A rich romp through untold American history featuring fabulous characters, The Wild Vine is the tale of a little-known American grape that rocked the fine-wine world of the nineteenth century and is poised to do so again today.
Author Todd Kliman sets out on an epic quest to unravel the mystery behind Norton, a grape used to make a Missouri wine that claimed a prestigious gold medal at an international exhibition in Vienna in 1873. At a time when the vineyards of France were being ravaged by phylloxera, this grape seemed to promise a bright future for a truly American brand of wine-making, earthy and wild. And then Norton all but vanished. What happened?
The narrative begins more than a hundred years before California wines were thought to have put America on the map as a wine-making nation and weaves together the lives of a fascinating cast of renegades. We encounter the suicidal Dr. Daniel Norton, tinkering in his experimental garden in 1820s Richmond, Virginia. Half on purpose and half by chance, he creates a hybrid grape that can withstand the harsh New World climate and produce good, drinkable wine, thus succeeding where so many others had failed so fantastically before, from the Jamestown colonists to Thomas Jefferson himself. Thanks to an influential Long Island, New York, seed catalog, the grape moves west, where it is picked up in Missouri by German immigrants who craft the historic 1873 bottling. Prohibition sees these vineyards burned to the ground by government order, but bootleggers keep the grape alive in hidden backwoods plots. Generations later, retired Air Force pilot Dennis Horton, who grew up playing in the abandoned wine caves of the very winery that produced the 1873 Norton, brings cuttings of the grape back home to Virginia. Here, dot-com-millionaire-turned-vintner Jenni McCloud, on an improbable journey of her own, becomes Norton’s ultimate champion, deciding, against all odds, to stake her entire reputation on the outsider grape.
Brilliant and provocative, The Wild Vine shares with readers a great American secret, resuscitating the Norton grape and its elusive, inky drink and forever changing the way we look at wine, America, and long-cherished notions of identity and reinvention.
From the Hardcover edition.
Guest Review by Darin Strauss
A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and numerous other prizes, the internationally-bestselling writer Darin Strauss is the author of the acclaimed novels Chang & Eng, The Real McCoy, and More Than It Hurts You and the NBCC-winning memoir Half a Life. These have been New York Times Notable Books, Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, and NPR Best Books of the Year, and Darin has been translated into fourteen languages and published in nineteen countries. He is a Clinical Associate Professor at NYU's creative writing program.
The Wild Vine is a wonder—fun, smart, fascinating, eye-opening. It’s the wine book as a thrilling mystery.
It’s the true story of a man obsessed by a grape: the Norton, invented by a driven American who named the variety he created after himself. Stubborn, ambitious, a product of his time and place, and also a uniquely American inventor, Daniel Norton.
But Norton is just one of the unforgettable characters Todd Kliman brings us. The other is Michael Marsh, a multi-millionaire software guru who glimpses a new life for himself when he takes his first sip of the Norton. That epiphany sends him on a rollicking journey of personal discovery, one that sees him change his sex and establish a winery meant to restore the doctor's legacy.
Beyond these poignant, enthralling stories, The Wild Vine gives you the history of wine-making in America. What’s amazing is that the career of American wineries follows that of America herself; only when growers found the courage to use national varieties—that is, only when Americans discovered their own character of grape—did American wine come into its own.
It’s also the story of German American immigration; of the American viticultural scene (which used to be Missouri!); of Prohibition; even of sexual politics in America.
In captivating prose Kliman relates one of those magical little American stories that illuminate the whole country. And so The Wild Vine is not only a wonderful, strange read; it’s a first-rate American history lesson.
--This text refers to the Paperback
From Publishers Weekly
In this engaging history, food and wine writer Kliman focuses on the Norton, an American grape hybrid, its namesake early 19th-century creator, and its current-day advocate. Going back to the early efforts of American grape growing and winemaking, Kliman assembles a solid biography of the bereaved doctor and amateur horticulturalist whose Jeffersonian devotion to a native American grape and wine eventually led to the birth of a new variety. Despite viticultural progress and recognition, however muted, and his efforts to draw the former president's interest, Norton died without achieving viticultural success and was lost to history. Kliman's narrative discloses the hidden story of the Norton's nurturing over the decades in the Midwest and the role of German-Americans and other immigrants in its survival. Through means and methods like homemade winemaking, the hardy fruit endured blight and Prohibition, and was eventually restored to its native Virginia soil, where the book's other dominant and most colorful personality, a transsexual, was liberated by her physical change to professionally pursue the grape's cultivation. (June)
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