Virginia’s wine community is celebrating the life and achievements of one of its giants, Dennis Horton, the maverick vintner who defied conventional wisdom by planting grapes few people had heard of, and in so doing convinced many skeptical oenophiles that Virginia could make great wine.
Horton died early Tuesday at his home in Madison, Va. He had been in declining health for several years but enjoyed venturing outside with his wife, Sharon, to visit their home vineyard every day up until last Saturday, said his daughter, Shannon. “He died at home, where he could see his vines out the window,” she said. He was 72.
Horton was a tinkerer, determined to grow as many grape varieties as he could to figure out which ones would succeed in Virginia. He believed familiar varieties such as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon were ill-suited to Virginia’s wet climate, and looked for grapes with thick skins and loose clusters that might help them cope with rain and humidity. Not everything worked. “I’ve ripped out more vines than most people in this state have ever planted,” he once told me (and, I assume, many others).
Horton was known for sayings like that, usually uttered with a Swisher Sweets cigar dangling from his lips. “I’d rather be lucky than smart” was another of his frequent quips. He was both.
Alan Kinne, who was Horton’s winemaker in the early years and now makes wine in California, called Horton “one of those visionaries every industry needs to move forward.” “It was Dennis who completely woke up the slumbering Virginia wine industry by believing that varieties other than chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon would make Virginia a viable entity,” Kinne said.
Horton’s successes still resonate and help shape the public’s image of Virginia wine. He was the first commercial vintner to plant Viognier, syrah, touriga, marsanne, roussanne, nebbiolo, tannat, pinotage, rkatsiteli and other grape varieties found across the state today. He achieved his breakthrough when his 1993 Horton Vineyards Viognier — only his second vintage — achieved critical acclaim and impressed California winemakers in a Judgment of Paris-style blind tasting. More Viognier was soon planted throughout the state, and today it is considered Virginia’s signature grape.
“He was enormously inquisitive, persistent and very stubborn, almost enormously so,” said Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in California. Grahm gave a short tribute to Horton Tuesday evening at the Smithsonian Institution’s annual Winemaker’s Dinner, where the 2016 Horton Viognier was being poured in honor of the Rhone Rangers, an association of U.S. wineries that grow grape varieties from France’s Rhone Valley.
He also reintroduced the Norton grape to Virginia, where it had been developed in the 1820s. Norton was a mainstay of American wine in the late 1800s, especially in Missouri, but it had languished after Prohibition. With vine cuttings from Missouri’s Stone Hill Winery, which had restored its vineyards in the 1960s, Horton brought Norton home and soon championed it as Virginia’s red grape, impervious to the climate. “It will grow through sidewalks!” he liked to say.
Jennifer McCloud was thinking of making wine in Oregon when she tasted her first Horton Norton in 1995 and became an immediate fan. McCloud founded Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Va., the next year and now tends 40 acres of Norton vines, which she says is the world’s largest single planting of the variety. She also followed Horton in tinkering with other grape varieties. She planted petit manseng the same year Horton did, using budwood provided by Virginia Tech. Petit manseng is now rivaling Viognier as Virginia’s most popular white wine.
“I’d listen to him as if I was listening to the pope, and in a way I was when it came to Norton or other grapes,” McCloud said. “Hell, albariño, what a great grape for Virginia. He was a mentor and an inspiration.”
Horton had a successful career selling office supplies in the Washington area during the expansion of the federal government in the 1970s and 1980s. He planted a small vineyard at his home in 1983 and made wine as a hobby for a few years before deciding to make it a second career, joining Virginia’s nascent wine industry. He and his partner in the office supply business, Joan Bieda, founded Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville, about 20 miles north of Charlottesville, in 1989. Sharon Horton managed the vineyards, and Dennis was in charge of the winery, though he was involved in viticulture, too. Horton Vineyards became the 40th winery in the commonwealth. Today, there are about 280.
Virginia is widely recognized now for producing world-class wines, many from grapes Horton introduced to the state. Other wineries are flashier and get more attention, but Horton Vineyards has remained true and steady, producing high-quality wines at affordable prices.
“I spent many hours, many days, with Dennis creating just the right nuance to every wine we made,” Kinne recalled of those heady early days. “It was always satisfying to see him standing behind the tasting room bar, Swisher Sweets clamped in his mouth, and hear him proclaim, ‘That’s it. That’s the wine we’ve been looking for.’ ”
Horton Vineyards will host a celebration of Dennis Horton on July 9 at 4 p.m. 6399 Spotswood Trail, Gordonsville, Va.; 540-832-7440; hortonwine.com. McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.