The Outlook Interview: Lucie Morton talks to charles Fenyvesi; Lucie T. Morton, 35, perhaps the only itinerant viticulturist freelancing throughout the United States, traces her interest in grape growing to her summers at her grandparents' farm in King George, Va. As a child, she used to sit under a Concord arbor, eat grapes and spit the seeds at her cousins. She was born and raised in Alexandria. Her B.A. is from the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in history. Then she studied 19th-century theology at Oxford, England, and did research for a dissertation on her great-grandfather, an Episcopalian bishop in the South during and after the Civil War. While she was considering a career in law, her father asked her, his youngest child, to manage her grandparents' farm for a year. She agreed on the condition that she could study wine growing in Europe. First she picked grapes in two famous chateaus of the Bordeaux region: Lafite Rothschild and Fourcas-Hoston. Next she took an intensive two-month course at Montpellier, the only college of viticulture in France, followed by a seven-month study tour of the vineyards of France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. In a class of eight, she was the only American and the only female. For her degree, she wrote a 50-page thesis, in French, on viticulture in the eastern United States. She returned to the family vineyard in 1974 and began traveling through the United States exploring the abundance of hybrid grapes and advising growers on varieties and techniques. In 1979, Cornell University Press published her translation of "A Practical Ampelography," a pioneering study of grapeleaf identification by Pierre Galet, her professor from Montpellier. This October, Cornell is scheduled to release her own guide to viticulture east of the Rockies, "Winegrowing in Eastern America." She lives on a farm near Warrenton, Va., with her husband Ken Garrett, a photographer, and their 2-year-old daughter, Katie. Charles Fenyvesi, a freelance writer, is author of the column, The Ornamental Gardener, for The Washington Post.
Q: How long have you been in the grape and wine business?
A: In 1972, my father asked me to plant a vineyard on my grandparents' farm in Virginia. He felt that the Potomac River that ran by the farm was very similar to the Gironde River that runs through Bordeaux, France. The wine boom in America was getting going and his primary interest was to find a cash crop for this farm which has fairly limited open acreage. In 1972 in Virginia there were only 50 acres of grapes in the entire state. There were no wineries that used Virginia grapes and there was no state agency that knew anything about how to grow wine grapes. I had no idea which grapes to grow or how to grow them. That did not stop me from planting three acres of grapes -- 1,800 grape vines, 10 different varieties. I had no idea how much work 1,800 grapevines were.
Q: And what was the result?
A: I planted the vineyard with a lot of my friends. The vines went in in the spring of 1973 and I spent all summer weeding them. Weeding young vines is an extremely long process if you're just using a hoe on three acres. We later got a mechanical grape hoe. There was terrific debate going on among local growers as to which kind of grapes were the best to grow. Should we grow only the classic vinifera varieties? Should we grow some of the French-American grapes? In order to get a better understanding of the whole argument, I needed to study viticulture. I'd always had a secret desire to learn to speak French fluently and I saw my opportunity. When the season was over and the vines dormant, I got a job picking grapes at two chateaus in France for a month. I'd heard that there was a school in Montpellier called the ,Ecole Nationale Sup,erieure Montpellier which I couldn't pronounce before I went there. I had been totally bitten by the grape and wine bug and anybody who's ever been bitten by that knows you never recover. Much to my surprise I found I was the only American and the only woman and the first that they had had.
Q: Did you like wine even before you became a viticulturist?
A: Yes I did. I was brought up in Alexandria, and Washington is probably one of the best markets for wine lovers. My dad very much enjoys drinking wine and we had it in the family. I was always made a part, even as a child, of the family wine tastings. The first time I realized that wine did have an alcoholic effect was at a wine tasting with my parents. I was maybe 12 or 13 and I was having a little sip of wine, but this time it was an unusually large amount. I remember after that wine tasting all of a sudden noticing that I did feel a little bit different than if I had just been drinking Coca-Cola.
Q: Do you consume a lot of wine?
A: Yes. If people ask me if I drink, I say no but I do drink wine with dinner. My husband and I drink probably a bottle of wine a day maybe. If we're both home we'll have a couple of glasses with lunch and a couple of glasses with dinner.
Q: You described your profession as a free-lance viticulturist. What do you do?
A: I do anything to do with growing grapes. Basically, I earn my living as a vineyard consultant, specializing in wine grapes, as opposed to table grapes. I have clients in Minnesota, Texas, Tennessee, Maryland, Ohio. I tell them which grapes to plant, how to grow them, how to trellis them, how to spray them, when to pick them, that sort of thing. The last month has been very interesting because I've just returned from a trip to Minnesota, Texas and California. There are about 25 million acres of vines in the world and there are about 25 commercial acres in Minnesota. However, they have some fabulous breeding programs going on and they're breeding wine grapes that make a palatable dry table wine that will be able to stand up on the trellis without being buried. Right now, you have to bury most of them as they do, say, in eastern Europe.
Q: Bury meaning mulch?
A: Bury means that every year you take the vine off of the trellis, lay it down and cover it with dirt. Every spring, you lift it back up again, put it on the trellis and let it grow. Otherwise they would freeze.
Q: Do you get paid by the day? How much you get paid?
A: It depends on who I'm working for. My rates range from, usually $250 to $500 a day plus expenses.
Q: What's the maximum that you can make out of an acre? You're lucky. You buy all kinds of equipment. You know what you are doing. Your soil is good.
A: We figure, roughly, that it costs a person $1,200 a year in expenses -- labor, supplies, interest -- per acre to take care of that vineyard. The first few years you had no grapes. If you are growing Cabernet Sauvignon which, let's say, this year will bring $1,000 per ton. If you can bring in two or three or four tons of grapes you will make a profit of several thousand dollars per acre. The only tricky thing is can you get three tons a year every year with Cabernet Sauvignon?
Q: Do you have a vineyard?
A: I married into a vineyard family. I met my husband through the grapevine, so to speak. His father had been growing grapes in Great Falls, Va., since 1965. My husband felt that his father didn't know how to prune his grapes very well and he asked me to show his dad how to prune them. I refused to marry my husband unless my father-in-law would put up a new trellis and retrain his vines, and he's done that. We're building a new house on a south-facing slope near Warrenton, and I've definitely carved out about an acre and a half for my own vineyard. I am more interested myself in the experimentation and in the research and in the intellectual aspects of grape growing than in trying to be a grape farmer myself full-time. Plus, I love home wine. Once you've made wine at home from your own grapes you're hooked. You always want to make it.
Q: What part of viticulture do you like best?
A: Ah, pruning. I adore pruning grape vines.
Q: Are you a severe French pruner or a light American pruner?
A: Severe French. I subscribe to the dying vine theory. A lot of people say vines must suffer to make great wine and I'd say yes. It's a very controversial subject but I do believe that the finest wines come from those vineyards where the vines are not terribly vigorous, where they are not big producers. Definitely, vines need to be weak to make fine wine. I love talking about grapes and wine. I love teaching people how to grow grapes and how to make wine.
Q: Do you stomp on the grapes yourself?
A: The first time I ever stomped on grapes at home, I stomped on a bee. That was the last time I did it.
Q: Is stomping out of fashion?
A: Yes, mostly because it's time consuming. In Virginia it's so warm in August, September when we're harvesting, that if you took the time to stomp the grapes with your feet you might end up having stomped some delicious vinegar.
Q: How has your passion for wine and for viticulture affected your life?
A: It has probably kept my income at a very low level. When I first got into this I was living on the vineyard and as soon as I made any money, I would go off to France and work with one of my French professors and translate his work on how to identify grapes by their leaves into English. I learned how to identify grapes by their leaves and I came back to America and nobody else knew how to do it. I would walk into a vineyard and they'd say, "Well here's my Chardonnay and here's my Pinot Noir," and I'd say you've got to be kidding. That's Riesling. They'd say, "You know that's funny. I thought that that didn't taste like chardonnay. It's like knowing another language, being able to identify grapes by their leaves.
I love what I do, and because of that, my work is my life. I'm not working for money so that then I can go on vacation and do what I want to do. I'm doing what I want to do every day, but the price that you pay for that is that you're not necessarily becoming a wealthy person. I get pleasure out of tractors. If you gave me $15,000 tomorrow, I would buy a tractor and not a sports car.
Q: Has living in the country narrowed your social life in any way?
A: No. I was afraid when I first started working for my father I was 21 years old and moved to King George, Va., deep in the country, seven miles from the nearest post office. I found that I had a better social life than I'd ever had even as a student at the University of Pennsylvania where the ratio is 5 to 1. Most of the men I met were looking forward to coming out to the country on the weekend to do work. They thought it was pleasurable to help me build a fence or a trellis. I'd have to say more men than women seem to be very interested by wine.
Q: The vintner has a reputation as a gregarious person, someone who enjoys making other people happy. Is that a stereotype?
A: I think there's a lot of truth to it. They love what they're doing and they want to spread the joy. Every now and then you'll get the individual who is sort of irascible, reclusive, superior, aloof. They like to think that gives a mystique to their wine. I can think of a few people in the wine industry that are not friendly, open, gregarious types.
Q: Are most of your friends wine growers?
A: Most of my friends are not wine growers, but all of my friends who are wine growers are friends. All of my clients are my friends. It's a very friendly profession, very close. Most people in the wine business are family people. It's a family enterprise. Just as my father got me into it many people my age are working for their parents. It was their dad's idea but their dad had to spend his time earning money to buy all the wine equipment and tractors so the children are working for the fathers a lot of times.
Q: How did the Europeans take to an American, particularly a woman who is in viticulture, ambitious about wine?
A: I made some very good friends but on the other hand I had to really keep up a sense of humor because they were teasing me. Their opinion of American wine, for the most part, was extremely low -- especially, eastern American wine. All they thought of was Concord and sweet grape-juice-flavored wine that you may as well pour on pancakes. When we would go visit the most distinguished chateaus they would say, "Oh yes, and here's our American student, Lucie Morton, she is here to learn how to make Coca-Cola out of vitis labrusca. They just thought that was the funniest thing. They think Americans are Coca-Cola. One time we went to the Lambrusco winery in Italy. We were touring around all the Italian regions and the man said, "Ah senorina American, I'll know just what you'll like. I will get it for you." I said, no, stop, I know what you'll think I'll like because I'm a woman and because I'm an American you're gonna run for the sweetest Lambrusco wine that you make or export. And please, I don't. I have the taste of an old Frenchman.
Q: What kind of challenges do you like best in viticulture?
A: I like best taking a vineyard that has been neglected and bringing it back to life. I like that better than even starting from scratch, because when you start from scratch there is a huge responsibility there which you don't quite have if you are starting out that somebody else made the decision and maybe made a few wrong turns and you can correct it. If you said, Lucie, here is a hundred thousand dollars. Plant me a vineyard, I would be more nervous about that because I'd be so concerned with your getting the best out of your money and succeeding in a certain way.
Q: So how did you fall into freelance viticulture?
A: I needed to earn money. And in order to earn money with the knowledge that I had gained through my studies and practical application at home, I needed to do consulting. For me it's a difficult thing to do because you are trying to do the best you can to enact somebody else's dreams and goals. But my brother always said consulting keeps a person honest, keeps you out of the ivory tower, because you have to be in the field and if you don't tell someone how to do something correctly, there are immediate negative consequences.
Q: Have you ever thought of branching out to, say, apple growing?
A: Never. I find viticulture is totally absorbing and I've even resisted the temptation to learn more about enology or the science of winemaking beyond home wine making and beyond what I need to know to tell my clients how they messed up good grapes. I need to know enough about winemaking so that if I've worked very hard to get somebody to produce good (grapes) to give to the winery and if the wine is no good, I want to be able to absolve the wine grapes of that, to blame the winemaker.