Serious Reads: The Wild Vine by Todd Kliman
In The Wild Vine: The Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine, author Todd Kliman pleads the case of the Norton—a misunderstood, maligned, and distinctly American grape.
Norton is beguiling. Just one sip captures Kliman's attention and compels him to dive into years of research, carefully piecing together Norton's forgotten story. But it is also a divisive grape, he tells us: "There are some who like it, a few who hate it, and many more who loathe it."
The Wild Vine details the the birth of the Norton and its many highs and lows as it fights for a reputation worthy of its history. But here's the real question Kliman tries to answer: why have most American wine drinkers never heard of Norton?
Perhaps it is because too many people dislike it. Kliman defends Norton—it's a persnickety grape, he tells us. Easy to grow with great aging potential, but tough to cellar since pH issues often drive a winemaker wild. And unlike other esoteric varietals, Norton's rarity has not yet made it cultish or cool. It's made it under appreciated—unworthy, it seems, of much attention.
Kliman simply telling the tale of a nice-enough American born and bred grape that was eventually eclipsed by better offerings? It's a little of both, it seems. Norton's history is indeed fascinating, especially for any wine lover who delights in knowing the real story of the new world wine scene.
The tale begins more than one hundred years before the California wine industry began to make its mark. In 1820s Virginia, Dr. Daniel Norton cultivated a grape that he named after himself. A seemingly perfect specimen, the wine could withstand the harsh new world climate and produce delightful (albeit often medicinal) wines.
Norton was a hit, and the grape traveled west to Missouri where German immigrant winemakers bottled a Norton-based wine in 1873 that went on to win a prestigious gold medal at an international exhibition in Vienna. Norton was a bright and shining star—representative of the American dream and an individual's right to craft something entirely new.
But then prohibition hit and Norton became a wild vine. Instead of being cultivated it was plucked for use in illicit back yard winemaking projects—usually young, syrupy, sweet wines. Unsurprisingly, Norton was forgotten. It was born again decades later, thanks to Norton enthusiasts who fought to restore Norton's reputation.
The Wild Vine may be the most compelling piece of advertising ever written for a grape that some people (Kliman and other Norton enthusiasts) believe should be grown and lauded as the "first American wine" and others believe should be forgotten.
The book is well written and entertaining, laced with history and fascinating characters. By the end we are rooting for Norton. It's the spunky wine underdog that competes (often unsuccessfully) against bigger and better known varietals from California, other parts of the United States, and beyond. The Wild Vine demands that Norton be given a chance, and I'd like to give it one. If only I could find a good bottle.