Lucie Morton inspects the ripening crop during a visit to Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, a former cattle farm that now is the only vineyard in Montgomery County. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)
"These are my experiments," she said recently, grabbing three plastic bags filled with grapevine cuttings from the crisper drawer of the fridge in her Charlottesville home. "I like to practice my fungal identification skills."
And there's always a chance she will discover something new: "I'm quite sure some of these little dudes are causing problems," she said, scrutinizing a sample inside a bag.
Talk with Morton, 59, about her work as an ampelographer, and you will quickly learn that not only does she call fungi "dudes" but she has a fungus named for her.
Phaeoacremonium Mortoniae was christened in 2001 after she helped identify another fungus responsible for "black goo," her name for a disease that afflicts American grapevine rootstocks and causes young vines to wither and die. Morton was instrumental in establishing that nurseries were selling vines infected with the fungus.
While that established her fame among fungus enthusiasts, Morton's influence skyrocketed in recent years with the initial success of three high-profile Washington area clients: Black Ankle Vineyards and Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Maryland, and Boxwood Winery in Northern Virginia. She also consults for Chatham Vineyards on the Eastern Shore and Rosemont in southern Virginia, which won best of show at the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition in July for its Meritage. She has other clients who have not yet released wines.
"Everybody bought into this idea that we have a terrible climate to grow grapes," Morton says. "Sure, we get hurricanes. What wine region doesn't get messed up once in a while? With canopy management, French clones and crop control, we are able to get nice fruit with ripe sugars - riper than we ever thought we could 10 years ago."
"We consider Lucie to be our Moses, leading us out of the wilderness," says J. Michael McGarry III, a co-owner of Sugarloaf, whose family made the switch from cattle to grapes.