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Wine: A tale of grape expectations

By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; E05

Many people today recognize quality in Virginia wine, but Todd Kliman gazed into his glass and saw literature.

In "The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine," published this month by Clarkson Potter, Kliman tells the story of Norton, Virginia's oddball wine grape, and the evangelistic winemakers who are making a case for Norton wine as the state's signature bottling.

This is no ordinary wine book, although you will find it in the wine section of your local bookstore amid the typical grape guides, vineyard atlases and "Don't you wish you were me?" travelogues that define the genre. Kliman plays historian-detective as he tells the story of Daniel Norton, the Richmond doctor who bred the grape in the early 1820s and gave it his name. Norton's discovery came just a few years before the death of Thomas Jefferson, whose failure to grow European grapes at Monticello still unfortunately defines Virginia wine for many people. Norton apparently tried to get some of his grapes to Jefferson, but there is no evidence that he succeeded.

That irony, that America's greatest oenophile was unaware of the country's first viticultural breakthrough just a short distance away, permeates the book as Norton (the grape) struggles to gain respect and fulfill its potential as a great wine grape. Initial successes in the form of medals won at European expos in the 1870s were followed by obscurity and failure with the rise of California winemaking and, ultimately, Prohibition. And the grape has always had its skeptics because of its strong flavors and high acidity.

Readers of Washingtonian magazine, where Kliman is food and wine editor, know that he looks for a greater story within his subject, whether he is reviewing a star chef's gastronomy palace or a hole-in-the-wall strip-mall taqueria. (Disclosure is in order: Kliman is a friend of mine, and he was my editor when I wrote the magazine's wine column in 2007 and 2008.)

So it should come as no surprise that Kliman weaves the grape's fortunes and travails with those of its champions. The yearning for respect and acceptance seems to be infused in the grape itself, which is neither European vinifera nor native lambrusca but a half-breed called aestivalis. We see it also in its creator, Norton; in the German immigrant community of Hermann, Mo., where it first achieved prominence and is once again widely grown; and in its modern proponents in Virginia. Kliman's perspective is not so much that of a journalist as of an artist peering within his subject to discern a hidden, defining characteristic.

"From my first taste of Norton, I could tell this wine wasn't from California, and yet it wasn't from Europe, either," Kliman told me in an interview. "As a food critic, I try to put tastes and experiences that are hard to pin down into words. What was this thing that I knew nothing about?"

He started researching an article and before long realized he had a bigger tale to tell. "Norton really captured my imagination when I realized it was a story of outsiders," he said. "That theme became the vine that carried the book."

We meet Jennifer McCloud, who cashed in a tech fortune for a new life and identity to create Loudoun County's Chrysalis Vineyards and the world's largest planting of Norton grapes. (She has even trademarked the slogan "Norton, the Real American Grape!") Kliman's unerring eye for detail brings McCloud's outsize personality alive on the page, and we feel her frustration with those who prefer the traditional European vinifera grapes as she delivers her oft-repeated line, "I would rather make the world's best Norton than the 450th best merlot."

And there's Dennis Horton, who put Virginia on the world wine stage with his 1993 viognier but says he couldn't persuade The Washington Post's wine columnist at the time to write about Virginia wines. In his quest to find varieties that will perform well in the Old Dominion, the irascible Orange County vintner is a restless tinkerer who boasts of having torn out more vines than most Virginia wineries have ever planted.

The wine industry also figures as a character in Kliman's tale, as when the upstart American Norton gained recognition among the best wines of Europe a full century before the famous "Judgment of Paris" tasting of 1976 that gave California wine its ultimate triumph. Virginia's and Missouri's wine industries today are flourishing, yet they, too, struggle to win respect and recognition from their better-known competitors.

Norton might never be more than a niche wine. But in the hands of Kliman, the author as vintner, it makes a fascinating story, complex and with a haunting finish.

McIntyre can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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