Sour grapes

After a few more sniffs, I drink. Uurrrhg! I am immediately hit with a sharp tang of grapiness, followed by (aaaakkk!) a battery-acid-like spike of bitter candy that stabs through the roof of my mouth.

It’s 9 o’clock in the morning and I just opened a bottle of wine. I haven’t had coffee yet, but there’s music softly throbbing in the background and a comforting light filtering through the blinds. I’m in my robe and slippers, about to taste a wine made from Norton, a grape that I do not like. It’s called product-testing, people, and I do it for you.

But first let me explain something about grapes. All grapes belong to the family Vitis, but only one species, Vitis vinifera, is considered good for making wine. Vitis vinifera is the species of grape we all know and love and drink, the species that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, et al. Vitis vinifera is not native to the United States.

Nope, here we have numerous other species, most notably Vitis labrusca, which includes varietals like Concord, Catawba and Niagara, all native to the East Coast and all horrible for making wine. Labrusca grapes are famous for having what is commonly called a “foxy” flavor. I don’t really know what that means, but I do know that wine made from those grapes tastes awful, like cheap grape juice.

Meet Dr. Norton. Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton, that is, of Richmond, Virginia, who in 1820 introduced the Norton grape to the world. Norton is the grape that first made Virginia wine famous in the late 19th century via the Norton-based “Virginia Claret” from Charlottesville’s own Monticello Wine Company. Norton belongs mostly to the species Vitis aestivalis, one of the native vines that don’t have much wine potential. Except Norton is different, or so its defenders claim, having none of the “foxy-ness” of the other native grapes. And Norton, those defenders say, is going to put Virginia on the map once again.

I seriously doubt it.

Back to me in my slippers and robe. I pour a glass of Norton. The wine is dark purple in color, with a deep, grapey nose. Like a warm grape pie, maybe. Not a bad smell, but not a very promising one either. After a few more sniffs, I drink. Uurrrhg! I am immediately hit with a sharp tang of grapiness, followed by (aaaakkk!) a battery-acid-like spike of bitter candy that stabs through the roof of my mouth. My face writhing spasmodically (hurrrgghh!) I swirl the purple poison around before (blecchhh!) spitting it out into the sink. I savor the lingering finish, a warm, dungy taste, like a jar of grape jelly shattered in the grocery store parking lot, slowly rotting in the sun.

Ghastly, but not the worst Norton I’ve ever had.    

The best Norton I’ve ever had came from Middleburg’s Chrysalis Vineyards, whose motto is “Norton, The Real American Grape!” Chrysalis has close to 70 acres of Norton planted, perhaps the largest planting in the world, and winemaker Jennifer McCloud is determined to make it Virginia’s signature grape, to restore it to “its position of prominence as a source of world class wines.”

I truly hope this doesn’t happen. No offense, Ms. McCloud, but Norton tastes terrible. There’s just no way around it. I’ve had countless versions, from many of the 21 wineries in the state that offer Norton, and I just can’t understand the appeal. It’s not just me. Almost everyone I know in the wine industry, including a few people who actually make the loathsome stuff, tells me they hate it. I won’t embarrass the winery that made this morning’s wine, because it’s not their fault.

It’s Norton’s.

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