years before the question can be definitively answered — but it'll be fun trying in the meantime!!

    • 1WineDude

      Sherman, I like the way that you think :-). Especially the part about Muscadet!

  • Mel

    Being older doesn't make something better. (And yes I think this is true for humans as well!) I think that as a society, we have a tendency towards praising and glorifying things from the past, even if they aren't worthy of praise or glory. Nostalgia plays a huge role in it; people don't like to think of all the stuff that's disappeared, because it makes them feel old and afraid of the unknown future. It's much safer to dwell in the past, where things are known and familiar.

    Tradition and history are important, but we can't sacrifice future improvements for their sake alone. Everyone can agree that vinifera varieties make superior wine to the American ones, and for this reason alone wineries should focus their efforts on vinifera accordingly.

    That said, Norton has its place in the wine world, niche though it may be. I think it's fine for a few wineries to keep it around and make wine out of it. It shouldn't become the focus of a winery, but there's no harm in keeping it around for posterity. (And biodiversity – definitely agree with that.)

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Mel!

    • Colorado Wine Press

      Well said, Mel!

  • TNWT

    Please don't give up on our native Norton grape wine quite yet. Realize that most Norton wineries are relatively new and therefore borrow grapes from younger vines. Also, there is no "standard" Norton taste(s) since now there are 204 Norton wineries in 23 states which are all searching out that special unique identity. Add to this one more important fact in that most Norton wines need to sit quietly aging for five, six, or more years to rid themselves of their tannic/malec beginnings. Though we have only found a couple "drink now" Norton wines, in every case you should not seriously drink any Norton wine that has not had the opportunity to breathe for at least 40 minutes and enjoyed in a deep bulbous glass. Yes, I've tasted over 100 different Norton wines and only consider a few (three or four) as excellent-to-exceptional, but there are many enjoyable regional good Norton wines to be found in the mid-and Southeast. I'll give you a sampling in hopes that you may live in or visit these areas: Best Norton wines regionally: White Oaks (AL); Mount Bethel (AR), Three Sister (GA); Century Farms (TN); Elk Creek (KY); Castle Gruen, Cooper, DuCard, Chrysalis ($$) (VA); Stone Mountain Cellars (PA), Blumenhof, Heinrichshaus, Stone Hill's Cross J, Montelle, Robller, Pleasant Bend, Westphalia (MO). Sure, depending on vintage year, most of our favorite Norton wines come from Missouri (NAPA is to California as Missouri is to wine), but there are some wonderful Norton experiences to be found in other parts of the U.S.

  • 1WineDude

    TNWT – thanks for the recommendations, and hopefully we will get a chance to try the ones from VA at the next WBC!

    I should also note that we have a winner for the giveaway, and in fact I just a few mins. ago mailed the book to the winner via a visit to the local post office, an experience for which the only positive thing I have to say is that it did not take place on top of an active volcano!

The Fine Print

This site is licensed under Creative Commons. Content may be used for non-commercial use only; no modifications allowed; attribution required in the form of a statement "originally published by 1WineDude" with a link back to the original posting.

Play nice! Code of Ethics and Privacy.

Contact: joe (at) 1winedude (dot) com





Sign up, lushes!

Enter your email address to subscribe and get all the good stuff via email.

Join 36,930 other subscribers