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A Grape to Call Our Own
Comments () | Published April 27, 2010
Before deciding to resurrect a native grape and make wine, Dennis Horton was running an office-supply business in Northern Virginia. Photograph by David Deal.

The great man Jefferson had failed, while the nobody Norton had succeeded, a fact no history book or wine text had ever properly acknowledged. And now the nobody Horton was going to resurrect the nobody Norton’s wine and redeem the doctor’s name.

Like so many early Americans, Dr. Daniel Norton had been caught up in the frenzy of discovery of his new country, a rush to identify and classify the rich bounty all around him, the fascinating species of fruits and vegetables and plants and trees. The possibility of creating new ones was more captivating still, and he had embarked on a number of projects at Virginia’s Magnolia Farm when he first arrived, newly married and eager to make his name in the world.

In the science of medicine, he was a professional; as a horticulturist, he was an amateur. As with many other amateurs of the 19th century, his lack of training didn’t lead to insecurity and doubt; on the contrary, it released him from conventional wisdom and compelled him to find his own answers. He immersed himself in books, horticultural manuals, botanical studies, educating himself. He planted a wide variety of grapes, native and foreign, and an array of other fruits and vegetables, nurturing the land with ardor and attention.

Some of these grapes he grew for eating. Others he experimented on. They were his guinea pigs, assigned the role of testing the ideas and theories he was reading about. One of his ambitions involved crossbreeding varieties to produce a hardy, disease-resistant grape that would make a drinkable wine.

Grape cultivation is difficult, laborious, and not always rewarding work, dependent on weather, soil conditions, insects, and diseases. It’s not for the easily dissuaded or those who don’t possess an abiding connection with the natural world, who can’t live with and among its mysteries.

Crossing varieties was an ambitious undertaking for an amateur, and his success was so improbable—a strange and unlikely amalgamation of fate, chance, intuition, and risk—that for nearly two centuries Norton’s story has been called into doubt by some wine historians and horticulturists. Complicating matters is the fact that the doctor didn’t leave behind a daily or weekly chronicle of his activities.

What do we know? We know that as he made his rounds in the garden one day, probably in 1822, he discovered to his surprise that among all the innumerable darts he had thrown at his target, one of them had stuck. A low-lying cluster of grapes, with small, thick-skinned orbs that were blue-black in color, caught his eye. Drawing his fingers through the cluster, examining the shape of the leaves—broad, flopping, three-pointed—he would have been able to see that it was not a variety of European grape, what horticulturists have termed Vitis vinifera. But neither would it have resembled the native varieties he had seen, called Aestivalis and which he himself had planted.

These new grapes would have impressed him at once with their promise. For one thing, they were healthy and strong—no small accomplishment, because so many vinifera vines were unable to survive for long in Virginia. And they lacked the foxiness dogging every native grape he’d tried. They were sweet, juicy, flavorful. And they were small. Small grapes usually make better wine.

What happened next isn’t entirely known. But the doctor was sufficiently intrigued by the grape to extend the experiment, planting cuttings of it in the hope of producing enough clusters to make wine. He likely would have pulled those clusters of grapes from his wild vine and pressed them, producing a dark juice that he bottled and stashed in his cellar, to begin the process of fermentation, the great transformation from a sweet, grapey liquid into a refined drink.

Bottling the liquid wasn’t a pronouncement of faith; it was simply taking a supposition to its logical conclusion. When, months later, he eased the cork out and poured the inky fluid into a glass, he would have had no reason to be optimistic about the output of his oddball grape, no reason to think he had produced something other than an astringent grape juice. But not only was this wine drinkable; it was good. The native character came through but didn’t predominate.

Norton’s knowledge of wines, coupled with his scientific inclination toward detachment, surely mitigated against unbridled enthusiasm about the prospects of his new grape. What’s more, it wasn’t possible to divine the real worth of such a crudely extracted liquid. And yet he couldn’t help but be encouraged. Rough-hewn though it was, the wine seemed to possess some of the potential for the power and depth of a Bordeaux. And the fact that it was pleasant on the tongue, let alone promising, was significant.

He didn’t yet know that with this act of creation he had succeeded in doing what nobody had done in more than 200 years of trying, not the colonizers at Jamestown, not Jefferson: produce a wine on native grounds that wouldn’t succumb to disease and that was, above all, worth drinking. He didn’t yet know he had cracked the code.

If there had never been wine, or the promise of wine, there might never have been a fleet of ships dropping anchor in Jamestown in 1607.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 04/27/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles