By Paul Vigna
Lucie Morton is loaded with specialties attached to her name: viticulturist, ampelographer, rootstock expert, author, historian, educator.
She is a Virginia Wine Association Lifetime Achievement Award winner, a recipient of the National Award of Merit from the American Wine Society, and two designations from Vineyard & Winery Management: one of 20 most admired people in the North American wine industry (2013) and one of 20 most admired grapegrowers in North America (2015).
In 2001, the new species Phaeoacremonium Mortonia, was named in honor of Morton for her contribution toward the understanding of black goo disease.
“I don’t think there’s anything in the wine world she can’t do,” says Frank Morgan, a Virginia wine writer. “She’s one of the few people who are held in reverence by everyone who has worked with her.”
You can find so many ways that Morton is deserving of the Wine Industry Network’s most inspiring people recognition for 2021, starting with her books – Winegrowing in Eastern America and the translation-adaptation of A Practical Ampelography, by Pierre Galet – to her work as an adjunct at Piedmont Virginia Community College to the collaborative research projects she has worked on with scientists worldwide.
In 1998, she started the International Council of Grapevine Trunk Diseases at the home of retired plant pathologist Dr. Luigi Chiarappa in Davis, California. “Besides Luigi and me,” she says, “there were four others at the meeting: Philip Larignon (France), Ian Pascoe (Australia), Laura Mugnai (Italy), Lisa Van de Water (California). Now there are hundreds of scientists from all over the world.”
Her work has touched so many working on both the research and growing sides of the industry. In 1979, when she realized how much AXR 1 rootstock was planted in North Coast California, she wrote an article called “The Myth of the Universal Roostock” that was published in Wines & Vines — “before it was apparent that rootstock was failing to phylloxera,” she says. Six years later, she wrote another piece “when it had become apparent to some that it might be but before the powers that be officially confirmed it.”
In addition, she has pushed for years for tighter spacing in the vineyard, a philosophy that was met often enough with resistance. “Anyone who is honest about their dealings with Lucie would have to give her great credit for her courage in standing up to the status quo,” Deford says. “I remember many conferences where people would get up and say, ‘close spacing, it’s just more work, more expensive. Why would you do it’?”
Her steadfastness had an impact on many, including Nelson Stewart, the vineyard manager at Allegro Winery in south central Pennsylvania.
“Lucie has had a tremendous impact on East Coast viticulture and beyond,” Stewart says. “it is almost not cool anymore to plant vineyards with 10-foot rows and 6-foot vine spacing. I think the fact that the importance of vineyard spacing is even talked about is in a great part thanks to Lucie.”
Mark Chien was Pennsylvania’s enologist for 15 years, where he staged a number of workshops, some featuring Morton. “What sets Lucie apart from others are her enthusiasm, which has only grown over the years, and her empirical skills in the vineyard, which are about as good as any viticulturist that I have ever met,” he says. Chien and his wife returned to Oregon in 2014, where he’s the program coordinator at the Oregon Wine Research Institute. “She goes beyond seeing, as Sherlock Holmes explains, rather observes, and then she has an uncanny ability to connect dots where others cannot. Her track record speaks for itself, especially with vine decline and pathogenic fungi.”
She’s currently working on a project involving the understanding of late-season rot with several Maryland wineries and Mengjun Hu, a University of Maryland assistant professor and plant pathologist. He says that he admires her energy, her observation skills and critical questions, and her network with a grape community that allows him “more insight into what truly matters. By solving those issues, we can bring grape and wine production to the next level.”
Growing grapes has been at the heart of her career from the beginning, from the graduate viticulture program at ENSA Montpellier (now SupAgro) in 1973-74 academic year to working with mentors such USDA grape breeder John McGrew, winery founder and grapegrower Philip Wagner, and author Leon Adams. Of the latter, she jokes about traveling around with him in the mid-1970s: “He wanted to see all the wineries or potential wineries on the East Coast. I wanted to see all the vineyards.”
One of the wineries she did go to see in 1973 was Wagner’s Boordy Vineyards, to seek advice for the grapes she would plant on her parents’ Virginia farm. Several decades later, she was back there inspecting the vineyards for the Deford family, who purchased it from the Wagners. “She took one look at our vineyards, and she said, ‘I’ve got bad news, you have to start all over.’ That was not good news at all,” Boordy president Rob Deford recalls.
With the replantings and a new winery, the bad news has turned much better for Boordy, one of around 20 clients Morton says she “has drilled down on” in the mid-Atlantic. “What interests me is continuity,” she says. “I’m not interested in being a fine wine expert who charges big bucks to talk to you for a half a day every two years. I’d rather work long term for lower income with more people because they are like mini research stations for me, and then they become like family, too.”
Indeed, for all the nomenclature and scientific work, what has made Morton’s career so important is her ability and desire to work with people. Says Deford, “In the whole picture, it’s a human enterprise and she’s a humanist and she wants to know how every aspect of it is working toward contributing toward the end of making great wine.”
Morton would agree – “That’s what excites me, it’s people, it’s connections” – with one stipulation. “The last decade or so, I’ve tried to make it so that it’s reasonable driving range,” she says. “I joke with people, if you’re not off the Route 15 corridor, don’t call me. I don’t do I-95 anymore.”
Continue Reading: Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2021