Dennis Horton of Horton Vineyards died June 19 at age 73, but his enduring vision for Virginia wine lives on. Horton helped shape a generation of winemakers by introducing them to now-iconic Virginia wines made from Viognier, Norton, Rkatsiteli, Tannat grapes and more. In a 2016 article about Horton Vineyards, Horton referenced his “willingness to confront the unknown,” and that experimental ethos that radiates from Horton Vineyards continues to influence winemakers around the state.
Those who worked with him in the early days remember being awestruck by the results.
“The first Viognier that Dennis put in the ground was fantastic,” says winemaking consultant Brad McCarthy, who worked with Horton in the 1990s. “We hadn’t really experienced anything like this—nobody around here had. Back in the 1990s, there wasn’t much Viognier in the world. At the end of the day the tanks du jour that were spectacular—they were Viognier.”
In a 2015 interview, Horton told C-VILLE he had been influenced to plant Viognier after visiting the Rhône Valley, in France, and also after reading a key work about the grape by wine writer Jancis Robinson. The ensuing kinetic excitement around Viognier captured the attention of attendees at the U.S. Wine Bloggers Conference in Virginia in 2011, one of who was Robinson.
“He is a great innovator,” Robinson wrote of Horton in a 2011 article. “He makes a sparkling version of Viognier.”
Things came full circle that year when—exactly 20 years after Horton planted the first and oldest Viognier vineyard in Virginia—the international wine scene recognized Horton’s Viognier, and Viognier became the official signature grape of Virginia.
But it wasn’t just Viognier. “He’s brought us Tannat, Norton,” McCarthy says. “There are whole wineries based on growing Norton now, thanks to Dennis Horton.”
Vineyard expert and wine sensei Lucie Morton remembers his Cabernet Franc, and the time Horton consulted with her about some suspicious Cabernet Franc in his vineyard (most of it turned out to be Cabernet Franc, but she found some Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel erroneously mixed in by the vine nursery).
“I’ll always love him for bringing Cabernet Franc to Virginia,” says Morton, and “for him to get started with grapes that have become so important to us and the mid-Atlantic region.” Morton also appreciates how he introduced “wonderful vinifera grape varieties that have adapted so well, in addition to historic Native American varieties.”
Many winegrowers tend to have strong opinions about which grape species are best. If you’re a wine drinker, you’ve probably tasted many wines of the vinifera species—a European species that includes many international varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Native American species tend to be used mostly as root stocks, though for centuries in the pre-Prohibition era, they had been made into wine in the mid-Atlantic region. Hybrids (crosses between two species) are usually the heartiest to grow in marginal climates.
In his vineyards, Horton nurtured a level playing field for grape varieties of different species. This was an extraordinary thing to do in the 1990s, when vinifera activists vociferously protested the planting of hybrids and, to a lesser extent, Native American grape species. Morton remembers extreme “tension between vinifera and hybrids” when she published her book, Winegrowing in Eastern America, in 1985.
In this heated environment, Horton rediscovered Norton—a grape native to Virginia but at that time no longer grown here—and brought it from his home state of Missouri back to Virginia. He touched off a local pride for Norton, and many Virginia wineries now have a special focus on the grape. The Horton Norton remains somewhat of a calling card for local Virginia wine.
The Virginia wine industry benefited from Horton’s many successes, but learned equally valuable lessons from his failures.
“Dennis Horton probably ripped out more vines in failure than some people have actually put in the ground,” McCarthy says. “That’s what an experimentalist Dennis Horton was. I don’t know how many people really appreciate that about him.”
Emerging wine regions are up against learning curves, and the first wave of winemakers tend to absorb many of the mistakes from which their successors learn. Horton wasn’t afraid of failure, because, to him, it was just another step toward finding something that would work.
“They work,” Horton once said of Norton, Vidal, Cabernet Franc and Viognier. Through his trial and error, he begat some of Virginia’s core wine culture.
He was “this brash, kind of gruff kind of guy who was very forward-thinking and super progressive. I feel very fortunate that I got to work with him at that time,” McCarthy says.
“When you think of Dennis,” Morton says, “you think of the word bold. He had a bold, uninhibited, approach to wine.”
“Restless, opinionated, innovative, relentless—he pursued his vision with unwavering determination,” says Michael Heny, former Horton winemaker who worked with Dennis and Sharon Horton for decades. Dennis “not only worked for the success of Horton Vineyards,” Heny said, “he wanted to build an industry. An open book with his successes and failures, he mentored an entire generation of fledgling viticulturists and encouraged his winemaking team to do the same. His deep influence on the grape varieties grown in Virginia will be felt for generations to come.”