I am a wine drinker. My favorite wine is a Jesse's Vineyard Zinfandel from Rock Wall Winery in Alameda, California. My second favorite wine is a Beckman Vineyard Zinfandel from Hatcher Winery in Murphys, California. I like many other kinds of reds, but you can see that Zinfandel is my favorite.
A friend alerted me to The Wild Vine by Todd Kliman. The book relays the tale of a little-known American grape, the Norton, that rocked the fine-wine world. I knew that I had to read this books when I read on page 6:
"I love it how in California they all think they're making American wine with the Zinfandel. Zinfandel! Zinfandel's from Hungary, for crying out loud. The Norton is American, it's 100% American, it's ours. And that it makes a phenomenal wine is just icing on the cake."
— Jenni McCloud, American winemaker
I enjoyed this book. It is a combination of a distant past and the current day about winemaking. Here are some interesting quotes from the book. I have selected these quotes to provide a sort of Cliff's Notes for the book.
"She draws her fingers through the tiny blue-black orbs, like a jeweler showing off the quality of pearls. 'That's history right there. The native grape of America. Good old Norton. Born right here in Virginia, in Richmond.'" [page 6]
"Grape cultivation is difficult, laborious, and not always rewarding work, dependent on a variety of factors (weather, soil conditions, insects, diseases) that are beyond a vintner's control." [page 19]
"All the vines turned up dead or dying... [and] after months and months of loving, careful attention to some of the finest, noblest grapes in the world, after years of theorizing, and note taking, it must have been painful to be rewarded with something so paltry as insight." [pages 36-37]
"If Dr. [Norton's] grape was to have a life beyond him,... it was imperative for him to spread the word of his discovery, to tout its singularity and importance. He did not have to go forth and market himself, hawking his product like some elixir salesman or prevailing upon skeptical members of the press. He only had to secure the blessing of one William Prince Jr. — provided he could persuade the great and powerful horticulturist of his grape's immense promise." [page 39]
"Real discovery is haphazard. It proceeds in fits and starts if it proceeds at all. It's a groping amid shadows, a desperate hunt up and down back alleys, a chasing of leads, most of them false. It's Sherlock Holmes as often as it's Socrates." [page 49]
"Mendel's advances in genetics, in the new science of hybridization, did not become widely known until the early twentieth century. Norton had been working with these ideas for years, but without an understanding of his technique — which was not possible without an existing body of knowledge to explain his advances — it was hard for people to grasp what he had done, which was to introduce something different, something henceforth not seen." [pages 61-62]
"The young kids today... hang out at Starbucks all the time... They're hooked on coffee, so many of them, and that's a really, really good thing if we're talking about the future of wine in this country... It's a way of training the palette. Training the palette to accept and appreciate bitter. You look at Europeans, they know bitter, they don't have to have everything sweet, the way we do." [pages 72-73]
"I headed out towards the vineyards, past the dollhouses and the stately churches — the Hermann that was. Or, as my shuttle bus driver had put it, 'the Napa before there was really a Napa.' ...If you wanted to talk about wine in America, and you lived in the nineteenth century, you pretty much had to talk about Missouri." [pages 81-82]
"The settlers who persisted had come largely from northern Germany, not from the wine country to the south. Grape cultivation was not a trade they had been weaned on. This was a hindrance, but not entirely. In some ways, it was a help, because they were not beholden to long-held notions of what constituted a proper wine industry or proper wines... By 1847, just a decade after the colony was founded, there were 28 winegrowers in Hermann, and they accounted for 584 gallons of wine. The following year, the town was producing approximately 10,000 gallons." [page 91-92]
"His [George Husmann, author of The Cultivation of the Native Grape and Manufacture of American Wine] faith in the Norton was strong. But beliefs are like values or ideals — meaningless, that is, until you are challenged to defend them and forced to fight for their honor. The time had come to find out just how committed he was to this faith, how fervent his belief in this grape." [page 99]
"By 1870, Missouri led the nation in wine production. Of the more than 320,000 gallons produced in the state, Gasconade County accounted for approximately 200,000. And of those, Poeschel & Scherer was responsible for perhaps 50,000. The company was bigger than everybody else, but wine is not diamonds or pearls. Size is not everything. The fact was, Poeschel & Scherer was also better than everybody else." [page 114]
Poeschel & Scherer's Norton broke free from a congested and competitive pack of 20,000 bottles to claim a medal of merit, only one of three American wines to do so at the Welltausstellung fair in 1873, the greatest collection of wines ever assembled." [page 122]
"Tempting as it was to regard it as an underdog, the Little Engine That Could, the Norton was also the result of an exhaustive period of trial and error, the literal fruit of centuries of exasperation in the field and the cellar... It had been 266 years since the colonists landed at Jamestown, the start of the winemaking enterprise in the New World. [page 123]
"[In 1874,] it was a little premature and not a little reckless to suggest a changing of the guard was coming, that America was about to overtake France for supremacy in wine, but already whispers had begun that the old hierarchies were about to tumble." [pages 132]
"Why wasn't more made of the accomplishment of Poeschel & Scherer and their Norton? 'Most Americans at that time didn't drink wine. They drank booze. So who was drinking Norton and all these American wines? Yeah, okay, you had Ulysses Grant drinking it at the White House, and he liked it. But it was immigrants mostly.'" [pages 138,141]
"Worse, as the temperance movement became a prohibition movement and [World War I] waged on, anti-drinking sentiment became conflated with anti-German sentiment... On July 1, 1919, the day Prohibition went into effect in Missouri, Ottmar Stark [successor to Poeschel & Scherer], who was born the same year that the Norton debuted on the world stage, gave his men the orders they all had been dreading, the orders that, right up until the end, he and they and the townspeople, too, had not believed quite possible: destroy the vineyards... And the dream of [Thomas] Jefferson, of Dr. Norton, of Husmann and Poeschel, the great animating dream of wine in America, of American wine from American grapes, had turned to grotesque nightmare." [page 154-155,157]
"As far back as the nineteenth century, despite the pronounced similarities between the Cynthiana and the Norton [grapes] — their distinctive vegetation, their the character of their fruit — Husmann and others who had observed the grapes to be growing alongside each other reckoned the varieties were different... In the early 1990s, researchers at ... Southwest Missouri State University ... concluded that the varieties were genetically identical. Plant scientists at Cornell reached the same conclusion." [pages 169-170]
"A good wine when young; a great wine when mature. It's what the best winemakers aspire to." [page 177]
"Recent advances in technology had made it possible to make wine from vinifera, which made it possible to produce wan, watery versions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. The state was imitating California, and badly. ...In the interest of producing wines that were familiar, and thus marketable, they were simply repeating the earlier failures of [Thomas] Jefferson and countless others. Virginia was doomed to fail when it came to wine, a tragicomic version of the myth of the eternal return." [page 200]
"Filling in the blanks without prompting, coloring outside the lines, challenging and defying convention — these things were as hardwired into him as his suspicion that Michael Marsh [fictitious name for Jenni McCloud before her sex change], his vessel, the outward manifestation of the person he was, was not like other men, that he did not have the same impulses, that something was wrong, oddly wrong." [page 207]
"The great and unspoken benefit of making the change, he was beginning to understand, was that any other upheaval in his life, any other challenge, became suddenly less impossible. Set alongside his resolution to start over as a woman, his determination to establish his winery in Virginia on the forgotten promise of the great American grape was emptied of its ability to intimidate." [page 217]
"The name of the venture, Chrysalis, was the christening of a new existence. What could be more fitting, what could be more perfect — 'the miraculous transformation of an ordinary thing.' Grapes into wine. Man into woman." [page 220]
"Some things are not meant to be solved or known, and we have to learn to dwell in the wilderness of not-knowing, rather than continually force ourselves into the sanctuary of certainty. Wine is like that, too. It is irreducible and mysterious, and part of its appeal, part of its enduring fascination, is its elusiveness, despite all the centuries of testing, despite all the attempts to code and classify and corral it." [page 232]
"The Norton is divisive, he says. There are those who like it, a few who love it, and many who loathe it. 'It's really a kind of love-hate thing.'" [page 245]
"[Thinking to himself at the grave site of Daniel Norborne Norton M.D.,] here lies the father of American wine, the real father, not the commonly lauded father, with no marker to indicate his discovery or achievement. And then I look down. There in the lower right-hand corner of the headstone, a small grapevine grows. Native. Wild." [page 261]
My wife and I opened a bottle of 2015 Chrysalis Lockley Reserve Norton. It was quite drinkable, dry with a bold finish.
Autodesk has always been an automation company, and today more than ever that means helping people make more things, better things, with less; more and better in terms of increasing efficiency, performance, quality, and innovation; less in terms of time, resources, and negative impacts (e.g., social, environmental). Chrysalis Winery is still in operation today. Well experienced in trying doing more with less, Jenni McCloud continues the fight.
Wine is alive in the lab.