Breeding the Best with the Best - Naturally
Norton is a unique grape. It is the only “native” American grape that can
make a wine that tastes like a European or California wine. Norton totally
lacks the "foxy" flavors and odors associated with native American grapes.
Thus it was the logical grape to use in creating a new family of vines that
would combine the hardiness of American vines with the wine quality of
What is Norton?
Named for Doctor D.N. Norton of Virginia around 1820. The grape was at
one time more commonly and correctly known as the “Virginia Seedling”.
This name is significant. It is highly likely that Norton is an incidental
cross, (originating in Virginia) of a Vitis Vinifera vine and a native American
vine, most likely from the species Vitis Cinerea.
Throughout the 1600s and 1700s European vines were imported into
Virginia in numerous attempts to establish an American wine industry.
The climate and soil of Virginia didn’t seem that different from parts of
France and there appeared to be no good reasons why vines would not
do well there. All these early attempts slowly failed however because of
diseases that were present in America and not found in Europe. The
imported vines had no resistance to these American diseases, and (in a
reversal of what happened to the human populations), the diseases of
America wiped out the European newcomers.
Fortunately, the European vines, Vitis Vinifera, did not die immediately.
Many survived for five or six years before succumbing. The heavily wooded
areas that still surround most eastern vineyards are thick with wild grape
vines. These produce prodigious amounts of pollen in the spring that
easily cross pollinate into any surrounding cultivated vineyards. Then, as
now, birds would eat a goodly portion of the crop, especially a light crop in
a struggling vineyard. Hours later these grape feasting birds would
redeposit these seeds (complete with a little shot of fertilizer) back in to
the vineyard where in the following season the observant vine tender
would notice a new vine sprouting up. If this vine survived, it would be
cared for and propagated. This is the most likely origin of Norton and
many other early American grape varieties.
Because Norton is highly responsive to different sites and growing
conditions, it looks almost like a different vine when grown in different
locations. As a result, over the years, it acquired a host of synonyms:
Norton, Virginia Seedling, Cynthiana. Current DNA science indicates that
there is no real genetic difference between vines called by these sundry
Early literature, especially the great ampelograpy “The Grapes of New
York” (from the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva,
NY) treated these as separate vines and ascribed different parentages to
each. Lacking DNA testing, the early authors used the physical
characteristics of the vines to try to discern their origins. Variously, the vine
was said to contain American parentage from, Vitis Labrusca, Vitis
Aestivalis and (as one French ampelographer noted) Vitis Cinerea.
First, why not Labrusca? If Norton had a Labrusca parent, then Norton
would be the only vine in the world that had a significant Labrusca
parentage that had absolutely no trace of any Labrusca flavor in the
grapes or the wine. Why did some suspect Labrusca? The best guess,
and it only that, is that some were fooled by the size and shape of the
large leaves which many Labrusca also have. Large leaf size, though, is
also found in many Vinifera. For instance, the vine known as Malbec in
many of the better vineyards in Bordeaux has a leaf every bit as large and
rustic as Norton.
So, why not Aestivalis? This is the most quoted lineage of Norton. But, like
that of the Labrusca it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. First, the flavor of
Aestivalis is described by Pierre Galet and others as being distinctive and
unpleasant. Thus, if Norton is an Aestivalis cross, it is the only Aestivalis
cross that totally lacks the uniquely unpleasant taste of Aestivalis. Norton
has no unpleasant flavors. It in fact, and most notably, has no flavors that
are outside the Vinifera profile.
Second, Galet states that Aestivalis is of almost no interest in hybridization
due to its poor resistance to phylloxera. In sharp contrast, of all the
American vines, Norton is considered to be the most phylloxera resistant.
How could the most phylloxera resistant grape vine be derived from one
parent with poor resistance to phylloxera and another with almost none?
It's possible but highly improbable.
There is only one American vine that has excellent resistance to
phylloxera, excellent resistance to fungus diseases and lacks the strong
flavor profiles of other wild grapes. That vine is Vitis Cinerea. Vitis Cinerea
is a thin tree climbing vine which produces very small grapes and seeds
that are spread almost entirely by small perching birds such as finches
and sparrows. The importance of this is that almost all birds, (with the
exception of the vulture family) have somewhat poorly developed olfactory
systems. These birds have incredibly sharp eyesight and hearing which is
most useful in finding the small bugs, berries and seeds upon which they
feed. A keen sense of smell would be of little use to them, (and
considering the diet, would probably be a disadvantage.)
So Vitis Cinerea over the centuries has not expended energy and
resources manufacturing flavor components that would make it attractive
to the small birds that are its primary vector for spreading its seeds. Taste
tests have also proven this out. Wines made from pure Cinerea grapes
(necessarily highly “ameliorated” with water) have a very neutral flavor,
occasionally resembling elderberries. As they age they improve and never
develop the offensive odors typical of the large berried wild varieties.
Why a Vinifera Parent for Norton?
This is easy. Thomas Munson stated that in his 19th Century travels in
America (covering over 50,000 miles) searching out every wood and dale
for native vines, he only once came upon a wild white vine. He also
reported that almost all wild vines were sexed, that is they were either
male or female. So white berries, and a complete flower, are
characteristics that are very common in Vinifera yet extremely rare or non-
existent in wild vines (albeit like the Sasquatch, we can never absolutely
prove their current non-existence).
Norton, like almost all cultivated Vinifera, is an hermaphroditic vine whose
flower has both male and female parts. Of even greater importance is the
fact that Munson stated that about 1/3 of Norton’s seeds will produce
offspring vines that have white berries. Our tests have also borne this out.
The exact Vinifera parent of Norton could, and will most likely, be
determined in the future through DNA testing. The best guess would be
one of the varieties that were readily available to 17th and 18th Century
English sailing merchants. It could well be a white grape. The most likely
source for vines would be the French Atlantic coast, most likely Bordeaux.
If so, then Norton is the offspring of a tart from Bordeaux and an American
(P.S. Our above contentions have been affirmed by subsequent DNA
testing by the USDA. Go to website:)
The French Hybrids
Sadly, during the phylloxera epidemic in Europe, the early French
hybridizers who sought to combine American vines with European vines
chose what is perhaps one of the worse wine grapes in the world, a
female vine named “Jaeger 70”, to use as the American parent for their
new vines (it wasn't their choice; it was sent to them). In turn they bred this
American trollop with 3rd rate sycophants from the south of France
creating the ignoble family of “French Hybrids” which today is mercifully
Even sadder, these French grape breeders almost never introduce new
genes in to their pool of breeding stock. They continued to practice
viticultural incest by continually breeding and rebreeding the same stock
back in to itself. In their defense, they knew nothing of DNA and little of the
laws of heredity and were handicapped by the French winegrowers'
worship of the Lamarckian notion that vines (like all living things) would
adapt, and improve themselves and pass on those improvements to their
offspring. Thus vines grown in good vineyards would become better and
pass on better traits to future generations, or so they thought.
The 75% Solution
As a result of this inbreeding (and perhaps their understandable fear of
breeding out resistance to phylloxera) these French Hybrid vines almost
never had more than a gross percentage of 50% Vinifera. It was only in
later years that men like Vidal and Ravat and the far sighted grape
breeders at the New York State Aricultural Experimental Station at
Geneva, NY, pushed the envelope and bred pure Vinifera back in to the
mix creating more successful vines that were 75% Vinifera. Most
importantly, these pioneers proved that vines could be created that were
75% Vinifera that would not succumb to phylloxera.
Breed the Best with the Best
Norton is the best American grape, bar none. Cabernet Sauvignon is
arguably the best European grape. Why not breed the two together and
create a 75% Vinifera vine that can be grown on its own roots, is more
resistant to fungus diseases and winter damage than Cab and has the
high wine quality of both vines?
Norton contributes phylloxera and disease resistance as well as
remarkable resistance to winter injury. Its wine is excellent when well
made with hints of Syrah and even Pinot. As a breeding grape its
overwhelming contribution to the wine is its lack of any odd non-Vinifera
flavors that would interfere with the grape with which it would be mated.
Cabernet Sauvignon is arguably the best wine grape in the world. Also the
vine itself is one of the more winter resistant of the Vinifera. Although it has
almost no resistant to phylloxera (like all Vinifera), it is relatively resistant
to most diseases, except Powdery Mildew. (Fortunately, Norton is highly
resistant to PM).
Contrary to what might seem logical, the ideal cross between these two
vines would NOT be a vine that would turn out to have all the vine
characteristics of Norton and all the wine characteristics of Cabernet. For
one thing, Cabernet has some outstanding vine characteristics that would
be of benefit in any cross. Likewise, Norton has some very interesting
flavor profiles (cedar, elderberries, cherries) that would be of interest and
benefit in any resultant wine. The Norton vine has some negative features
as well that would be nice to tame with the better features of Cabernet.
Norton is a rampant grower and almost always has to be grown on a
double curtain to be managed properly. Its berries and bunches are both
small. It almost always has to be hand picked. It has an overabundance of
These two vines seem to compliment each other nicely and it would seem
that a cross between the two would be ideal.
Why wasn't it done before now?
Unfortunately, despite the fact that Norton has been well know to grape
breeders for centuries, until now almost no commercially viable hybrids of
Norton existed (Albania and Starks Star are the two best known and they
can hardly be found outside of germ plasm collections). Indeed, Norton
has proven difficult, but not impossible, to breed.
Grape breeding itself is an arduous task that can be done only during a
few days each year. It requires removing the minute male parts from
grape flowers working with a bent pin and a magnifying glass. This is a
slow process yielding very few emasculated flowers per day. These are
then fertilized with pollen from a father plant. Of these, perhaps 5% will
“take” or fertilize and produce berries. The berries will usually have no
more than one seed. Of these seeds, 10% might germinate when
planted; half of these will die after germination. Of what remains, if
eventually planted to a field for testing, many of these will be females or
males and of no further use. Many will die because they have incorporated
some of the worse characteristics of both plants instead of the better
ones. One or two will produce enough grapes to be economically viable.
Years later when those grapes are made into wine it can be determined
whether or not the whole effort was worthwhile.
The great 19th Century grape breeder Thomas Munson stated that in his
experience fewer than 1 in 1000 vines that he bred would be equal to or
superior to one of the parents. No wonder then that there are very few
wine grape breeders in the world today.
The Garden of Eden
All DVR vines were developed in either Davis, Ca or nearby Winters. There
is probably no better location on earth to do grape breeding as the climate
is ideal. We used a special selection of Norton as a parent and had easy
access to the nearby Napa Valley with all of the best clones of Vinifera. As
always with grape breeding, success takes time, persistence, and a lot of
good luck. Every successful vine we developed took close to 1000
crosses verifying Munson's estimate.
East of Eden
While California is a great place to breed grapes, the best place to test
them is the midwestern US where the climate, disease pressure, and
varying soil conditions provide an ideal testing ground. We have several
acres of vineyards of experimental vines in both central Missouri and west
central Illinois where they have been subjected to cold winters, spring
frosts, wet springs and dry summers.