Young and Hungry

Y&H Asks Todd Kliman the Tough Questions about ‘The Wild Vine’

wild vine bookY&H conducted an e-mail Q&A with Todd Kliman, the Washingtonian's food and wine editor, in advance of his reading this weekend for his recently released, The Wild Vine. He'll be reading and tasting wine (presumably Norton, the subject of his book) from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Fern Street Gourmet in Alexandria.

The Q&A below is the product of months of starts, stops, fits, and delays. I first proposed the Q&A in April, sent Kliman the actual questions in June, and received his responses this week. I hope it was worth it.

Y&H: Congratulations on the publication of The Wild Vine. I'm interested about your decision to write a book about the oft-neglected Norton grape. I would have guessed your debut book would have been about Peter Chang or even one on Washington's ethnic eats. Was there a moment (or moments) when you realized that this grape would make a good subject for a book?

Todd Kliman: A whole book about Chang? Really? I can't see that — a long essay, maybe, but I already wrote that. It might lend itself to a sort of Geoff Dyer-ish excursion, one of his funny, circular prose wanderings. A book about DC ethnic food sounds like a guidebook.

I think a book has to have a lot going on in it, lots of layers. The basic story of the Norton is an interesting story, in that it is has a strong beginning, middle and end and is kind of a lost piece of America. But that wasn't enough for me to want to write a book about it.

It became a book I wanted to write when I realized that everyone connected to the Norton was or is an outsider. The suicidal Dr. Norton, living on the margins of Richmond society in the 1820s; the German immigrants who created a kind of Napa of the 19th century and then became targets of the Prohibition War; the eccentric publisher and wine critic Henry Vizetelly, who champions the Norton; and Jenni McCloud and her amazing story of personal transformation — of self-reinvention, self-actualization.

At which point I saw the Norton differently. I saw it metaphorically. After that, the book started to take shape.

Y&H: How difficult, if at all, was it to convince a publishing house to put out a book about a grape that most of America knows nothing about?

TK: Less difficult than it was to persuade them to publish a book set in one of the finest restaurants in DC.

The working title for that book was The Extra Salt, and was going to take the reader through a single night at Marcel's. John McPhee took the reader through a single tennis match in Levels of the Game, and gave the reader an entire world beyond it, and I wanted to attempt something similar.

It was not a foodie book, as I tried to make clear in my proposal. The cast of characters included the staffer who skims the scum from the pot of osso buco every morning, who takes three forms of public transportation to work, and a guy I wrote about in my City Paper column, Dr. Hall, the Regular, who eats dinner at the restaurant every single night. I wanted to look at the ways in which a restaurant is that rare place in our world where the Secretary of Defense and an immigrant are brought together under the same roof; where you'll find the moneyed and the marginalized, strivers and hangers-on. I also wanted to look at ritual, and the things that bind us.

There were nine characters in all. The idea was to go inside their lives — inside their heads — and give the texture of their lives, their aspirations, their fears, the things that shadowed them, the things they battled.

There was a good bit of interest, but more than one editor asked if I would change the restaurant to a New York restaurant, and preferably one with a chef who had a TV show. That killed it for me. I moved on.

I still think it'd make a great book, and I have about a quarter to a third of it written.

Y&H: How much time did you spend on writing the book and how did you juggle your responsibilities at the Washingtonian?

TK: And a sick father to take care of. And a new baby.

It was hard, the hardest stretch of my life. But fortunately, I'm able to work anywhere. (I wasn't always; I used to be bothered by the slightest disturbance and felt I needed "blocks" of time to work.)

I wrote in hospitals; I wrote in doctor's offices; I wrote in coffee shops; I wrote in libraries; I wrote in the back seat of my car. Pretty much wherever I found myself with ten, fifteen spare minutes, I wrote. I did a lot of writing either really late at night, at 1 or 2 or 3 o'clock, or really early in the morning, at 5 or 6 o'clock; sometimes, late at night bled into early morning. For a couple of years there, between taking care of my father and editing and writing for the magazine and writing and researching the book, I routinely logged 15, 16 hour days, 7 days a week, and there were many stretches where I was desperate for a break of some kind.

Y&H: You unearthed a lot of good information about Dr. Daniel Norton, the man credited for creating the hybrid Norton grape. You sometimes lay out Norton's story in a narrative style that strikes me as literary, in that you are at times inside the 19th century winemaker's head, like a fictional character, talking about his emotional states. How far did you feel you could push the boundaries of this style based on the source material you unearthed?

TK: I go inside the heads of many of the characters in the book, not just Daniel Norton's. There's a lot of interiority with Jenni, the doctor's modern-day inheritor and spiritual descendent, if you will, whose longing for reinvention and rebirth is just as strong — if not stronger.

I wouldn't have made the decision to go inside if I didn't think I had a thorough understanding of who they were (or are), based on deep reading of letters, books, pamphlets, interviews, etc. WIthout all the telling details that came from these sources, it would have been very, very hard.

In Norton's case, the letters — which are aching at times — gave me real insight into the way his mind worked, his preoccupations, his fears, his hopes. He wrote often, and well, of his emotional states. I stayed true to those emotions, while also framing them and contextualizing them. In Jenni's case, it was three years of conversations — some of the most profound and searching conversations I've been privileged to have with anyone. We became friends, good friends, and I'd like to think that comes through in the book — the kind of richness and depth of portrayal that only comes of getting to know someone so well, so deeply.

Y&H: Some of your favorite subjects, like Chang or Michael Landrum, have iconoclastic, obsessive qualities to them. The way you describe Jennifer McCloud, the winemaker behind Loudoun County's Chrysalis Vineyards, she seems to have similar qualities. You even describe her sex-change during the course of the book. What attracts you to the iconoclast/obsessive character? Or maybe you think I'm off on this assessment?

TK: I don't know — maybe it's because I see something of myself in them?

I come from a family of iconoclasts and obsessives, of iconoclastic obsessives, of obsessive iconoclasts. I like people who are consumed with something, with a quest or a mission of some kind. I like people who don't fit. I like people who don't obey the rules. I like people whose only goal in life is to express their particular truth, whatever it is.

Have you ever seen that guy standing on the corner near the Naval Observatory, on Massachusetts, holding up a sign that tells the world what a priest did to him when he was a little boy? He's now in his 50s, I would guess, or maybe in his early 60s, and for hours upon hours a day he stands out there on a street corner and holds up his sign, testifying. Determined to tell his truth. I love that guy.

I'm reading a lot of Jose Saramago right now, and there you are again — an iconoclastic obsessive. I think a lot of the writers I admire are iconoclastic obsessives. Faulkner, Delillo, Philip Roth ...

Y&H: This is a highly subjective question, but had Prohibition not killed off the wine industry, how do you think the Norton grape would have evolved? Do you think it would have a better reputation than it does today?

TK: I do. In fact, I think if not for Prohibition, Virginia and Missouri would be the most revered wine regions of the country. It's very likely they'd be venerated for their terroir.

If there hadn't been the rupture of Prohibition — if the Norton had not been uprooted and burned and been allowed to grow continuously — you would have wine in America today being produced from 150 year-old-plus vines. They would be some of the oldest vines in the country, and as the saying goes — the older the vine, the better the wine.

Instead, what you are tasting when you drink a Norton is a wine that in Virginia has been in production less than 20 years and in Missouri, less than 40. There are some very good Nortons in those states, but just imagine if the grape had not suffered a 50-year interruption.

I treat the Norton metaphorically, but even if we are talking about the wine itself, I think you have to drink it with all this as context. Knowing its history, pondering what-if. I think it enhances the drinking.

Y&H: Truth telling time: Which state produces the better Norton? Missouri or Virginia? And no fair saying they both produce equally good wines.

TK: They produce equally good wines. ; )

I don't know that you can say one state is superior to the other. But each state has its superior Norton producers. The two that come to mind are Chrysalis in Virginia — Jenni's winery — and Stone Hill, in Missouri, one of the oldest wineries in the country (it was winning international medals for its Nortons in the 1870s, a full century before California supposedly put America on the map.) Both make excellent Nortons.

In this area, we know a lot about Virginia wine, but not much at all about Missouri wine. I was really impressed by some of the wines I drank out there.

Y&H: I had a conversation with a food and wine writer, and I told him that you had done an excellent job of unearthing the lost story of the Norton grape. He said something that surprised me: "Todd would probably think he failed if you told him that." So, I ask: Do you think you failed if I think that about your book?

TK: Ha. No, I wouldn't think I'd failed if you told me that. There are many ways of seeing this book, and that's one of them. That's a great compliment.

Ulitimately, though, I think this is a book for people who appreciate an engrossing, many-layered read — not just a wine book, and not just a history, either. The readers who've connected with it most understand that, and not surprisingly, a number of them are novelists. I'm thinking of Robert Olen Butler or Darin Strauss, both of whom contributed smart, thoughtful blurbs.

Y&H: A related question: The press on your book has been largely very favorable. Are you happy with the response? Do you feel like the reviewers get it?

TK: It's interesting. There are those who don't, and yet their reviews are just as enthusiastic as those who do. Go figure.

The people who seem to understand the book best are not oenophiles, but readers who love history, who like narrative nonfiction, and who want nothing more than to immerse themselves in a complex story for a few days.

I think it's a challenging thing for some people, because it mixes genres, and because you have several stories going on at once — stories that seem disparate, but aren't. I wanted to write about outsiderness and difference, and fortunately, there are many readers out there who understand this. I'm grateful for them, and for all their cards and letters and emails. It's been a wonderful experience to connect with them.

Y&H: Why do you think more Virginia winemakers don't plant Norton? Is it all about the marketability of the grape? Or is the grape too difficult to grow?

TK: The grape takes skill and knowledge, and demands patience. But I think the reason it's not more popular is because it doesn't fit in; it's different; it doesn't behave the way a red wine is supposed to behave (it has a pretty high acidity, for one thing).

I love that about it, but not a lot of people do. And I love that about it, too.

Winery owners in Virginia talk a lot about the challenge of marketing certain wines, the Norton among them. But part of the marketing of the Norton, I would think, would involve marketing its story. How many grapes can lay claim to the kind of history that the Norton has? Besides, it's the only American grape that makes a good, complex, age-able wine.

Y&H: I'm the last person to pass judgment on this, given I appeared on Bourdain's show, but I'm curious about how you manage your anonymity now that you're doing the book promotion tours?

TK: Surprisingly, it hasn't been as difficult as you would think — and as I'd feared, going in.

One reason, I think, is that readings just aren't all that interesting to non-literary people. Sad but true. An audience of 30 or so people — that's a good crowd. The majority of people who have shown up are not people who know me from my reviews; they're readers who found out about the book from a bookstore or from a friend. I haven't seen anybody in the industry in the audience at my readings who I didn't already know.

I also took steps to lay low. As an early precaution, I didn't allow my publisher to put a picture of me on the back cover, and the promotional materials that got sent out included no photos, either. And the various venues have been really good about telling the crowds to stash the cell phones and cameras.

Y&H: So where do you go after The Wild Vine? Do you have another book already in the works?

TK: I do. It's a very different book, and I'm really excited about it. The starting point is an incident, a true and strange story from a newspaper, that triggered a novel I began 18 years ago. At a certain point, I couldn't move the narrative forward and I got frustrated and put it aside. I think it was just waiting for the other element to come along, which I didn't have then but do now. I also have more perspective on the main character than I did then, more understanding of where to go with him, and how.

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