Since ancient man produced the first crude wine in sunken tanks dug into the earth, possibly in Colchis, the legendary land of the Golden Fleece (part of what is now the Republic of Georgia), a certain romance has attached itself to all things vinous. If the apple takes pride of place in Judeo-Christian lore (think Garden of Eden) and classic mythology (think the golden apple awarded in the Judgment of Paris), the grape trumps all when it comes to poetry and prose, song and romance. It’s not coincidence that the Spaniards call their national wine punch Sangria, derived from sangre, their word for blood. For the juice of the grape, like blood itself, is a living fluid.
On the vine, casked in oak, or stored away in bottles, wine can live, evolve and mature for years, sometimes generations on end. And like any other living thing, over time it is shaped by its surroundings, developing uniquely “local” characteristics. Just as members of the same human family separated and raised in different climes on different continents preserve underlying similarities while modifying to their new surroundings, so does the grape and the liquid it yields.
All of which helps to explain why so many more books have been devoted to wine than to beer, distilled sprits or, for that matter, fruit juice. Unfortunately, it is a subject that can prove all too intoxicating. As Dr. Samuel Johnson, who was known to down a drop or two himself, once observed, the trouble with drinking wine is that “it makes a man mistake words for thought.”
Now, 250 years later, author Todd Kliman seems bent on proving the good doctor right. In “The Wild Vine” Mr. Kliman takes a subject that might have made for a thoughtful extended essay and instead bends and stretches it into a wordy, sometimes engaging, sometimes self-indulgent ramble of a book. His basic purpose is a worthy one: to resurrect the story of a now-neglected American grape variety - the Norton, named after its discoverer, the melancholy early-19th-century Virginia physician and horticulturist Daniel Norton - that briefly flourished and helped launch the first “boom in American wine producing before sinking into neglect and obscurity.”
The result is a good read, but one that could have been a lot better. As food and wine editor for Washingtonian magazine, Mr. Kliman has the credentials for the subject and handles it knowledgeably. But, according to his publisher’s jacket blurb, Mr. Kliman also “taught English and literature for ten years at American University and Howard University,” and it shows - in the worst possible way. As long as he sticks to the story of the Norton grape and the colorful characters and events directly related to it, the author gives us crisp, insightful popular history. But, alas, product of the literary faculty lounge that he is, there is a subject that Mr. Kliman finds even more interesting than his favorite grape: himself.
Again and again, the narrative flow is interrupted by self-absorbed navel-gazing about unrelated personal and family matters. Sharing his inner but not particularly original musings on life, death and angst may have been therapeutic for the author, but it doesn’t do much for the reader. Perhaps the slightly woozy thematic quote from Ken Kesey following the title page should have warned us: “The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery … to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom.”
In the case of the Norton grape, the mystery turns out to be anything but mysterious. A native varietal that could thrive in American soil and climatic extremes fatal to most European grapes, the Norton produced a rich, dark, “inky” wine that sounds like it would go well with venison or other suitably rustic American fare. At its height, it enjoyed a few minor successes, sometimes mere “certificates of merit,” in late-19th-century European trade exhibitions. And as long as most American wine was still produced in areas where European vines could not thrive - places like Virginia and Missouri (once the biggest wine-producing state in the union) - the Norton was the obvious, almost the only, practical choice.
All that changed once the focus shifted to California. With soil and climate ideal for the raising of classic European varietals, the Norton’s raison d’etre ceased to exist; why settle for Spam when you can get ham? Its decline was further accelerated by Prohibition, which resulted in the mass destruction of most Norton vines. No mystery here.
But like some of the minor British travel writers of our day who go off in search of nonexistent lost tribes, hidden cities of buried treasure knowing they won’t find anything, Mr. Kliman spends too many pages on quixotic paper chases with dead ends. A hoped-for link between Norton and Thomas Jefferson (who declared that “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap … it is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey,” but who failed utterly in his attempts to produce wine in Virginia) turns out to be negligible.
In 1824, when Jefferson was aged, ailing and increasingly debilitated, Norton sent some grape cuttings, not to Jefferson but to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who was trying to manage his grandfather’s ruinous business affairs. Receipt was never acknowledged. End of story.
Not quite, though. Today a small band of Norton enthusiasts is once again cultivating the “wild” native vine and producing good - if not great - wine. Mr. Kliman tracks down and paints amusing portraits of such engaging eccentrics as “dot-com-millionaire-turn-vintner” Jenni McCloud, a literally larger-than-life lady whose enthusiasm for all things Norton leaps from the page and leaves the reader liking her, if not sharing her zeal. Thanks to Ms. McCloud and a few others, a small but deserving bit of our American heritage is once more bearing fruit.
Mr. Kliman also performs a worthwhile service for his readers - perhaps unintentionally - by quoting a magnificently egregious specimen of over-the-top wine writing, British connoisseur Roger Scruton’s description of a bottle of Norton-based wine in 2004:
“Its inky contents stormed from the bottle like a cloud of hornets, clinging to nose, lips and palate and stinging us with intense flavors of cobnut, cranberry and molasses. … We recognized the authentic taste of Old Virginny - the rich red soil, the humid air, the insect-laden breezes … released in ecstatic clouds across the table.”
Just once, wouldn’t it be nice to read about a wine that tasted, if ever so faintly, of grapes?