"The Wild Vine: The Untold Story of American Wine," by Todd Kliman

Sunday, August 8, 2010


A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine

By Todd Kliman. Clarkson Potter. 280 pp. $25

For Washingtonian magazine food writer Todd Kliman, the mystery started one night when he saw "something wild, something alive" in the glass of red wine he was drinking. His interest and palate piqued, he decided to investigate the source: a grape known as the Norton, trademarked as "The Real American Grape!"

What he unearthed is the subject of "The Wild Vine." He traced the wildness back to the 1820s, in Richmond, Va., when a doctor on the verge of suicide found a reason to live in a grape he developed by cross-breeding existing varieties.

Norton red, the doctor's namesake, may be essentially unknown today, but it was voted one of the best red wines in the world at a Vienna exhibition in 1873. For many years the grape prospered in Hermann, Mo. (the Midwest's "Napa before there was really a Napa"), but then Prohibition came along, and acres of Norton vines were pulled from the ground and burned. Decades passed in which the grape went unnoticed until it caught the attention of millionaire software guru Jenni McCloud, who took a radically new direction in life: starting a winery from scratch. She has since become the grape's greatest champion (she'd rather "make the world's best Norton than the 450th-best Merlot") and the world's largest Norton grower at her vineyard near Middleburg, Va.

Kliman's thorough research and entertaining spin on the Norton's history make for a vintage that goes down smooth.

-- T. Rees-Shapiro

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