Bingo 19: White Whale
This book has possibly been on my shelf for 10 years; I can’t remember when I bought it, but it’s a hardback with a Borders sticker. And The Wild Vine was published in 2010, so I’m guessing it hadn’t been out too long when I picked it up. Either way, even if you go with when Borders went out of business, this book has been on my shelf a while.
It’s framed as a journalist setting out to chronicle the not well known history of the Norton grape, one the few wine grapes native to the US. This means reaching out to people who deal with said grape, looking into attempts to make wine as Europeans colonized the East coast and south, and naturally some archival work. It’s not really detailed enough to do justice to any of those subjects in depth, let alone an overview of each with some discussion of how things eventually connect, which I kept waiting for.
There’s a lot of interesting information about how Jefferson among others was really into trying to figure out how to get wine grapes to grow in the US, since they are really finicky about environment and conditions. The history of Dr. Norton, what is known at least, was also interesting, but this part also gets lost. There is a lot more focus on the author and one of his main sources, Jenni the vineyard owner and winery person who apparently gets him interested in the history of the Norton grape. Not that this is a bad thing either by itself, but it makes the book so disconnected with a bunch of trails started but then dropped, and maybe something comes back later, or maybe it doesn’t. There’s a big twist reveal to do with Jenni that gets dropped and then left for 100 pages; that annoyed me; if you’re going to do that, some initial connection might be nice.
My other issue is that there ended up being a lot of the author philosophizing about wine, and cultural memory, and things like that, and it takes away from the informative parts that are actually pretty interesting. Like how Dr. Norton was probably clinically depressed and used his focus on finding a good wine grape that would grow in the US to possibly save himself, or how the history of the grape sort of erased him after he died but still kept his name. More info on the wines that use this grape might also be interesting, especially since a major message of the book seems to be that Norton grape wine should be as valued as the more famous American varietals like the Catawba. Maybe even a little side-investigation into other native wine grapes that are known but maybe not as valued as they might be like the Scuppernog would also have been nice. There’s a little of this with the discussion of the German immigrants in Missouri in the mid-19th century and Prohibition, but it would be nice to have a little more focus.
I can definitely see both why I bought this in the first place since I like food and beverage history, and why it sat on my shelf for so long. I honestly can’t remember picking it up and putting it back ever, but if I did, I now totally understand why I may have done that.