Meet Lucie Morton, ampelographer

Lucie Morton inspects the ripening crop during a visit to Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, a former cattle farm that now is the only vineyard in Montgomery County.
Lucie Morton inspects the ripening crop during a visit to Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, a former cattle farm that now is the only vineyard in Montgomery County. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)
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.

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