In a hole in the ground there lived a Norton root. This was not always the case. In fact, at any moment prior to 1820 Norton roots did no inhabit any holes in the ground.
In the early to mid-1800s, the Wild West was still the untamed land of opportunity, bewilderment, and sacrifice. You get a sense for this when you play the real life documentary simulation known as “Oregon Trail” and you make it to Oregon in 1% of your attempts. Times were not easy in native North America, and the grapes for making wine were even worse. Dr. D.N. Norton would disagree.
Working tirelessly night and day near his hometown of Richmond, VA, the mad scientist mutated, propagated, cross-pollinized, and scienticized until he was blue in the face; a stark contrast from the greenness of his thumb. At a time when colonies and immigrants from all over Europe were trying and utterly failing to mimic their homeland on the East Coast, Midwest, and the South by planting vitis vinifera, the bold doctor made it his life’s work to find (or create) an American grape that could stand on its own and make wine.
This was no easy task. His peers would waltz by with stogies and bottles of Chardonnay and Cabernet fresh from a ship from back home and snidely heckle him and his hapless pursuit. “Hey Doc, you have a better chance growing a grape plant from a mustard seed than an American variety worth putting in a bottle!” Or something else really jeering and along those same lines. A nasty bunch, these purists and their affinity toward vinifera wines.
The good doctor was undeterred. Whether it was by happy chance, a hidden brilliance, or an unfaltering work ethic, he managed to grow a new variety previously unknown. Vitis aestivalis, a grape native to America, managed to cross with an unknown variety. Was it, perhaps, vinifera? Labrusca? No one knows. Mystery and allure have proceeded from this grape for nearly two centuries hitherto.
The vine prospered and within a few years, yielded small and round blue to black berries with astringent skins; tough and full of purple pigments. One cool October morning, Dr. Norton took his first bite of a ripe berry and was instantly hit with the spicy and tart flavors flowing from the dark green juicy flesh of the grape. “This is it”, he said. “I shall call it Norton”… In a stroke of bold originality.
Since that vaunted day in grape history, the Norton grape has gone on to find great fame in the Midwest, especially in Missouri where it is the state grape and used to make the flagship wine of the region. It is finally possible they say: a dry red from a Native American grape that is drinkable and has aging potential. Various legends say of a single seedling vine was given two names: Norton and Cynthiana, which explains the interchangeability of these names around the country. Still others, especially in Arkansas, claim this as hogwash and that the Cynthiana grape is not only different than the Norton but is also superior. Tomaydo/Tomahhdo… Norton/Cynthiana.
Call it what you want, just drink the stuff!
*As a reminder, entries in the “fiction” series are short stories conjured up using a mix of facts and imagination with the hope that they might help readers develop a better appreciation and understanding for the lessor known varietals grown around the Midwest. Going to a local winery and citing these entries as facts could garner some confused looks and is not recommended. Instead, take a stroll through the whimsical world of wine that grows and ferments in my head with an open mind and pair the reading with the varietal that is the focal point of the story. If nothing else, you may rekindle the joy that comes from reading fiction: something we all need more of in this hectic modern world!