When Thomas Jefferson, America’s best known wine connoisseur, was Ambassador to France after the American Revolution he traveled extensively in France, Germany and Italy, visiting the best vineyards he could find and establishing relationships with vintners so that he could import wine from them when he returned to America. He brought many good wines to Monticello and some historians believe that he may have had the finest wine collection ever to hit the cellars of the White House.
This fascination with wine led Jefferson to spend a lot of time and money trying to grow European vinifera vines at Monticello, but the delicate ungrafted vines were not suited to the climate and fell victim to the various forms of fungus that plague Virginia growers even to this day. His interest in wine grapes was shared by many people in central Virginia in the early 1800’s. Dr. Daniel N. Norton of Richmond, spent years working with wild vine seedlings and ultimately developed a wine grape that was named after him around 1830. The new dark red wine called Norton became a popular in Virginia and the vines were planted as far west as Missouri where the wine quickly became a great favorite. Scientists speculate that Norton is a combination of native wild vines and perhaps one or more of the many vinifera vines that were planted here and abandoned when they wouldn’t produce grapes.
Everything went well for the Norton grape in both Virginia and Missouri until Prohibition. Federal agents zealously destroyed hundreds of acres of wine grape vineyards, but apparently not all of them, because when Prohibition ended, there were still Norton grapes growing in Missouri, and it quickly regained its popularity there. The vine was re-introduced to Virginia in the late 1980’s by a Missourian, Dennis Horton, who planted a vineyard near Charlottesville. Today, Horton Vineyards in the Charlottesville area and Chrysalis Vineyards near Middleburg are the biggest growers of Norton in the state.
If you are curious to taste Norton, it’s easy to do, since it is vinted in many of wineries within an hour of the beltway. The long list of flavors that are variously associated with the dark, luscious red wine include plum, chocolate, cherry, elderberry, cedar, smoke, tobacco and raspberry. It is the darkest red wine in production today and if the list of flavors and aromas is not enticing enough, wine drinkers who are conscious of red wine’s health benefits should know that Norton has twice as much of the anti-oxidant reservatrol as the “darling” vine of Europe and Napa, Cabernet Sauvignon. And remember, it is the only fine wine grape that is native to America. You can enjoy it on a foray to wineries and restaurants in Virginia wine country, and it pairs especially well with roast beef, venison and roast lamb. Bon Appetit!
Donna Evers, firstname.lastname@example.org, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and run real estate company in the Washington Metro area, a devoted student of Washington area history, and the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery, where you can visit and enjoy a glass of Norton!