I’m back from the quest to find a drinkable Norton. The nearly 500-mile road trip took me to some of the biggest, most respected and oldest wineries in the state of Missouri. On the journey, I tasted a number of Nortons at Les Bourgeois Vineyards, St James Winery and Stone Hill Winery. I’ve also questioned four other regional winemakers by phone or email, including Adam Puchta Winery. The striking common feature of Norton winemakers was their impressive degree of dedication to their grape, a commitment that sometimes bordered on fanatical. So as a self-declared Norton heretic, I was a little uneasy visiting these winemakers to question their faith! I felt fortunate that they all graciously welcomed me with open bottles and willingly submitted to full interrogations. The quest is over, but before the results are revealed, here is what some of the Defenders of Norton had to say about why they grow their beloved grape…
Head Winemaker, Les Bourgeois Vineyard
Quick Facts about Les Bourgeois Vineyard: Located in Rocheport, Missouri, about 2 hours drive from Kansas City or twenty minutes from Columbia ~ 135,000 gallons of wine made each year or about 12% of Missouri’s total wine output ~ Approximately 3,500 gallons of Norton produced in 2011.
“What Norton gives you is a quality wine, and it has this cult following behind it, and it gives a very distinct wine to the region. Just like Oregon has Pinot and Chile has Malbec - having a wine for the region that gives you distinction is always a plus.”
“There’s no reason to grow Cab here in Missouri because we’re going to make Cab that’s okay; we’re going to get our butts kicked by other places in the world that are making outstanding, world-class Cabs. Why not make a wine out of a grape that is distinctive? Missouri can grow the best Norton in the world.”
“Norton has some advantages for our area. It’s hearty, so it definitely can deal with our winters. It’s also very disease resistant. Norton is a native species, or mostly native. It has some European parentage, and it evolved to grow in this environment. It is also resistant to most of the diseases so you don’t need the chemical input in the spray as much, and if it’s managed correctly, you can make a nice red wine out of it.”
Chief Executive Officer, St James Winery
Quick Facts About St James Winery: Located in St James, Missouri, about four hours drive from Kansas City or one hour from Jefferson City ~ Missouri’s biggest winemaker producing about 470,000 gallons of wine each year or roughly 50% of Missouri’s total wine output ~ Norton makes up about 50% of varietal sales.
“We think it’s one of the grapes that grows best in our terroir, and so we find it very interesting from a production standpoint, as well as the interaction with the consumer and the history of the grape. So all those things together really make us want to grow it.”
“We see ourselves as sort of on a wine frontier here.”
Senior Winemaker, Stone Hill Winery
Quick Facts About Stone Hill Winery: Located in Hermann, just over an hour from Columbia and just over ninety minutes from St Louis ~ Missouri’s second biggest wine maker, producing about 260,000 gallons of wine in 2011, about 25% of the total production in the state ~ 25 acres out of 185 acres produce Norton grapes.
“Well, there are two reasons we grow it. One is because it is basically, right now, the best grape variety for us to make unique and high quality dry red wine that’s adapted to our climate. We can grow it with what you might call minimum input. I don’t know that we can quite grow it without any sprays, but you can come very close, and in some years you can do that.”
“Then there’s the history involved. It has a great history. It is the grape that was the focal point of the wine industry in Hermann before prohibition. The bulk of the people in and around this town made their living from the wine industry, and of course that all came to a screeching halt with prohibition.
“Norton wines before prohibition were major players in wine competitions in Europe and all over the place, winning major awards. A wine, supposedly a Stone Hill Norton, won the award as the best red wine “of all nations” at an international competition in Vienna in 1873.”
President, Adam Puchta Winery
Quick Facts About Adam Puchta Winery: Located in Hermann, just over an hour from Columbia and just over ninety minutes from St Louis ~ The oldest winery in the United States still owned by the same family ~ Approximately 40,000 gallons of total wine production with Norton sales making up about 3,500 gallons.
“Since the Norton was part of our history, I grew up around it, and I really loved the grape.”
“My great-great grandfather started this winery back in 1855, and we’re currently the oldest winery in the entire United States that’s still owned by the same family and never left that family. It was the primary grape of my ancestors when this winery was operating from 1855 until prohibition shut us down. It was the largest grape we had in planting during that time.”
“I think one of the things is, I’m kind of an acid geek. I cannot stand fat, flabby wines and part of the profile we have here is you’ll find a lot of my wines are pretty balanced, but they’re a little acid forward which makes them better food wines, in my personal opinion. I just really like the acid profile and the spice profile that you can get with Norton.”