WHEN WE THINK of wine made in America we inevitably think of California, then Oregon, Washington and New York state. In fact, European grape varieties are grown in almost every state east of the Rockies, and good wine is made from them. There are hundreds of commercial wineries. Production is relatively small, but that will soon change, in the view of Lucie Morton, a Virginia viticultural consultant and the author of Winegrowing in Eastern America, an illustrated guide published by Cornell University Press.
"The future in the East," says Morton, 35, "is either in the family winery, where you keep it local, do most of your own work and let the tourists in, or in big operations where the investors get professional."
Morton's book contains not just a discussion of eastern viticulture, but a brief history of grapes, wine-making, and the evolution of the French-American varieties, as Morton calls them, that have predominated in the East. Wine from French-American varieties like seyval blanc and vidal blanc can be fine, but it has been eclipsed in popularity lately by European vitis vinifera -- grapes like chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon -- grown in California almost exclusively.
Grapes are closely tied to American history and seem destined to become a larger factor in East Coast culture -- including agriculture. This country was thick with native grapes at the time of discovery: hardy and resistant to the vine pest, phylloxera. American grapes contributed largely to the survival of European vineyards a century ago. At that time, American root stock was used to replace vines ravaged by phylloxera in Europe. Many French-American varieties grew out of that experimentation. These varieties were widely planted in eastern America, where, until fairly recently, it was thought that cabernet, chardonnay and pinot noir would not grow. The absolutely perfect grape for Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania has yet to be identified. Meanwhile, fine wine is coming from both vinifera and French-American varieties grown in this area.
Morton was a historian, not a viticulturist, studying in Oxford when her father asked her to take a year off and see whether grapes could be grown in King George's County on the Potomac, which he thought resembled Bordeaux in climate. She wanted to attend the University of California at Davis, but course requirements were too rigorous and she ended up at the viticultural school in Montpellier, France. Her first experimental plot consisted of three acres in King George's containing 1,800 vines of all sorts. Out of that ambitious start grew a productive vineyard and a profession as consultant.
Now she has clients in California, too. There winegrowers are pushing into more difficult areas and need sophisticated advice about tougher growing conditions. Prince George's County gone to Napa? It's just another unexpected connection in the universe of the vine.