Norton...and American Wine History
This is in reply to a poster on another thread, but considering the depth of my
response, I saw it fitting to post it as a new message:
* * *
Thomas Curmudgeon writes:
[snipping the rest of his worthwhile comments]
On a different but related topic, I remember reading recently in a small
town newspaper that Kansas and Missouri produced 80 or 90% of US wine in
the 1800's. Can that be right? I'll post the article if I can find it again.
The article is wrong. In the 1800s, the midwest had nowhere near 80-90% of
wine production in the US.
Up to 1850, the Ohio River area and New York were dominant. 1850-1880, Great
Lakes, Missouri and New York. After about 1885, California was tops and
remains today. After Repeal of Prohibition, New York had a few decades of
grandeur, in wine volume, as a small sister to California, but it all faded by
However, one of the top three wine corporations in the US today is Canandaigua,
which was a crummy cheap-quality, bulk New York wine house a decade ago. Their
first acquisition was Taylor, a winery of some pride in quality, of the
Finger Lakes. They kept muddling around in mediocre New York bulk wine,
until they decided to invest in California. Now they own half the state, and
some serious wineries in Napa-Sonoma, and are a serious challenge to Gallo for
pre-eminence in hugeness. Not bad for a former provincial, New York producer
of plonk! I shouldn't say that, because some of their constituent
California wineries are some of my best barrel customers. OK, let's call it
smart management---Google an article from about 3 years ago from Forbes
magazine, if you're interested in this amazing, basement to penthouse wine
I can't speak for Kansas, but Missouri WAS a "wine country" region of note in
the late 1800s.
And, if you were today to saw off the west coast of the US and let it float
out to sea, Missouri might still be relevant, winewise.
It may have had something to do with Mississippi River traffic, but the area
around Springfield, Mo., in the 1870s and 1880s had a flurry of winegrowing
German immigrants to the area planted vines. German and Swiss winegrowers also
established vinicultural communities along the Ohio River, near Cincinnatti,
and also near Vevay, Indiana.
The failure of classic European grapes in Eastern America (which we now know
was due to phylloxera)--- which Thomas Jefferson, among others, had tried to
propagate--- had led by the 1830s to the discovery of some native American
varieties of grape which were disease-resistant.
The first native American "fox" grape cultivar for wine was the Catawba,
"domesticated" by Nicholas Longworth in Ohio in the 1820s.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in a famous poem, waxing about Ohio wine country in
the 1830s, described Catawba as "dulcet and dreamy".
Catawba comes from the vitis labrusca native American species, but may have
been crossed by Longworth with a vinifera grape, because it lacks that totally
Longworth was a politician as well as a grape-grower, and his family became a
dynasty in American politics, right up to the time of Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy's
daughter Alice married an important congressional Longworth, Nicholas'
grandson, I think.
Catawba wines are still produced in several wine districts of the American
Catawba, at its best, doesn't compare to classic European vinifera, but it
makes a decent rose-esque quaffing wine, not overtly "foxy", and an even
At the time, it was the best they had for whites in the early 19th century.
For reds, there was "Norton", an odd, totally non-foxy but nevertheless totally
weird American native, in Latin, vitis cynthiana. The grape is native to
creeksides in Virginia.
The juice of Norton is blood-red, unlike most European red grapes, which have
Freshly fermented Norton red wines have a totally bizarre tannin structure,
which I can only describe as a "twang", without the chewiness of young tannins
one might expect from wines made of European grapes.
But put young Norton in a barrel for a couple of years, bottle it, and then
bottle-age it for another ten years---and presto (presto??)---you have a
marvellous, indescribably nuanced, wine which cries out for a great cigar.
Norton is an American original. There's nothing in the world like it.
I had a venison dinner a few years ago, at the home of Jennie McCloud, the
proprietor of Chrysalis Vineyards, in Virginia.
Chrysalis, and Horton Vineyards are two Virginia wineries which imported
vine-stock of this Norton vine, back into their state, from Stone Hill Winery
in Missouri. Apparently, the grape, a native of Virginia, had become extinct
there by the early 20th century, and was only grown commercially in Missouri.
Both Virginia wineries have decided to "bet the farm" on Norton, and they are
mavericks in the manner of the early Zinfandel fanatics in California.
The venison was caught as an interloper in Jennie's vineyard, and wound up on
our dinner table of eight guests. The venison and accoutrements were fabulous.
It was served up with paired wines, a 1982 Ch. Mouton-Rothschild and 1982 Ch.
Lafite-Rothschild. It was, needless to say, a memorable evening!
Two-thirds of the way through, I had the temerity, after tasting two of the
best wines of my life, to call Jennie's bluff about her committment to Norton.
Perhaps she expected me to say this "cue", or maybe not.
But off we went to the cellar, for an early 1980s vintage of Stone Hill Norton,
The Lafite and the Mouton were still in everyone's glasses. A third glass was
poured, of this well-aged Norton.
There was a gasp in the dining room. The Norton was obviously different, but
it had many of the qualities of a classic Bordeaux.
There were incredibly deep, cedary aromas, and the mouthfeel was complete,
bursting with explosions of mature fruit flavors, and a surprisingly fine
texture. It was like tasting a great old Louis Martini or Ridge California
Zinfandel against a great Bordeaux.
So, for those who think California is the ONLY source of great wines from
America, note that other regions and other grapes are capable of greatness.
Norton may one day become the East's answer to Zinfandel, which is California's
answer to Europe.
It's also a gateway to the re-discovery of some forgotten, unrecognized,
high-quality wine regions in America.
If your impression of Eastern wines is foxy, sweet Concord and labrusca or
sloppy, indifferent hybrids, think again.
Those wine types, sadly, still predominate, because they are cash-cows for the
wineries on the tourist circuit. They are cheap to make, but the profits help
subsidize the very rare and costly-to-produce "serious" wines.
The whole East Coast has been undergoing a viticultural revolution in the last
20 years, much as in California. Wine everywhere is 'made in the vineyard' ,
and new systems of vine trellissing (such as the Geneva double-curtain,
invented in New York but widely in use in California), are producing much
better grapes in the East. Canadian vineyard consultants from the Niagra
peninsula are, in my opinion, among the cutting edge vineyardists in the world!
Ice-wine from the Great Lakes (Michigan and Ohio), and the Finger Lakes (New
York) can be great, even if made from hybrid grapes, like Vidal.
Chardonnay from the Finger Lakes and Long Island (NY) is some of the best in
The best riesling in America comes from the northeast US and Canada. Some of
the best, most floral viognier can come from Virginia.
The best gewurztraminer I ever had in my life (including Alsace) came from tiny
Red Newt Cellars in the Finger Lakes, NY.
The reds from the northeast can be wonderful after a drought year, like 2002,
but in general they lack depth in other years. Cabernet Franc and Merlot from
Long Island and Virginia can be very worthwhile, and worth seeking out, if not
world-class (and some of my Long Island and Virginia friends will crucify me
So, what's to keep a weirdo varietal like Norton, from Missouri and Virginia,
from becoming the next Zinfandel?
Norton, unfortunately, needs time to develop. It's almost undrinkable when
young. Maybe new viticultural practices will tame that wild "tang" of tannin.
But in the meantime, wineries which focus on Norton will have to wait another
couple of extra years to release the wine.
In the wine business, that's costly. Plus, the wine world has become
accustomed to drinking red wines when they are less than five years old.
But if we can respect, for Norton at least, the old adage of cellaring a wine
until it comes into its potential, then patience will be rewarded.
As a postscript: Stone Hill remains one of Missouri's best-known wineries.
But before World War II, there was a very famous brand of "champagne" which
came from Missouri. The brand name was as least as famous as Taylor (in New
York), for anyone living east of the Mississippi, for an entire generation of
It was "Cook's Imperial", and you may (unfortunately) find that brand today in
the bargain bins of chamat-bulk-produced champagnes, because the brand has
since been sold to a big California concern, and its reputation totally
depreciated, in the way of Inglenook.
But in its heyday, Cook's was the best American champagne on the market (in
modern terms, that may not be saying a lot). There were wine caves in the
bluffs over the river. And the Heck family---descendants of the early German
winegrowers in Springfield, Missouri, were celebrities, like the Mondavis
today, but a generation before, when the Mondavis were still stuck in Lodi.
In the mid-1940s, the Heck family---descendants of the early German
winegrowers to Springfield, Missouri---sold out the Cook brand, and moved to
[And Cesare Mondavi moved his family to St. Helena, Napa Valley, made his
first wines at the facility known today as Merryvale (Sunny St. Helena Winery)
and in 1941 bought Charles Krug .]
The Hecks took over the old, 19-century Korbel facility in Guerneville, in the
Russian River region of Sonoma County, and specialized in 'champagne', of
course. Korbel 'Natural' was the only serious champagne in America until
Schramsberg came along in 1971. Today the Hecks have prospered with some
very popular and well-made, if not stellar, sparklers and brandies.
The tradition of Missouri winemaking survives in America!
But, Kansas? I don't think so!
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