In the 19th century, the United States was a playground of experimentation for the privileged few with time and resources to spare. Notably, the country’s storybook narrative as a land of explorers meant inexperience was no impasse, and amateur ideas from the telephone to the use of ether as surgical anesthesia were the result. During this time, physician Dr. Daniel Norton found himself in Richmond, where he invented the first American wine grape.
On the surface, Norton was someone lucky, a doctor who was adopted at a young age by a wealthy family. What lay beneath, however, was a melancholic man newly shattered by the deaths of his wife and baby in childbirth. On the verge of suicide, Norton decided to humor the idea of experimenting with wild American grape varieties. A horticultural rookie, he performed a series of cross breeding tests — notably, in a time before the findings of Gregor Mendel verified the science of genetics– using native American and domesticated European grapevines. Out of the ashes, the Norton grape was born.
Norton wine was officially discovered sometime between 1818 and 1828. As a table wine, it pairs well with food, and has a truly grape-y flavor, thanks to the chemical compound methyl anthranilate—the same chemical used to add grape flavor to kool-aide and candy.
Soon after its discovery, Norton’s creation became a wild success. The plant appealed to growers for being highly disease resistant and the wine those grapes produced was acclaimed the “Best Red Wine of All Nations” at the 1873 Universal Exhibition in Vienna.
Despite this approval, the Norton grape and its wine nearly died out after prohibition, and for more than a century, the ghost of Norton drifted around the periphery of the wine world. This looked like the final chapter for Norton and his legacy, until the 1995 ASEV [American Society for Enology and Viticulture] conference, when Norton wine found Jennifer, “Jenni,” McCloud.
In an interview with RVAMag, McCloud read a quote she has sitting above her computer.
“’We could, in the United States, make a great variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.’ Thomas Jefferson, 1808,” said McCloud. “I want[ed] to lead the charge in the effort to restore this grape… America’s contribution to the world of fine wine.”
Recently filled wine barrels via Chrysalis Vineyards
McCloud, a college dropout, became a serial entrepreneur and frontrunner in the computer industry of the 70s and 80s, before she sold her business for millions and became a winemaker. She now owns the largest plot of Norton in the world at Chrysalis Vineyards nestled away in Middleburg, Virginia. For this claim to fame, and her own vivacious life story, she shares the spotlight with Dr. Norton in author Todd Kliman’s book, “The Wild Vine.”
“The Norton by itself is interesting… but [McCloud is] sort of [Norton’s] spiritual kin,” said Kliman, who met McCloud after a taste of Norton sent him on a full-blown investigation, Goonies-style (minus the death-defying and booby traps). “There’s some aspect of the dreamer, of the underdog, of the little thing that could [in them], and that’s quintessentially American.”
McCloud’s interest in Norton’s wine soon became an interest in the man himself, and along with Kliman, McCloud began to trace Norton’s footsteps in Richmond. She visited the site of Norton’s Magnolia Farm, which sprawled where VCU’s Cary Street Gym now stands, as well as his grave in Shockoe Hill Cemetery. Norton’s marker is worn with age, and located only steps away from his relative’s, Chief Justice John Marshall.
In 2016, thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Shockoe Hill Cemetery and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts curator Chris Oliver, McCloud was able to view Norton’s portrait, which had been locked away for years. Finally, McCloud and the doctor were able to meet, face-to-face.
On January 26, the Friends of Shockoe Hill held a celebration at the VMFA after they successfully raised the funds to erect a monument in Dr. Norton’s honor. Several Norton wines were served, Kliman read a mood-setting excerpt from “The Wild Vine,” and Norton’s portrait, all glowering eyes and dark coat, greeted guests at the door. (pictured below via Friends of Shockoe Hill Cemetery)
“The large monument of gray granite is currently in production, and we anticipate it being completed and installed by the end of March,” said C. Clayton Shepherd, the president of the Friends of Shockoe Hill Cemetery. “A dedication ceremony will be announced once the monument is in place.”
The date seems to have been pushed back some, but the foundation has been set so we’ll let readers know when the ceremony is scheduled to take place.
McCloud will be there when the commemoration ceremony occurs, and says that her work with Norton is only getting better with time.
“Every single year, we experiment with new techniques,” said McCloud. “[We] have a new wine to come out…it’s a pet-nat Norton [petiant naturel], it means natural fizz…you basically bottle and cap the wine in a champagne style bottle before it’s completed fermentation, and you let the rest of the fermentation occur in the bottle, just like a champagne.”
As she continues to innovate with Norton and other wines, McCloud makes a point of dispelling the idea that wine can only truly be enjoyed by the ultra-sophisticated. In the tinkering spirit of both Norton and herself, she encourages curiosity and rejects intimidating exclusivity.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a beverage,” said McCloud.
If that isn’t a sentiment to raise a glass to, what is?
top image via <a href=”http://www.chrysaliswine.com/”>Chrysalis Vineyards</a>