She's Just Wild About Norton
A Forgotten Grape Wins a Champion

By Catherine Cheney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The first time Jennifer McCloud tasted a wine made of Norton grapes, "it blew my mind," says the owner of Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg. "And when I found out it was native to Virginia, I thought, 'Oh, man. I have got to be a part of this.' "

Now her vineyards are home to the largest amount of Norton acreage in the world, and McCloud, 55, who trademarked the phrase "Norton, the Real American Grape!," is working to restore this grape to a position of eminence.

There's just one problem with McCloud's campaign: These days, Norton is not universally beloved.

Virginia winemakers are growing Norton grapes, either because they enjoy the deep red color and fruity, Spanish-red taste or because they appreciate how well they grow despite tough climate and soil conditions. But others argue that Norton should not be the marketing focus of Virginia wine country because, as the basis of a love-it-or-hate-it kind of wine, it lacks the widespread appeal and international recognition of, say, Viognier.

There was a time when Norton was better received. After Daniel Norton (1794-1892) first grew the grapes on his Richmond farm, his wine won such awards as Best Red Wine of All Nations at the 1873 World's Fair in Vienna, according to the London Gazette.

But Virginia's Prohibition, which preceded the nation's by several years, brought Norton production to a halt. "Then, after Prohibition, it was like they had a list. 'Norton: Tough to start, slow to grow. All right, next!' " says McCloud. "And it got left out, which is a shame."

Norton gained popularity and acreage in Missouri, where it was designated the official state grape. "We need to give Missouri credit for keeping it alive," McCloud says. Along with other varieties, she planted six acres of Norton in 1998; now Norton vines cover 40 acres.

But McCloud wants to spread the word that Norton's true roots lie in Virginia, not Missouri, and that the native grape is uniquely American. "That's why 'Real' is italicized" in the slogan, she said as she made the rounds at her vineyard on a hot summer weekend in August, checking on her grapes, including the Nortons in the nursery. "It's kind of a little dig on zinfandel. Norton is the real American grape, not the impostor." McCloud says zinfandel, a European grape, tends to have very high sugar development, as do many in California. In her opinion, that results in unbalanced and awkward wine with high alcohol content.

She talks about her "cheeky" idea to create a Norton lovers' group modeled after the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP). It would be called NAP, with this potential marketing slogan: "Is zinfandel putting you to sleep? Try Norton."

Because Norton is native to Virginia, it is resistant to many of the diseases that threaten other varietals, and the vines can thrive without the drainage other grapes demand. "It's an absolute joy in the vineyard," she says.

Under a tasting tent, which sat outside the tasting room where numerous awards for her Norton and Viognier wines were on display, McCloud took a lingering sip of her Sarah's Patio Red, a 100 percent Norton wine with a deep red color. She is a powerful, confidant woman with an outsize personality, prone to wearing wide-brimmed hats and monitoring the vineyard with a few of her 30 dogs (from the pound or rescue groups) trailing behind.

"Norton grapes produce wines with pronounced character that are going to be out of the norm or off the experience chart for most people," she noted as the guests sniffed, sipped and swished from their Chrysalis wineglasses. Early-20-somethings who had come with their parents liked the earthiness of the 2005 Norton Locksley Reserve even after identifying themselves as white-wine fans. Tasters noted the fruitiness of the Patio Red; they could see serving it chilled with burgers or hot dogs.

And that is just what some winemakers and drinkers dislike: the strong (some would say too strong) fruity character.

John Delmare, owner of Rappahannock Vineyards in Huntly, calls Norton "unbalanced." "Cotton candy, bubble gum and earth don't necessarily sound like they should be in the same product together," he said. "I think Virginia winemakers make the best Viogniers in the world, so if I'm going to spend time and energy nationally and internationally, I'm going to focus on the Viognier."

Jim Law, owner of Linden Vineyards in Linden, said that although Norton "makes for a nice story," most people in the wine business -- himself included -- turn up their noses at the mention of it.

"Frankly, I don't like Norton," he said. "I think the aromas are real bubble gummy and tutti-frutti, and the tannins are real green and hard, and the acidity is out of balance."

Kristin Heydt, tasting room manager at Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane, says the flavor combination in Norton wines reflects the American heritage. "It is truly an American palate," said Heydt, who added that those who prefer white wine tend to enjoy Norton wine. "Ours has a confectionary sweet aroma, like toasted marshmallows, and it is smoky at the same time." Barrel Oak makes a red wine and a port, which Heydt said makes for a better use of Norton.

McCloud said she aims to create Norton converts out of people who are hesitant to try the wine. "One soul at a time," she said, pouring a taste of her favorite grape into the five wineglasses at the tasting table and preparing to tell its story.

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