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Meet Lucie Morton, ampelographer

By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 12:57 PM

Lots of people would be dismayed to find a fungus growing in their refrigerator. Lucie Morton actually likes having them in hers.

"These are my experiments," she said recently, grabbing three plastic bags filled with grapevine cuttings from the crisper drawer of the fridge in her Charlottesville home. "I like to practice my fungal identification skills."

And there's always a chance she will discover something new: "I'm quite sure some of these little dudes are causing problems," she said, scrutinizing a sample inside a bag.

Talk with Morton, 59, about her work as an ampelographer, and you will quickly learn that not only does she call fungi "dudes" but she has a fungus named for her.

Phaeoacremonium Mortoniae was christened in 2001 after she helped identify another fungus responsible for "black goo," her name for a disease that afflicts American grapevine rootstocks and causes young vines to wither and die. Morton was instrumental in establishing that nurseries were selling vines infected with the fungus.

While that established her fame among fungus enthusiasts, Morton's influence skyrocketed in recent years with the initial success of three high-profile Washington area clients: Black Ankle Vineyards and Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Maryland, and Boxwood Winery in Northern Virginia. She also consults for Chatham Vineyards on the Eastern Shore and Rosemont in southern Virginia, which won best of show at the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition in July for its Meritage. She has other clients who have not yet released wines.

Her clients' accomplishments bolster Morton's argument that the herbaceous, underripe flavors that typically plague East Coast wines can be conquered through proper vineyard management.

"Everybody bought into this idea that we have a terrible climate to grow grapes," Morton says. "Sure, we get hurricanes. What wine region doesn't get messed up once in a while? With canopy management, French clones and crop control, we are able to get nice fruit with ripe sugars - riper than we ever thought we could 10 years ago."

Throughout the year, Morton can be found trudging through her clients' vineyards in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, followed by her constant companion, a Norwich terrier named Randy. She is looking for signs of mealy bugs, downy mildew, bunch rot or any number of afflictions that can prevent grapes from ripening. "I like to wage war on green flavors," she said during a recent visit to Sugarloaf.

A vineyard consultant of Morton's caliber can help budding vintners start on the right track without spending several vintages experimenting. After all, she planted one of Virginia's first modern vineyards in 1973, when her father decided to grow grapes on the family farm in King George County, and she translated the seminal French text on grapevine identification into English.

"We consider Lucie to be our Moses, leading us out of the wilderness," says J. Michael McGarry III, a co-owner of Sugarloaf, whose family made the switch from cattle to grapes.

When former Redskins president John Kent Cooke decided to plant a vineyard on his Boxwood estate near Middleburg, he enlisted Morton. It was a two-year process, from taking soil samples to choosing clones and planting the vines.

"We asked Lucie to plant her dream vineyard, so we gave her the opportunity to plant what she thought was the best possible," said Rachel Martin, executive vice president of Boxwood Winery. Morton recommended Bordeaux grape varieties: merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec, with a variety of French clones to provide complexity.

If you were to visit Morton's clients, you might notice something unusual about their vineyards: The vines are much closer together than is typical in the mid-Atlantic region. She is a leading advocate of close spacing, or high-density planting. Most vineyards in the region are planted at a density of 600 to 800 vines per acre, which is thought to help with air flow and to fight humidity. A Mortonian vineyard is likely to have 1,600 to 2,000 vines per acre; the premise is that it helps promote even ripening by reducing the amount of fruit per vine. The practice is controversial, however, primarily because of its expense.

Five years ago, Rob Deford, manager of his family's Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Md., sought to improve the quality of his vineyards in Baltimore and Frederick counties, so he called Morton. She took along a bottle of wine from one of her local clients with high-density vineyards, and Deford was hooked.

"It was a 'Road to Damascus' moment," Deford recalls. (Vineyard consultants, like wine, can inspire religious devotion.) He decided to replant all 40 acres of his holdings, at a cost of at least $15,000 per acre, not including lost production.

"The first thing she makes you do is be patient, and that drives you nuts," Deford says of the process. "You pull out vines and stare at an empty field for a year." After another year of planting, and then plowing, a cover crop, new vines can finally be put in.

Later this year, Boordy will rip up the last of its old vineyards, which were planted at 500 to 800 vines per acre. Last month, Deford harvested the first grapes from his new plantings of 1,600 vines per acre.

"They taste fantastic!" he says.

McIntyre can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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