Before there were 300+ wineries and over 5,000 acres of grapes, there were pioneers like Jenni McCloud who set their sights on producing wine in the Commonwealth— pursuing the potential for a flourishing, locally sourced agriculture industry.
Though the first attempts to produce wine in Virginia can be traced back to the first settlers, and even a few founding fathers, it wasn’t until the late 1970s when the industry began to take root.
When much of the wine world dismissed Virginia viticulture as a lost cause, an eclectic handful of individuals pressed on – from European immigrants with wine in their DNA, to dairy farm matriarchs with a thirst for something different. One hard-earned vintage after another, these pioneers set the tone for the industry to come – curious, collaborative, stubborn in the face of setbacks.
The ensuing years would see an explosion in both the quantity and quality of Virginia wine, thanks in large part to the perseverance and passion of these key individuals. One by one, we’ll take a look back at the contributions and discoveries of Virginia Wine pioneers.
What is Virginia’s contribution to the great wines of the world? Jenni McCloud would propose that it’s the Norton grape—America’s oldest grape, born right here in Virginia.
The history of Virginia’s wine industry is full of bold thinkers and experimenters, and the Norton is a bold, unusual grape. Dr. Daniel Norton created it through crossbreeding in the 1820s in Richmond, fixated on creating a vine that could survive and thrive. The Norton survived a move to Missouri, harsh winters, Prohibition and many other trials before Dennis Horton brought it back to Virginia in 1989.
Now, this American grape is in the hands of winemakers like McCloud, affectionately known as the Queen of Norton. She grows the varietal on Locksley Estate, part of her Chrysalis Vineyards, producing several different wines and stretching to see just where this grape can go—not only in traditional reds or port-style wines, but semi-sweet and sparkling wines as well.
Chrysalis produces other wines—whites and reds—but the Norton remains McCloud’s singular passion, a grape she wants to lift from relative obscurity to its rightful place, not just in the history books, but in future best-of lists.
As she’s known to say: “I don’t want to make the world’s 350th best Merlot. I want to make the best Norton.”