The Rise to Fame and the Fall to Obscurity of an American Grape

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GrapevineThe year is 1868. The United States is emerging from the trauma of the Civil War, the Indian Wars are escalating across the American West and the Transcontinental Railroad is nearing completion.

Certainly, this tumultuous period is a pivotal turning point in the history of our country.

While the country is undergoing this sea change, another phenomenon is underway. The United States is becoming a melting pot of diverse cultures and a mosaic of European and Asian nationalities that will shape the future of the country.

The fledging nation is luring great numbers of European immigrants with agrarian ancestry; in particular, the Italians and Germans bring their national culture to ethnic enclaves across the United States. One of their most cherished traditions – and honed skills – is winemaking. Many of these rugged immigrants settle along the Eastern seaboard. But many venture west, establishing thriving vineyards and hybridizing grape plants to suit the local environment.

As a number of Italian winemakers venture to the West Coast to help establish the California wine industry, a number of German winemakers are lured to the Germany-like topography of an unlikely locale – along the banks of the Missouri River, west of St. Louis. (Reference point: This is just 50 years after the Louisiana Purchase.)

In spite of the upheaval and seismic shifts affecting our fledging nation, these German winemakers carve out a niche for themselves, emulating the grape-growing and winemaking techniques of their compatriots. Seeking a grape that will prosper under the unique terrain and climate they encounter, their continuous experimentation with European and American rootstocks and grapevines yields a sturdy and prolific grape variety they name after its developer: Norton.

It is no small feat to successfully grow and vinify grapes west of the Mississippi, or east of California in that era. Many earlier settlers, including Thomas Jefferson and the Jamestown colonists, had plied vineyards, but were never commercially successful, especially on the scale of the German settlers in Missouri.

Fast forward several decades. The United States is enjoying a reputation as the largest wine-producing nation in the world. Nearly two million gallons of wine are produced annually by a single state; an American wine wins a prestigious European wine competition award in 1873; an American winery is the third largest in the world.

All of this originates from massive plantings of one grape in one wine region. The source: Norton wines produced in the Missouri River Valley. The wines are highly tannic, but uncharacteristically fruity with a floral bouquet – a formula for instant popularity.

Topping off this success is a side benefit derived from the unique qualities of the rootstock planted by Missouri wineries. In the late 19th century, the dreaded Phylloxera insect decimated European grapevines. In desperation, France imported Missouri rootstock to stem the tide, which turned out to be highly successful. In an irony that has lasted to this day, many high-end European vines are grown on American rootstock.

By the turn of the 20th century, the enterprising Italians in California surpass Missouri. In 1920, Prohibition dictates that all domestic grapevines be destroyed. Missouri – and the Norton grape – never recovers and winemaking fades into permanent obscurity.

Several years ago, a fascinating history of the Missouri wine industry and the evolution of the Norton grape were brought to my attention by Bob Brutting at The Village Bookstore in Pleasantville. He graciously provided me with an advance copy of “The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine” by Todd Kliman (Clarkson Potter). I was surprised not only by the little-known story of the subject matter, but also by the clear, intoxicating writing style of the author.

There is a promising new chapter to this tale. Today, the Norton grape’s glorious past is being revived. At last count, it is grown in 23 states and produced by 218 wineries, albeit in relatively small quantities.

Cheers to American pride and entrepreneurialism.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at

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