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Three generations of women set new directions at a pioneering Virginia winery

From left, Shannon Horton, Sharon Horton and Caitlin Horton at Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville, Va. Sharon is holding the 2022 Monteith Award presented by the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association, which recognizes significant leaders in the American wine industry. (Robyn Bethke/Horton Vineyards)
5 min

Virginia’s modern wine era began in the 1970s, with its biggest growth after 2000, so we don’t yet see generational change like we do in centuries-old regions of Europe. But at Horton Vineyards, north of Charlottesville, three generations of Horton women are in charge of one of Virginia’s pioneer wineries. And they are continuing in the iconoclastic footsteps of Dennis Horton, the maverick who convinced skeptics that Virginia belonged on the world’s wine stage.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a Virginia wine, raise a glass to this retiring scientist

Sharon Horton, Dennis’s widow, has been the winery’s vineyard manager since the couple planted their first vines in 1990. Their 1993 viognier gained national recognition and established the grape as Virginia’s signature white variety. Today Sharon, 75, is in charge of just over 66 acres of vineyards, most of them leased. She was honored in March by the Atlantic Seaboard Winery Association with its Monteith Trophy for her “contributions to the development and sustainability of the American wine industry.”

Even before Dennis died in 2018, his daughter Shannon was taking an active role in blending wines and running the business. Shannon and Sharon decided in 2016 to move their petit manseng to a dry style instead of off-dry, a decision that produced Virginia’s Governor’s Cup winner in 2019.

And now Shannon’s daughter, Caitlin, 27, is in charge of winemaking. But she’s not just making the expansive variety of wines Horton Vineyards has always produced. She also produces her own label, called Gears & Lace. It’s a reference to steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction that echoes the industrialization of the Victorian era and is popular among millennials.

“I was born in 1994, the last year of the millennial generation,” Caitlin told me. The wine industry lusts after millennials, as baby boomers, its core customer base, age into retirement. But millennials haven’t yet turned to wine in large numbers. As the oldest millennials are reaching their prime earning and spending years, here’s one of the generation’s younger members making wine geared — pardon the pun — for them.

“I went to my family about five years ago and said, ‘I don’t like a lot of the wines we make,’ ” Caitlin explains about the genesis of Gears & Lace. “I said we should make wines I like, because I’m not the only one with my palate. I’m a red wine drinker, all year round, even when it’s 800 degrees outside and 400 percent humidity. I don’t like whites. So I said we should design something for the non-white drinker.”

“And mom said, ‘Okay, go do it.’ ”

Sharon grew too much pinotage that year, so Shannon gave some to Caitlin to make a rosé. “I wanted to make an anti-rosé, in a barrel, with 10 days’ skin contact,” Caitlin says. “I had an argument with the winemaker, who said this wasn’t rosé. I said, ‘It is in this house!’ ”

Next she made Dowager, an “anti-white,” blended from rkatsiteli, albariño and petit manseng, and barrel-aged for three months. Tit for Tat is touriga nacional, “not as punchy as I usually like my reds,” Caitlin says. “I like a red to punch me in the mouth, very punk rocky. This was calm, cool and collected. I thought maybe I could hook people in with something more palatable.”

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A forgotten barrel of 2013 tannat became the base for Bone Orchard, a fortified, port-style dessert wine with a metal label and a rather macabre representation of the gate at the winery entrance. The Gears & Lace line is completed by Knots & Shuttles, a sparkling tannat that combines the firm punch-you-in-the-mouth tannins of that red variety with the extra verve of carbonation. A dosage of late-harvest petit manseng reins it in.

Caitlin assumed full responsibility for making Horton wines with the 2021 vintage. You might reasonably wonder about the wisdom of putting someone who doesn’t like most of the wines in charge of making them. That’s where her mother and grandmother step in.

“I still have the final word, so that’s what’s important,” Sharon says. What’s in store for the future? “I’m not sure we should diversify any more than we have,” she says. “We should keep going with the tradition Dennis started and cater to our customer base.”

For Virginia wine generally, Sharon endorsed touriga nacional, a Portuguese variety, because it ripens early. “You can harvest it before the hurricanes come in,” she says. And she expressed dismay that many growers are turning away from viognier, the grape her late husband championed. “People can’t get the tonnage they want from it, and they’re talking of ripping it out,” she says. “It breaks my heart.”

For now, Gears & Lace is a small part of the Horton Vineyards portfolio, only about 500 cases out of approximately 30,000 the winery produces each year. But the wines have gained Caitlin some notoriety in the steampunk community.

“I was in [a science fiction magazine], on the same page as tribbles,” she says with a laugh. “That’s a lifetime achievement."