By Doc Lawrence

America’s wine culture has deep Southern roots. Everything meaningful from importing the great wines of Europe, stocking the cellars at Monticello and at the White House and entertaining guests with unforgettable wine dinners began with Thomas Jefferson. The redheaded Virginia gentleman even provided the wines served by America’s first five presidents.

Despite a determined effort, Jefferson never succeeded as a winemaker. But he knew about and had a fondness for the wild grape with the enchanting Cherokee name, Cynthiana. His friend, Dr. Daniel Norton, a Richmond physician, did what Jefferson couldn’t and tamed the grape, making some good wine from it. Cynthiana was named after Dr. Norton and today, Norton is prominent in many states from Kansas to New York and Texas to Pennsylvania. But, it’s still as Southern as Hank Williams and B. B. King, and for those who haven’t tried it, it’s best described as somewhere between a Rhone and a red Burgundy.

I began collecting Cynthiana a decade ago and many are equal to the best of any wines I’ve ever served for dinner guests. Like all wines, the style will differ from winery to winery just as a Napa Pinot Noir will commonly be quite distinct from Oregon counterparts. Whether lamb cooked on the grill to planked salmon, Norton is a wonderful fit.

Availability is problematical. The domestic wine market is driven by gargantuan marketing and advertising budgets, drowning out so many of spectacular wines from small producers. But, it’s the effort that counts. Contact winemaker John Seago at This Louisiana wine is excellent and as food friendly as you’ll find. Seago fashions a light-colored Cynthiana varietal that knowledgeable enthusiasts compare to Volnay, the regal French Burgundy.

Just prior to mindless Prohibition, Norton was highly regarded, winning heads-on competitions with the great wines of Europe. While Norton barely survived Prohibition, it has made an impressive comeback.  Ponchartrain Vineyards, just north of New Orleans, is joined by Georgia’s Tiger Mountain, Virginia’s Horton Vineyards, Stone Hill in Missouri and North Carolina’s Sanctuary (in the Outer Banks), in producing some amazing vintages.

Virginia and Missouri declared Norton as its official state grape and wine. Stone Hill, the Hermann, Missouri winery near the Missouri River is a Norton colossus. I walked through an ancient vineyard at Stone Hill where vines remain that once produced Norton for both the Confederate and Union Army. Riedel, the legendary crystal stemware company recently introduced its new line tailored for Norton at Les Bourgeois Winery in Missouri.

Norton seems to have an affinity for Southern food. Fried quail with gravy, shrimp and grits, country ham, duck gumbo, smoked mullet are natural taste partners. However, it’s barbeque, the classic Deep South staple, where Norton really shines as a beverage. While enjoying barbeque I’ve found that if you think of the wine as Cynthiana, everything pairs better. On July 4, read the Declaration of Independence while sipping a glass of this wine. It’s an ephemeral, very American ritual where the reward is the experience.


Got my own way of drinkin’

But every sip is done

With a Southern accent

Where I come from. (Tom Petty)

About Doc Lawrence

Doc Lawrence is a veteran journalist whose mastery of language is matched by his love of the people and places that make up the dream come true called America. An Atlanta native, Doc prepared for a lifetime of storytelling by education and travel, earning several degrees plus living in places such as England, Barbados and Ireland. Ranging from wine and fine dining to celebrity chef interviews and folk art, Doc shares his adventures with an emphasis on the good and positive. A founder and former editor of The Nationwide News, Doc Lawrence was the 2006 Chairman of the Food and Beverage Section of the Public Relations Society of America in New York City and is the Director of Wine for the International Food and Wine Travel Writers Association founded in Paris in 1954. He is a member of the South Florida International Press Club and the Atlanta Press Club and an avid fisherman and accomplished home chef. He is currently features editor for Wines Down South. Click Here for more of Doc’s work on Southern Wines or here to keep up with Doc. Send Doc feedback at