A tedious chore for the wine-scribbler is the Best-Wines-for-Thanksgiving-Dinner story. It’s a statutory requirement, probably because some jealous, sour, water-drinking prig attached a rider to the Repeal Bill back in ’32. And there’s no need or desire for it, because the old Norman Rockwell-style Thanksgiving dinner is a banquet of excess, with too many dishes that don’t get along with each other. And it stirs the Pairing Urge in many writers.
Not all Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving dinners were sentimental scenes of big birds and bigger grins. This 1923 magazine cover from the Rockwell Museum shows a darker side [nrm.org].
Pairing always seems a rather dubious enterprise to me. For one thing, it generates too much talk. Or prattle.* So instead, I’ll just tell you what went down, Chez Bill on The Day: All-American wines made from America’s own wine grapes, Zinfandel and Norton, because Thanksgiving is an all-American holiday. That simple.
Zinfandel, American? you ask. Of course. Ours is an immigrant nation, and Zin, an obscurity of low degree, of murky origin and uncertain name, ignored by most and respected by none, is that American favorite, the immigrant success story. Croatia’s Crljenak Kaštelanski, which went to Italy as Primitivo, came to the U.S. as Zinfandel. On our East Coast it was a mere table grape until it went west and Californians began to vinify it. Then it became a hit—but not for long. Planted to excess and in all the wrong places, it faded, reduced to the status of anonymous blender.
Although Ridge Vineyards bottled its first single-vineyard Zinfandel in 1964 [it has 10 singles today], a real revival began only in the 1970s. Kent ‘Dr. Zin’ Rosenblum of Rosenblum Cellars told me that late-comers to California’s wine boom, priced out of the French varieties, turned to Zin at $300 a ton. ‘Many of the old Italian immigrant vineyards’, Rosenblum said had ‘maybe 40 or 50 different clones, many with distinct identities, often about a hundred years old.’ And small. Rod Berglund, owner and winemaker of Joseph Swan Vineyards, has a plot from 1872. How small is it? ‘I really can’t say,’ Rod told me. ‘I’d have to count the vines.’ Joel Peterson, whose Ravenswood Zins have been single-vineyards from his first vintage , says most Zin grapes were sold to Big Blender ‘until smaller producers began to recognized their quality and character.’ Growers who appreciated being appreciated, so to speak, who wanted the pride that came from having their names on the labels, ‘often sold to the little guys at the same price despite the risk of non-payment and the added trouble of working with small lots’. A list of those old vineyards—Teldeschi, Frediani, Varozza, Bacigalupi, Mencarini, Saitone, Bacchi, Piccheti, Ciapusci, Forchini, Pagani, Galleani, Ponzo, Baldinelli, Gamboggi, Belloni, Gamba, Nichelini—reads like a field blend from Ellis Island.
I’m partial to many Zins, both rationally and irrationally. To Ravenswood, from the entry-level Vintner’s Blend that opens the double figures to the vineyard designates that threaten the triples, because of Joel Peterson’s bold motto: ‘No Wimpy Wines!’ [Also one of his cronies is thisclose to Jessica Lange, and if you ask nice he might throw in a free rattlesnake with your multi-case order.] Amapola Creek, too. Richard Arrowood’s wit is as good as his wine: He once told me how he arranged the financing for his first winery on a napkin at Windows on the World, adding ‘Today it would be all lawyers. Talking to a lawyer is like talking to a fencepost with glass eyeballs.’ Also, he and his wife, Alis,
Ravenswood: no wimpy
have my favorite pairing on their website. Bonny Doon? Randall Grahm didn’t just break wine’s Mr. Stuffy mold; he shattered it with his flagrant puns and his Cardinal Zin. And Don Wallace of Dry Creek Vineyard is a sailor; he puts some of his favorite classic sailboats on his labels: I’m something of a salt myself, so I can’t resist.
Isn’t it romantic? Richard and Alis Arrowood, a pair for the ages.
The price range for Zins is equatorial; i.e., wide. For about $10: Smoking Loon, Cellar No. 8, C.K. Mondavi, Concannon, Bogle, Dancing Bull, Barefoot and Marietta; $15-$25 fetches Robert Mondavi, Buena Vista, Frei Brothers, Kenwood and Renwood, Liar’s Dice,Rodney Strong, Trentadue, Valley of the Moon, Ancient Peaks, Boeger, Rosenblum, Château Souverain, DeLoach, Cardinal Zin, Gnarly Head, Green & Red, Sausal, 7 Deadly Zins, Sledgehammer, Sebastiani, Rancho Zabaco, Edmeades, Mariah, St. Francis, and The Federalist. For a little more, Ridge and Franus; then come your pricier Sbragia, Seghesio, Rafanelli, tuxedo-styled Tyler Florence [demurely labeled ‘TF’], Louis M. Martini, Wild Horse Unbridled, Don Coppola’s Edizione Pennino [in honor of his maternal grandfather], Rochioli, and Williams-Selyem. So drink up!
The Norton grape is native but obscure. When and where Thomas Jefferson expensively failed with Vitis vinifera, the recently widowed Dr. Daniel N. Norton of Richmond, Va. successfully dealt with his grief by retreating to his farm and immersing himself in viticulture. There he’s credited with having created Norton [or Norton’s Virginia Seedling, Norton’s Virginia, or Norton’s Seedling,] from the native Vitis aestivalis and an unknown vinifera, now extinct. First ‘published’ in 1830, in the noted New York nurseryman William Prince’s ‘A Treatise on the Vine’, Norton went west to Missouri, then a center of American wine. It was adopted by the German immigrants who in 1837 founded the town of Hermann and, at essentially the same time, the Missouri wine industry. But not by intent: they’d planned to farm, which requires fields, not the steep hills they found. No crybabies, they! Instead of mounting violent protests and demanding a government bailout [this wasn’t France, after all] they took note of the thriving wild vines all around and concluded ‘God gave us a vineyard, so let us make wine’. If not in so many words. Their Norton was much admired in time, and was called ‘the Cabernet of the Ozarks’.
Then came decline. One reason was the rise of California and the heady success of its Zinfandel; another was a change in tastes that favored hard liquor. Many wineries converted to distilleries to stay alive. There was a wave of anti-German hostility during World War I: especially after the Mauretania was torpedoed, there was more to it than merely re-naming sauerkraut, which was called Liberty Cabbage. Finally, Prohibition, the Depression and World War II put paid to the state’s vinous prominence.
Unlike Zin, Norton hasn’t really recovered. Few have even heard of it. Confusion doesn’t help: Argentina’s fine Bodega Norton has a large online presence, and some Norton is called Cynthiana. Under either name, it’s found these days in Arkansas and Texas, but the Show Me State is its real stronghold. It is Missouri’s State Grape, grown by six dozen or so wineries. Stone Hill, Augusta, Montelle, and Adam Puchta are some of the leading producers, and some others that are well regarded include Cave, St James, Westphalia, Chaumette, Native Stone and Mount Pleasant. ‘We hand-sell it’, says Tony Kooyumjian, Augusta’s owner-winemaker. ‘It can be too tart by itself but is excellent with food. With a well-marbled steak, with sausages and with rich cheeses, it’s a very satisfying wine.’ Still, the grape remains an obscure one. After all, who these days associates Missouri with wine? Stone Hill’s winemaker, Dave Johnson, says Norton wine is unknown ‘even to some people who live across the street from the winery.’
In Virginia, its manger, it’s largely ignored, despite the fact that a Virginia Norton won a gold medal at the Vienna World Exposition in 1873. In fact, it took a Hermann boy, Dennis Horton, to re-introduce Norton to Virginia, when he founded Horton Vineyards in 1988. Most of the state’s other Dennis Horton not only restored Norton to Virginia, he restored and updated this handsome old label.
wineries played it safe, planting the French varieties that did so well for California. They were, after all, established as public favorites. But Horton wasn’t alone. Jenni McCloud, owner, founder and head evangelist of Chrysalis Vineyards, put in 69 acres of Norton; other producers include Cooper, Keswick and Abingdon, although there are not so many as what McCloud calls ‘this gem’ deserves. In Virginia as in Missouri, the internet is the best friend of wine-lovers whose states are sufficiently advanced to allow direct shipment from beyond their borders. Those who don’t might well look into www.freethegrapes.org and wine hero Tom Wark’s winefermentationblog.com. Both of them tirelessly attack the Three-Tier System, the oligarchy that makes sure consumers pay more for less choice.
So—Norton and Zin for next Thanksgiving. Why not? On the other hand, why wait?
*When Doug Pendleton, owner of the famous Grapevine Cottage in Zionsville, Indiana asked a clerk for his favorite pairing The fellow rubbed his nose, pulled his beard and stroked his chin [this is made up] and said ‘I’m torn between cedar-roasted salmon with a corn-and-scallion soufflé and a Russian River Pinot Noir ‘or a grilled ahi-tuna sandwich with havarti and Conundrum.’ [not made up]. Torn, is he? Well he’s not invited to my house. I’m fresh out of ciabatta rolls and wouldn’t give havarti house-room.
©2012 Bill Marsano