The Norton grape was discovered in Richmond, Virginia as early as 1817 by Dr. Daniel N. Norton. Dr. Norton was a physician by trade, but tinkered in horticulture at a time when Americans were enjoying the hobby of developing new hybrids of shrubs and vines. Norton may have spent much of the 1820s propagating the Vitis aestivalis hybrid vine with difficulty, but by 1830, Norton's Virginia Seedling was available for sale in catalogs. The story of the discovery and history of Norton is best recounted through Todd Kliman's fantastic book, The Wild Vine, available at most public libraries in Missouri. Kliman spent significant time in Missouri developing this fun book; the sections on Hermann are particularly fascinating, a synthesis of great research through the State Historical Society and the treasure trove of Hermann's history museums and library. Because it's been so long since I've been to New Haven, I can't remember if the wineries there sell Norton or the controversial Cynthiana.
Several years ago, my friends the Norton Wine Travelers sent me prints from U.P. Hedrick's Grapes of New York (1908), one of a Norton cluster and the other of Cynthiana. For many years, well into the 1990s, it was determined by winemakers and horticulturists alike that these are two distinct grapes. According to Hedrick, "the botanical differences of the two varieties are not greater than might be attributed to environment, soil, climate and culture; but side by side the two grapes ripen at different times, and the quality of the fruit, and more particularly of the wine, is such that the varieties must be considered distinct. The distinction should be maintained, for Cynthiana is the better grape of the two." This age-old distinction between Cynthiana and Norton was tested in the 1990s at the State Fruit Experiment Station at what is now Missouri State University and again with genetics at Cornell University. It was determined through isozyme analysis and genetic testing that the two are the same. However, the debate stands. Gourmet magazine columnist Gerald Asher writes that "either the two were always one (as the Missouri and Cornell studies indicate) or, if different, then all present plantings, under whichever name...must have been propagated from one version of the two."
Regardless, both varieties have our Missouri native grape in the genetic stock, which makes Norton a wonderful addition to Missouri's agricultural landscape. The berries are small, and dark, and it takes a lot of grape clusters to make a batch of Norton wine, one reason Nortons and Norton dessert wines are often the most expensive wines at Missouri wineries. I wish I could say they were all worth it, but you'll have to find the ones you like on your own. Among my favorites are made in New Haven at Robller Winery. I'm pleased to learn that so many Missouri wineries are open on random Mondays in January. Winter blues? Nothing a trip to a Norton producer can't fix!