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Norton, America’s True Grape:
Whence, and Whither?
   

By Paul L. Roberts

Wind turns grape flowers to berries by pollination. Yeast turns its berries to wine by fermentation.

Such transformations have captivated man since the dawn of time, but perhaps wine holds its special prominence in the human experience because in winemaking man and nature do not work at odds. They conspire jointly. This led the great 19th century French gourmand Brillat-Savarin to remark that the behavior differences worth noting between humans and other creatures were that we posses (1) a fear of the future, and (2) a desire for fermented beverages! A more certain truism, as most people know, is that the world’s most beloved wine grapes (vitis vinifera: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, etc.) originated in southern Europe or perhaps in the nearby areas of Asia.

But what about North America’s native grapes? Surely there cannot be so great a difference between plants that one continent can produce many grapes for great wines, while another continent produces none or few. But so it is. Of the roughly 50 species of grapes, nature has seen fit to equip very few with enough natural sugar in most years to be made into pleasant wine. And among the two dozen or so grape species native to North America, only one has proven itself capable of good dry table wines. Its scientific name is vitis aestivalis, and its best representative -- once a staple of American winemaking, decades before Prohibition -- is becoming increasingly well-known once again to wineries and wine lovers in more than a dozen states east of the Rockies: Norton.

You Say Norton, I Say Cynthiana

Some call this quixotic variety Cynthiana. Whether it and Norton are a cross between aestivalis and another species, or they are a wild grape, a pure aestivalis, is simply not known. Some experts suspect a cross with vinifera, but no apparent way exists to resolve the question. Aestivalis and its natural sub-specie variants are common along the fringes of lowland forests across eastern, southern, and central North America. Early works on American horticulture, such as Philadelphian John Bartram’s in the 1770s, describe grapes which we may conclude today were aestivalis. In his travels through hill and valley in the Mid-Atlantic region of the early colonies, he reports residents’ preference for a small but highly flavored wild black grape especially suited, it was said, for winemaking. The type was well-enough known to be gathered already by a nickname: “summer grape.” (Later scientific classifications would build on that moniker by assigning the species its Latin description “aestival: of or relating to summer.”) Many ardent horticulturists concentrated on this common species in the early nineteenth century -- domesticating native plant species for home gardens and producing hybrid crosses from these natives was something of a national preoccupation during the period -- and Norton as a named variety was available for sale commercially by 1830.

The Oldest American Wine Grape?

By American standards, this makes it ancient; in fact, it most likely is the oldest native grape now in wide cultivation. Grapes native to North America have generally not been prized for their wine, especially for their dry wines. The reason is a set of chemical flavor and aroma constituents which in the wine trade are called “foxyness”; sometimes the character is a cloying, bubble-gum smell and taste, and sometimes it’s more like tart strawberries. A half-dozen or so commercial grape varieties of native American ancestry are grown in a broad swath from western Kansas to eastern Virginia, and many wineries turn the odd fruit-cocktail foxyness to their advantage in sweet wines, where such characteristics are tolerable.

But while many people enjoy the “American” flavor, as found in Concord grape jelly, for example, this characteristic usually mars dry table wines. Only native American grapes, principally of the labrusca species, possess this peculiar property, but for some reason Norton wines have none of the foxyness. Sometimes, in some years, from some regions, it does have an intensely “grapy” flavor which hints at Concord, though more often in smell than taste. There’s even a hint of elderberries in Norton’s flavor, especially when the wine is young. The tantalizing hints of such flavor components in some Norton wine, identifying it as a distinctively American beverage, may also help explain why consumers have been so fond of this grape’s wine during the last two centuries.

Missouri Leads the Pack

Capitalizing on the naturally flavorful trait of this grape -- after all, grapyness is pretty much ideal for making wine -- vintners in several states are making wines today of world-class value from Norton. Missouri leads the pack, both historically and in recent years, but it is a Virginia winery -- Horton Vineyards near Charlottesville in Orange County -- that is spreading the story of Norton farthest and most successfully. Another Virginia winery, Chrysalis Vineyards, is also completing plans to take Norton to a national audience. At Horton Vineyards, owner Dennis Horton has, since the early 1990s, trumpeted the variety’s virtues to an ever-expanding crowd. His wine is now sold in all of the nation’s most important wine cities -- Washington, New York, San Francisco, Chicago -- and Horton has done more than anyone to encourage acceptance of the wine as an important varietal.

Missouri’s winemakers, meanwhile, have chosen to pursue a more provincial path. And who can blame them? Prices for their Norton and Norton wines have tripled and quadrupled in recent years -- now averaging more than $20 a bottle at the wineries and in-state liquor stores -- and they cannot make enough to satisfy their local and regional customers. Certainly the consumer fascination with this wine, which is typically the richest, darkest red on a winery’s list, has coincided with the huge spike in red wine sales since the “60 Minutes” ground-breaking report on the health benefits of red wine in 1995. (Missouri researchers, incidentally, announced in 1998 that Norton possesses up to twice as much of the beneficial chemical (reservatrol) as, for example, Cabernet Sauvignon contains.) At most Midwestern wineries, vintage after vintage, the Norton varietals are the first to sell out. Horton, on the other hand, has pursued a national mass-market approach with his consistently fine $12 Virginia Norton.

Norton's Shadowy Origins

Many grapes have fantabulous “creation stories,” and in this botanical world of wayfarers and wanderers, in smoky dens of luxury and decadence, Norton claims a shadowy origin to match any. Throughout its history, this dark orphan created a stir wherever it took root. That mysterious air -- its impossibly deep, nearly black robe; its velvety texture; its penetrating aroma and flavor -- definitely helped to spread its fame (and to rekindle interest in recent decades). But Norton’s long history as a cultivated variety certainly must be seen as a mixed blessing, for while recorded commentary of all manner exists about the wine, much is of a dubious nature.

Confusion began right from the start -- about the variety’s proper name -- and it continues to this day. The year is 1820. Among the countless backyard plant hybridists experimenting during this period was Dr. D.N. Norton of Richmond, Virginia. The good doctor tinkered with a number of plants, but the grape attributed to Dr. Norton, who brought no other examples to commercial prominence, was so accidental that no one has determined the varieties he crossed to produce his namesake hybrid.

John McGrew has come closer than anyone. The retired U.S. Department of Agriculture extension specialist’s research about the doctor and his Norton grape occupied the better part of two years in the late 1980s. Exactness is not possible, McGrew concluded. “A real problem is that there’s no known description of Dr. Norton’s grounds. I can’t find anything about his garden in any historical papers,” he said. “All that is known comes from second-hand accounts -- statements about him and his work in the writings of others.”

Still, McGrew figures he has a pretty good idea of how Dr. Norton made his discovery. He reasons that since grapes from seeds often mature into plants with characteristics somewhat different from their parents’, the original Norton vine grew from the seed of a grape genetically related. It grows in the Richmond area. McGrew guesses the winning “seedling” was one of many others the doctor planted in his garden. Because grapes mutate so readily from seeds, planting the pips is the easiest way to “create” new varieties.

Creating new varieties from seed is certainly much easier, requires less technical skill, than gathering pollen and manipulating it among the tiny flowers on growing vines. Who knows -- maybe the seedling caught the doctor’s attention as he ambled past his compost pile one day; maybe his “experimentation” was accidental; perhaps a robin robbed a grape from his garden, digested it, and planted the seed for him with a drop of fertilizer to boot, and then he discovered the plant already growing. It happens. Even though Norton was a physician, professional training in horticultural experimentation was scarce. Speculation about his original intentions and methods would be just that -- speculation. But based on the fact that the grape was first offered for sale at a commercial nursery in 1830, McGrew figures Dr. Norton isolated the seedling as early as 1817, and perhaps as late as 1823 or ’24. Dr. Norton would have spent most of the decade of the 1820s propagating the vine -- with difficulty.

For reasons still unknown, the species will not produce roots routinely from “cuttings” (branches clipped off the plant and buried in soil to force roots to grow from the clipping). Most varieties root fairly easily using this technique. “But aestivalis is just one of those species that doesn’t,” notes McGrew. “That’s been one of the factors that has held it back as a commercial variety.” Recently, horticulturists have perfected “green-growing,” e.g. planting green shoots clipped from the mother vine in a carefully controlled environment of heat and moisture that quickly produces roots on the shoot. But for centuries, what horticulturists did with hard-to-root plants is likely what Dr. Norton did. He probably covered a cane from a growing vine in shallow soil to force roots to grow from the covered buds and nodes. This trick, called “layering” in the nursery trade, is one of the grape plant’s own survival traits. Its ready-to-root personality makes a highly successful competitor in the world’s temperate and semi-temperate latitudes.

This can be confirmed by an average walk in the woods. Trying to find the original trunk of a single wild grape plant is nearly impossible because everywhere the vine runs along the forest floor it sends out new roots from nodes covered by moist humus. New leafy growth -- a potential new plant -- shoots up above ground. In this way, the plant can withstand great vagaries; if all of its roots could be dug up at once, or, say, frozen during a bitter winter, the vine would die. It will regenerate, though, from any undamaged node in contact with damp soil by sending out roots from the covered bud. Once a potential new plant shoots up from a covered cane, the cane can be clipped on both sides of the new growth. Roots below, leaves above -- presto, a new plant. And unlike propagation from seeds, these new plants genetically are identical to the original. Layering is tedious and time-consuming but a sure-fire way to raise plants that won’t root from cuttings. Dr. Norton probably stuck with the method, turning out enough young plants to offer a bunch for sale after several years. This make sense.

As McGrew reasons, Dr. Norton would have learned first-hand after a few growing seasons that his Norton’s Virginia Seedling was a handsome picture of vigor and health. Undoubtedly, it was as free from the grape’s typical pests as any variety he had grown. (There are very, very few varieties known anywhere in the world that resist disease as well or grow as vigorously.) Maybe, just maybe, the Norton’s joyful growth is why the doctor chose to name it for himself, instead of honoring a favorite daughter, pony, stud ram, or horticultural comrade, as was the custom of the day. (Angeline, Iona, Lenoir, Noah, and Stark’s Star are some of the more straightforward examples.) Some reports, more reliable than most from the era, contend that Dr. Norton’s homemade claret -- not the grape itself -- was what the public clamored for most around his native Richmond.

But however it was that the news traveled, the Norton variety reached William Robert Prince by 1830. This fact is known, among precious few in the saga, because that is the year of publication for Prince’s two-volume A Treatise on the Vine, Pomological Manual. Prince unceremoniously describes Norton among hundreds of other grape plants in his commercial nursery. His work is considered the first of real consequence on viticulture to be published in America. Since Prince’s off-hand mention, hundreds of pages have been written about the aestivalis grape in plant science and wine industry journals, as graduate students and their professors continue to explore the variety’s past. More than 30 books published during the last century mention the grape and extol its wine. Probably because of the grape’s commercial importance in the Midwest, university research continues to be funded.

But no account of the grape -- and specifically of the controversy surrounding its name -- surpasses a summary published nearly a century ago. The author was U.P. Hedrick. He would go on to direct Cornell University’s esteemed school of horticulture and to become, arguably, the leading figure in American horticulture between 1920 and 1940. As a researcher at Cornell in the first decade of the 20th century, Hedrick was part of a team that mounted several impressive studies of the nation’s fruit farming. The studies were then published by the New York legislature. Among them was The Grapes of New York (1908). In it, Hedrick tells Norton’s story masterfully.

As if to emphasize the shortcomings of contemporary competitors to Prince’s nursery, Hedrick notes that William Robert Prince’s writings were “characterized by a clear, vigorous style and by accuracy in statement.” He stressed that when Dr. Norton sent his specimens in 1830 to Prince, fourth in a family line of proprietors of America’s most renowned nursery in Flushing, New York, the doctor informed Prince that his namesake had originated from the seed of two other varieties. The varieties, Dr. Norton advised, were Bland and Miller’s Burgundy, growing near one another in his garden. But, continues Hedrick: This parentage, it appeared later, was undoubtedly an error as the Norton shows none of the characters of either Bland or Miller’s Burgundy. Prince’s description leaves little doubt that his Norton was the Norton of today.

In 1861 there was an article published in the Horticulturlist by a Mr. Lemosy saying that the original Norton had been discovered in 1835 by his father, Dr. F.A. Lemosy of Richmond, Virginia, on an island in the James River and that Dr. Norton secured the variety from this source. The Lemosy angle would come to haunt Dr. Norton. For many decades after the journal article cited by Hedrick, the man (Dr. Norton) who had been credited in the three previous decades with the gift of this fabulous little grape to America -- a grape that, by 1850, was delighting growers and international wine connoisseurs alike -- was suspected of presenting as his own what he had found growing wild on a riverbank. It seems the man who had created the hybrid and named the grape was unofficially but effectively stripped of honors.

Norton Takes Hold in Hermann

As the Lemosy theory made its rounds, a group of German immigrants living in Philadelphia but itchy to move on bought several hundred acres beside the Missouri River in Gasconade County, Missouri. They proceeded to build a town, Hermann, with a main street exactly one foot wider than Philadelphia’s Market Street. By the time their little nirvana might be considered a place with staying power (the early 1850s), these Germans had established a local economy as tied to wine as any ever in the New World. And one grape above all the others, arriving there in about 1840 after being pronounced worthless by Nicolas Longworth, the best-known winegrower in America at that time, had solidified its influence in the hills around Hermann (as well as in Arkansas and Virginia at roughly the same time). Missouri essayist, politician, and winegrower Friedrich Muench proclaimed the little blue grape a gift “worth millions” to his new home, for the red wine of Norton, he boasted, “when three or four years old, is hardly to be surpassed.”

While unanimity about the wine’s quality developed quickly, debate about the grape’s origin was far less conclusive. The appearance of the article about the Lemosy theory in the respected journal, the Horticulturilist, certainly gave that theory clout. Commentators and nursery catalogs were quick to quote it. Circulars in the 1870s from nurseries that sold the grape, such as Bush & Son & Meissner near St. Louis, credited Dr. Norton, but by 1883 the catalogs from the renowned firm gave one “Dr. Lemosq” the honors. Bush & Son’s publications included a fruit-growing manual, and were so popular that they became college agricultural texts. The firm was among the Missouri nurseries credited with saving Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th century after the phylloxera crisis. Their fruit-growing guides were even translated into French and Italian. In its 1883 catalog, Bush & Son, noting that Dr. Norton had propagated the vine by “transplanting layers from the original vine to his garden,“ put a bizarre twist on the known truth by adding that Dr. Norton had “introduced it to public notice.” Perhaps the company was unwilling to breathe the name of their competitor Prince.

Whatever the cause, the curious words chosen by the influential Midwestern nursery to describe Norton’s provenance were to be repeated dozens of times in print thereafter. A one-page account in 1906, for instance, by Liberty Hyde Bailey, the well-regarded dean of horticulture at Cornell who described Norton in his popular book as an epoch-maker, is virtually identical to the falsity spread by Bush & Son.

The confusion should have persisted for only two more years -- a total of almost 50 -- because in 1908 Hedrick came along in Grapes of New York to restore sanity. He does not mince words: "Since Dr. Norton had sent this variety to Prince prior to 1830, the [Lemosy] story is evidently wrong as to dates and is suspicious as to facts. It is probable, " he concludes, "that the true story of Norton will never be known."

Thomas Munson, a pioneering hybridist in turn-of-the-century Texas whose drawings of grapes are considered a national treasure in the U.S. agriculture library in suburban Washington, undoubtedly had read Hedrick’s description. Yet Munson also denied Dr. Norton his due when his eminently scholarly Foundations of American Grape Cultureappeared in 1911. Munson repeats the Lemosy theory, glossing over Hedrick’s point that Lemosy could not have “discovered” the variety in 1835 if Dr. Norton had sent it to Prince five years before that. As myth is known for its staying power, Gerald Asher in a 1993 Gourmet article calls the Lemosy theory the “accepted origin.”

I consider the vines I own and manage Cynthiana but tend to use the name interchangeably with Norton. If one works with the varieties, a choice is required or otherwise a lot of time is chewed up saying “Norton, er… Cynthiana” when talking with growers, winemakers, writers, retailers, wholesalers, restaurateurs, tasting panelists, the press, the public. Wives. But what of the wines made from this mysterious grape during the era of intrigue about its name? By the 1870s, the center of the “Virginia claret” region, producing wines labeled Virginia Seedling or Norton, was the southwestern part of the state near Charlottesville (a half-century after the untimely death of a grape promoter who split his time about equally between governance and gastronomy -- Thomas Jefferson).

The "Best Red Wine of All Nations"

In Missouri, fine wines came from the central, eastern, and southwestern sections. In 1873, a Norton made just south of St. Louis was declared the “best red wine of all nations” at a worldwide competition in Vienna. The following year, a French commission studying American wines at Montpellier gave Missouri’s Norton wines the same high marks. Many of the nation’s finest hotels and restaurants stocked Missouri and Virginia vintages. The wine was traded in probably two dozen states. President U.S. Grant is known to have kept a righteous supply in his White House cellars. The grape was tried but did not bear well in California conditions but thrived as far north as Bass Island in Lake Erie off the Ohio shore, and east to New York and New Jersey. (A few dozen old Norton vines still exist in New Jersey vineyards, and plantings are occurring once again.) Between 1850 and 1900, producers in a dozen mostly southern and Midwestern states reported nothing but success with the grape. It was also grown in France, certainly on a small scale, for at least two decades in the late 19th century.

In the modern era, one of the earliest producers to make headlines outside his home state was Robert Cowie of Cowie Cellars, near Altus, Arkansas. Cowie’s wine sneaked in among what was otherwise a California landslide at a major eastern wine competition in 1984. This event really started the current period of national recognition for the variety. Mentions of the grape by national wine magazines are now fairly routine.

Perhaps the biggest modern break for Norton came in 1993, when Gourmet wine columnist Gerald Asher devoted his April feature to a review of Missouri’s industry, emphasizing an “indigenous grape that might yet do for Missouri what Cabernet Sauvignon has done for California.” His was the first really substantive discussion of Norton in a national periodical in more than a century. Lavished with five older vintages from Stone Hill’s cellars in Hermann, Missouri, Asher wrote: “I was astonished to find the wines so remarkably good. They were more meaty than fruity, with something of the Rhone about them. The 1985, in particular, rounded out by its time in wood and fully developed by several years in the bottle, was quite delicious.”

Norton or Cynthiana — The Debate Continues

Although Norton was described in texts and catalogs for a century and a half as distinct from Cynthiana, and many growers still insist there are subtle distinctions in the field, modern isozyme analysis has proved them to be genetically identical. Researchers reached this conclusion after exhaustive studies in the early 1990s at the State Fruit Experiment Station of Southwest Missouri State University. Using similar equipment and procedures, plant scientists in 1992 at Cornell reached the same conclusion. As Hedrick wrote in 1908, “The botanical differences of the two varieties are not greater than might be attributed to environment, soil, climate and culture; but side by side the two grapes ripen at different times, and the quality of the fruit, and more particularly of the wine, is such that the varieties must be considered distinct. The distinction,” he adds wryly, “should be maintained, for Cynthiana is the better grape of the two.”

To this day, plenty of growers and winemakers believe, like Hedrick did, that there are two distinct varieties. Many people contend Cynthiana, which was introduced commercially as a named variety in the 1850s, some 20 years after Norton, is simply a clone of Norton (in the same way that Pinot Noir, for example, occurs as at least a half-dozen prominent clones in Burgundy). In any event, Midwestern wineries seem to market Cynthiana wines as a lighter drink for immediate enjoyment, while the wine from Norton, generally, is presented as the one for longer aging.

The variety seems to possess an almost chameleon-like ability to adapt to local growing conditions -- it is very durable, hearty to at least -20° F, and nearly immune to all diseases -- and as a wine, to maintain a family resemblance while allowing individual site conditions to shine through. In Missouri, aromas of coffee and mint are common, along with intense raspberry and even cassis flavors typical of Bordeaux wines. A dark, almost black, brickish red color is universal. Heavy oak aging is also the norm. And some Norton wines from very old Missouri vineyards have a concentration and viscosity comparable to Côte Rôtie in great years. Arkansas wineries, on the other hand, always use the name Cynthiana and the wines typically are lighter in color, more supple in texture, and are intended for drinking within two years of the vintage. There are even frankly sweet Cynthiana table wines from Arkansas, while at least one winery in nearby Kansas makes a highly acclaimed super-sweet port-style Norton (as do a few producers in Missouri and Virginia).

In fact, the success of these styles has led some to wonder whether Norton made in the manner of Italian Amarone, from partially raisined grapes, might make a wonderful libation. In the rolling Allegheny Mountain foothills of Pennsylvania, where I introduced the grape in 1992 (and produce a wine from it at our winery, Deep Creek Cellars, near Friendsville in western Maryland), our Cynthiana has classic mountain-grown characteristics: taut acids and intense flavors on a medium-light frame, with some mint but little coffee on the nose, and more blueberry than bramble flavors in ripe years. We prize the grape in blending; in tiny amounts, it seems to make any red cuvee taste just a little better! At least three other growers now raise the grape in Pennsylvania.

Virginia Stakes its Claim

As noted earlier, Virginia is quickly staking out a contemporary claim for its Norton wines. Horton’s efforts to date have been consistently fruity early-drinkers with a heavy dose of oak. His Norton resembles mid-weight Missouri efforts, though typically the Virginia wine has less herbal character and often nice chocolatey complexity on a lithe frame. The fruit flavors are less defined, being general “red fruits,” as the French say, and all in all the wine seems to resemble a Rhone rather than a Bordeaux model. This may be because Horton often blends in a dab of some Rhone varietal he grows on his estate. Ingleside Plantation, in the Virginia Tidewater area due south of Washington, D.C., does not break its Norton out as a varietal, but uses it as a base for a very popular blended red table wine.

At Pontchartrain Vineyards in Louisiana, winemaker John Seago fashions a light-colored Cynthiana varietal that knowledgeable enthusiasts compare to French Burgundy. One would think the heat of Louisiana’s growing conditions would produce hulking tar-colored wines, but Seago says the warm night-time temperatures are believed to somehow alter color pigments in the grape’s skin, while also softening the wine’s acidity. I have a customer who said he was looking for the one word that describes my wine,” Seago relates. “Finally he called and said. ‘Got it: Volnay!’ I said, ‘Man, I’ll take it!”

Cynthiana and Norton were grown in Louisiana for at least four decades in the years leading up to Prohibition. A chapter on agricultural in the history of the parish where Pontchartrain Vineyards is located mentions both of the grape’s names prominently -- as well as its other old-time synonyms, Virginia Seedling and Norton’s Virginia Seedling. There are also Illinois, New Jersey, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas, and Florida Norton wines now on the market, though they are never seen far from home. This condition represents a stunning example of how interstate commerce is disrupted and consumers’ rights are trampled by antiquated state liquor laws. Because so many states severely restrict the selling and shipping of wine by mail order, most people have no way to acquire the wines of these small producers and to appreciate the grape’s fascinating impact on American history.

Zinfandel is often described as America’s first and most original gift to the world of wine. Actually, it’s Norton.

 

Exploring Missouri Wine Country book
Article written by Paul Roberts,
author of "From this hill, my hand, Cynthiana's Wine"


Paul Roberts is the owner of Deep Creek Cellars in Western Maryland and originally wrote this article for the "Norton Wine Project." Paul is also the author of the book: "From This Hill, My Hand, Cynthiana's
Wine," available through Amazon.com.
He can be reached at 301-746-4349.

Buy the book online...

 

 
Norton Wine Grapes

Zinfandel is often described as America’s first and most original gift to the world of wine. Actually, it’s Norton.

 



 

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