At 41 years old, serial entrepreneur Jenni McCloud had a personal crisis. She’d just sold her latest business to a major buyer and was left without a project in hand. Wine was a personal interest, but none of her professional projects had ever touched it. “My mom said, ‘Maybe it’s time you slow down.’ But this is what I do. I come up with concepts, I put ideas out into the universe,” recalls McCloud. “So, I thought of a new idea: Let’s grow grapes.”
In 1995, McCloud attended her first Eastern Section ASEV (American Society of Enology and Viticulture) meeting. It’s there she tasted one wine and met two men that would change her life—and the future of the Virginia wine industry—forever.
The wine was Norton, a red wine grape developed in the 1820s by Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton, who said his creation was a crossing of Bland (which is now extinct) and Pinot Meunier.
The men were Denis Horton and Alan Kinne. The former, a wine industry pioneer credited for revitalizing Norton on Virginia soil after it became nearly distinct during Prohibition. The latter, a seasoned Virginian winemaking consultant, including for Horton’s eponymous vineyard and winery.
“After that meeting, I engaged Kinne as a consultant to help me grow grapes. He said I should grow something that I like to drink, and I really liked Norton,” says McCloud. “It has this incredible intensity and extraction that allows it to hold its fruit while it ages to a graceful and beautiful bouquet, on par with the other great red wines of the world.”
Beyond its pleasing flavor profile, Norton’s history within the U.S. wine industry intrigued and enamored McCloud. In 1873, a Missouri-made Norton wine was declared “best red wine of all the nations” during the Vienna Universal Exhibition. Following this rise to stardom, top hotels and restaurants had Norton on offer and even President U.S. Grant is said to have kept some in the White House cellar.
“I became obsessed with the concept of how to return this grape to its former renown and prominence,” says McCloud.
McCloud founded Chrysalis Vineyards in 1998, with Kinne crafting the first bottlings and managing the vineyards that first year. Today, Chrysalis Vineyard is a commercial greenhouse for Norton grapes, planted to 24,414 vines—the largest planting of its kind in the U.S. McCloud, along with current winemaker Jake Blodinger, produces 6,000 cases of varietal Norton annually and sells grapes to eight to 10 other wineries championing this lesser-known variety.
McCloud refers to Norton as “The Real American Grape!” and, in fact, has the phrase copyrighted. Asked if Norton is a grape that can see the U.S. industry into its uncertain future as it navigates through climate change, diverging consumer interests and increase international competition, McCloud’s answer is a confident, “Yes.”
It is a grape, she says, that appeals to both those just starting out on their wine journey as much as it does well-educated wine consumers. It is a grape, McCloud claims, that is more disease resistant than any vitis vinifera planted in our country. “And if you want to be involved in anything ‘low-intervention,’ plant something native.
What do you wish you knew when you started working in the industry?
I have no regrets. As an entrepreneur-minded person, I realize there are challenges with solutions that don’t immediately present themselves straight away. But I find joy in the journey, of overcoming the not-knowable barriers, and working toward a known goal of value and interest. It’s a lot of work, but I like working. For me. This is fun.
You’ve been quoted to say that your mission is to produce wines of such distinction that they stand solely on their own merits as world-class wines, without any further explanation or excuse. (You know, the old “Well, this is pretty good for a Virginian wine.”)
With your experience in Virginia viticulture and wine production, what do you think the state has to offer the wider U.S. wine industry that can’t be found elsewhere?
A critic, Michael Franz, years ago said something that stuck with me because it rang true: “In a world where many wines suffer from a kind of sameness, Virginia wines show ‘somewhereness’… they speak for a particular region.”
Virginia is never going to out-California California. But Virginia wines are more elegant, less obvious and arguable better with food. In a world where many wines speak of sameness, Virginia speaks of a region.
Terroir is the idea of a region, a location that produces wines with a unique enough identity that stands alone. An exploration of uniqueness, identity, quality—those factors need to be brought together and that’s what we have to offer: quality wines with individuality.
You’re clearly a champion of the Norton grape. What other varieties do you see making a statement in Virginia?
Albariño and Viognier. We focus energy to the point where we could become obsessive to make sure that we’re making really good Albariño and really good Viognier. I think in the world of wine connoisseurs, consumers, distributors and wine writers—it’s becoming pretty clear now that the best Viognier is coming out of Virginia. This climate is a little bit different in that we can ripen and fully develop those tropical flavors and are able to create a balanced wine.
Albariño is just a fantastic grape, especially for Virginia because it is grown traditionally in a humid region—not unlike Virginia—in Galicia. These grapes, with their thicker skins and loose clusters, are some of the cleanest vinifera we bring in year after year.
In your opinion, who is the most underrated person in the drinks industry?
Not a tough question for me. In my opinion, the unsung hero of not just wine from the east coast or Virginia, but across the U.S. is Alan Kinne. Alan Kinne taught America how to make good Viognier. Hands down. Alan Kinne introduced me to Albariño—I’d never even heard of the variety. Alan Kinne suggested to me and Dennis Horton that we plant Petit Menseng when others were pulling it out of the ground. And for me, as well, Fer Servadou.
He is a self-reserved individual who does not raise his hand and tout his observations and talents very much. And I think that when I see how popular Petit Menseng has become in the east, people forget that it’s people like Alan that had the foresight to introduce these varieties and experiment with them.
You’re at a dive bar. What do you order?
That’s pretty simple. I drink a lot of beer, too. But it’s got to be a full-bodied, more traditional beer. I’m not into flavored beers. I don’t like lemon and weird stuff in my beers. And I don’t want to have however many “bitterness units.” I want balance, just like in my wine, I want something full-bodied, where I can find the hops if I’m looking for them.