Virginia Wine Pioneer Dennis Horton Dies

First vintner to plant Viognier, brought back Norton and established estate winery

by Wines & Vines staff
Dennis Horton and his wife Sharon established their first commercial vineyard in 1989 and opened an estate winery in 1993. Photo source: Southern Foodways Alliance.

Gordonsville, Va.—A leader in the rebirth of the Virginian wine industry, Dennis Horton, died June 19. He was 73.

Horton was born on Dec. 1, 1945 and grew up in Hermann, Mo. After serving in the United States Air Force, Horton attended the University of Maryland. He and his wife Sharon moved to Virginia in 1977 and planted a small vineyard at their home in Madison County in 1983.

In 1988, Horton and business partner Joan Bieda acquired 55 acres and the next year they planted ten acres of Viognier, eight acres of Norton, five acres of Vidal Blanc and five acres of Cabernet Franc.

The Hortons produced their first wines in 1991 at a nearby winery, which Horton eventually began managing and where he continued to produce his wines while construction began on an estate winery. Horton Cellars winery was completed in 1993, and another vineyard planted to Bordeaux, Portuguese and Spanish varieties came into production in 1994, according to an obituary released by the Virginia Wine group and the winery’s website.

Today, the winery produces around 35,000 cases of vinifera and fruit wines from 67 acres of vines.

Dennis and Sharon Horton were the first to plant Viognier as well as several other grape varieties in Virginia. Dennis Horton stated in an interview (available here) with the oral history group Southern Foodways Alliance in June of 2008, “I was one of the first — in the area or in that timeframe — to start planting in Viognier and to plant other grapes that had not been planted, but I thought they were more suitable for a grape growing area as Virginia … and some of them proved to be successful.

“It’s not that everything I put in the ground did what it was supposed to do; some of them didn’t. But Viognier was one, Tannat is another one, Petit Manseng is another one, and recently I introduced Pinotage, which is a South African grape.”

Nebbiolo, Norton, and Rkatsiteli are additional grape varieties that Horton is credited with being the first to grow and produce wine from in Virginia.

The Hortons are also credited with being the first to re-establish Norton in Virginia. While Norton is native to Virginia, it was pulled up during Prohibition. It later thrived in Missouri, and Horton wanted to bring it back to its native state. Horton took cuttings from a friend at Stone Hill Winery, had them rooted in New York and then used them for his first vineyard in Virginia. There are more than 126 acres of Norton currently planted in Virginia.

Horton served in numerous leadership positions within the Virginia wine industry including as a board member of the Virginia Wineries Association and also for that organization’s marketing committee. Friends and colleagues remember Norton for his strong business acumen, colorful language, openness to share information with others, and for his powerful voice as a leader within the industry.

In the same interview from 2008 Horton said: “Oh, a final word, yeah. I think what I just said would be actually my final word. I think this is a new beginning here. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go, and I think that the people that are getting into — still getting into the industry are tenacious enough and are astute enough to be able to carry us from here on. I can't do it forever, and other people are doing it, so Virginia will have a wine industry.”

Posted on 06.23.2018 - 15:26:21 PST
Great article about our local vintner.