Our founding fathers struggled to grow European wine grapes. Cuttings brought to America by early immigrants succumbed to disease upon being planted. Even Thomas Jefferson’s meticulously tended European vines did not live long enough to produce fruit.
Early explorers of America were wooed into thinking the land held great potential for wine production, because of the profligacy of native vines growing rampant on America’s eastern shores.
Wines were made from this native fruit, but they were described as tasting foxy or possessing a wild grapey unpleasantness.
While Jefferson and others were trying to succeed with European vinifera, botanist and nurserymen in the New World were experimenting with combining disease-resistant native vines with European ones. One such man was Daniel Norborne Norton of Richmond, Va.
Norton’s history is a tragic one. His father died when he was 3. His mother remarried a man named John Ambler, from one of Richmond’s most prosperous families, and bore eight more children.
There is no evidence Norton was treated differently than the Ambler children, but he was a melancholy child and always felt like an outsider.
Upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania medical school, he returned to Richmond to practice medicine. In 1818, he married Elizabeth Call. Part of her dowry was Magnolia Farm.
The farm proved to be Norton’s escape from the tribulations of practicing medicine. Though not trained in botany, plants became his passion, and Magnolia Farm his laboratory. Tragically, his wife, along with their first child, died in childbirth. In the depths of despair, Norton withdrew from society and immersed himself in horticulture.
He grew a variety of plants. He grafted vinifera vines to native grape rootstocks. He cross-pollinated native vines with vinifera vines. From one of these experiments came a grape that was named for him.
Norton’s grape grew in clusters. It was disease resistant. Wine made from it did not exhibit the foxiness of other native grape wines. It was neither vinifera nor native, but a combination of the two.
The solitary Norton pulled himself out of depression by promoting his remarkable grape. His crowning achievement was to have his grape advertised in the Prince family nursery catalog. The Princes were pre-Revolutionary War nurserymen, and their catalog was the bible of American horticulture.
Norton remarried in 1831 to the niece of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. They had five children.
The Norton grape became the backbone of American wine production along the Eastern seaboard and in Missouri – which at one time produced more wine than any other state.
Norton wine fell from favor, however, as California vinifera gained supremacy. Norton wine was virtually eradicated during Prohibition – but it is enjoying a resurgence in both Virginia and the Midwest.
It is even planted in Calhoun County at White Oak Vineyards. Owner Randal Wilson’s Norton vines are 14 years old. Wilson says Norton takes longer to yield than vinifera. He did not harvest his first Norton vintage until the vines were six years old, and even now Norton challenges him to produce a balanced wine.
Unlike other hybrid wines, Norton wines are rare because they improve with age. Wilson ages his Norton wines in oak, and is now bottling the 2011 vintage.
Wilson’s 2010 Norton was the only Alabama wine recognized by Epicurius in its top 50 list on “The United States of Wine.” This wine also took silver medals at the Eastern International Wine Competition and the U.S. Open Wine Competition.
A few bottles of Wilson’s award-winning Norton are still available. They’re $16 at the winery, 1484 Dry Hollow Road, just off Highway 9 in Iron City.
Contact Pat Kettles at firstname.lastname@example.org.