Author Todd Kliman sets out on an epic quest to unravel the mystery behind Norton, a grape used to make a Missouri wine that claimed a prestigious gold medal at an international exhibition in Vienna in 1873. At a time when the vineyards of France were being ravaged by phylloxera, this grape seemed to promise a bright future for a truly American brand of wine-making, earthy and wild. And then Norton all but vanished. What happened?
The narrative begins more than a hundred years before California wines were thought to have put America on the map as a wine-making nation and weaves together the lives of a fascinating cast of renegades. We encounter the suicidal Dr. Daniel Norton, tinkering in his experimental garden in 1820s Richmond, Virginia. Half on purpose and half by chance, he creates a hybrid grape that can withstand the harsh New World climate and produce good, drinkable wine, thus succeeding where so many others had failed so fantastically before, from the Jamestown colonists to Thomas Jefferson himself. Thanks to an influential Long Island, New York, seed catalog, the grape moves west, where it is picked up in Missouri by German immigrants who craft the historic 1873 bottling. Prohibition sees these vineyards burned to the ground by government order, but bootleggers keep the grape alive in hidden backwoods plots. Generations later, retired Air Force pilot Dennis Horton, who grew up playing in the abandoned wine caves of the very winery that produced the 1873 Norton, brings cuttings of the grape back home to Virginia. Here, dot-com-millionaire-turned-vintner Jenni McCloud, on an improbable journey of her own, becomes Norton’s ultimate champion, deciding, against all odds, to stake her entire reputation on the outsider grape.
As mentioned before in blogs by Michelle and I, we are founding members of the Virginia Wine and Book Club. I am not a wine connoisseur, but I am a lover of Virginia wine. There is something about the local industry and the taste of the wines I am drawn to. I am a huge advocate for Virginia wines, so it is no surprise after being introduced to Todd Kliman’s book, The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine, I had to read it and blog about it.
I was first introduced to this book by a manager at Paradise Springs Winery in Clifton, Virginia who recommended the book on one of my visits after I asked him about more information on the history of wine in Virginia. Starting this book, it read more like a novel with dialogue and characters. The author set the scene with more modern-day discussions with the owner of Chrysalis vineyard then backtracked to what I most wanted to learn, the start of wine production in Virginia. Many people do not realize there were laws passed during the early colonization requiring colonists to plant vines to help support wine production in the colonies for the British, independent from other European countries. Kliman dove a little deeper into these laws and the early attempts at production and the effects Virginia’s climate had on these attempts. From there, Kliman went into Thomas Jefferson’s vision of wine production in Virginia and its failures. Following Jefferson, Kliman got into the main focus of the book: the discovery of the Norton grape and the successful production of wine in Virginia thanks to Dr. Daniel Norton (although this has been disputed) after centuries of attempts. From there, Kliman followed the Norton grape’s rises and falls through history in the United States. Kliman also touched some on European struggles with wine production and problems bugs played in this. It was interesting to move focus from one country to another and how this may have had an impact on American wines’ rise to prominence.
I was more interested in the Virginia chapters of the book, for obvious reasons stated above. The chapters on Missouri and other states were of less interest, but still informative. I was a little disappointed though on the focus of prohibition in Missouri primarily, and not in Virginia. I wanted to learn more about how prohibition directly affected grapes in Virginia, especially the Norton. While the author touched on this some when he introduced Dennis Horton, I would have liked to have seen more of a focus on this during the earlier prohibition talks (at least, that was what I expected to see more on when I first started this book). I did also have a problem with the number of block quotes throughout the book that I felt took away from the flow. (One example page 107) The author could have done better with summarizing some of these quotes and cutting them shorter. I found myself skimming over many of these and feeling as though I did not miss anything.
The author started with Jenni McCloud at Chrysalis, then wrapped back around and ended with her. The book was a round-about history of the Norton grape, and I found I appreciated the grape and the wine it produces even more after reading this book. The production of wine from the Norton grape started in Virginia and in recent decades has grown in prominence in Virginia thanks to Horton and McCloud. Ending appropriately with the last chapter on Dr. Norton (the grape’s alleged discoverer), I found this book to be a quick and interesting read on a grape in Virginia I am growing more and more fond of. I would recommend this book for anyone looking for a casual read on wine history in America, with a focus on the Norton grape.