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A Grape to Call Our Own
How a Virginia entrepreneur revived Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a native American wine.
This article is adapted from The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine, published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, a division of Random House. Click here to order a copy of the book.
Dennis Horton’s head of brown hair is bisected with a part as precise as a farmer’s row in a cornfield. He wears a long-sleeved shirt with a pen jutting from the front pocket. His gold-rimmed aviator glasses are too big for his face. In some places, these details are shorthand for nerd, but that’s not the impression Horton conveys.
When I meet him at his office-supply business in a Springfield industrial park, the first thing he does is put down a Swisher Sweets cigarillo, sidle up to me, extend his hand, and ask, in the slow, even tone of a town sheriff, what he can do for me.
“What can you do for me? You can connect the dots,” I say. Between an office-supply-company boss and a forgotten antebellum grape called Norton. Between Virginia’s once-promising winemaking past and its nearly squandered future.
“How much time you got?” he asks, squinting hard.
Over a crabcake lunch and several glasses of wine at a nearby restaurant, the wily entrepreneur settles into his padded booth to share his story. It’s a good story, if oft told, a story of hard work, opportunity, and rugged iconoclasm.
After college at the University of Maryland, Horton went to work for an office-supply business in Rockville, rose quickly, and turned a marginally profitable company into a successful one. He did it again with another office-supply firm, this one in the District. It was time to start his own business, to enjoy his share of the money he was so skilled at making. He and his wife, Sharon, moved to Aroda, Virginia, in 1977 and, with business partner Joan Bieda, opened Automated Systems in Springfield that same year.
By the mid-1980s, his business had taken off. An unexpected assist sent his sales soaring: One day he met a new client in a Tysons Corner parking lot to deliver three paper shredders, a relatively recent invention. Ordinarily, Horton didn’t make personal deliveries, but he made an exception because the client, a government official, had emphasized that he needed the shredders right away. The recent revelation that John Anthony Walker had been working as a Soviet spy had rendered obsolete the use of “burn bags”—government vernacular for containers holding sensitive documents that, after transfer from one insider to another, were set aflame and destroyed. The official proved his seriousness by showing up with $6,000 cash. From that point on, the CIA would cut Horton a check, but that day Oliver North paid the money himself.
Business was good, so life was good. But Horton’s time in the military had trained him never to be idle, to take nothing for granted, and it wasn’t in his nature to sit around and watch TV. He had a notion that he might grow grapes and make wine, just as his neighbors had done back in Hermann, Missouri. Why not? You wanted wine, you made it. He had always liked figuring things out, and at its most basic, winemaking was problem solving.
He began carting wine books around in the back seat of his Chrysler Cordoba—wine books. Books on climate, on soil, on grapes. The three dozen books scattered across the back seat were a library and an obsession. One book fascinated him. It was on pre-Prohibition grapes, the grapes that had been lost and forgotten. The vanished grapes of a vanished America.
He planted the vines in rows in front of his house in Aroda—the first things he saw when he left the house, the first things he saw when he returned home. He tended them with care and devotion. It was like making a bed with tight, military corners, something he’d had drilled into him in the Air Force. You’re gonna do a thing, you’re gonna do it right.
With the book as his guide, he focused on native varieties, including Concord and Niagara. He couldn’t resist planting Cabernet Sauvignon, but he noticed one day that after an inch of rain the previous night, the chemical levels of the grape fluctuated wildly while the Cabernet Franc he’d planted nearby held steady. The soil, the climate, it wasn’t too hard to see, were made for certain grapes.
There’s an old joke in the wine world: Wanna make a small fortune in wine? Start with a big fortune. He didn’t have a big fortune. But Ollie North and the guys at the CIA had made him very comfortable. Here’s to nothing, Dennis Horton thought, and in 1989 he leased a patch of land in Orange, Virginia, an hour-and-a-quarter drive southeast of Springfield. Horton Vineyards became the state’s 40th vineyard.
It was an ideal location, an easy drive from the office park, allowing him to shuttle between both businesses. Historically, it was even more ideal. His vineyard lay 20 minutes north of Charlottesville, 20 minutes from where America’s first oenophile, Thomas Jefferson, had dreamed of creating a homegrown viticulture that would one day rival that of France and Italy. The project failed, but it wasn’t for want of effort. For 50 years, through his time as Secretary of State, as Vice President, and as President, Jefferson was consumed with the task of producing a good, drinkable wine made from native grapes, urging on his countrymen in letters and pronouncements and even going so far as to import vignerons from Europe himself and to plant a wide variety of European grapes at Monticello.
Jefferson died unfulfilled in 1826, just as a native grape was beginning to gain acclaim, a strange hybrid produced half on purpose and half by accident by a physician living in Richmond named Daniel Norborne Norton.
The great man Jefferson had failed, while the nobody Norton had succeeded, a fact no history book or wine text had ever properly acknowledged. And now the nobody Horton was going to resurrect the nobody Norton’s wine and redeem the doctor’s name.
Like so many early Americans, Dr. Daniel Norton had been caught up in the frenzy of discovery of his new country, a rush to identify and classify the rich bounty all around him, the fascinating species of fruits and vegetables and plants and trees. The possibility of creating new ones was more captivating still, and he had embarked on a number of projects at Virginia’s Magnolia Farm when he first arrived, newly married and eager to make his name in the world.
In the science of medicine, he was a professional; as a horticulturist, he was an amateur. As with many other amateurs of the 19th century, his lack of training didn’t lead to insecurity and doubt; on the contrary, it released him from conventional wisdom and compelled him to find his own answers. He immersed himself in books, horticultural manuals, botanical studies, educating himself. He planted a wide variety of grapes, native and foreign, and an array of other fruits and vegetables, nurturing the land with ardor and attention.
Some of these grapes he grew for eating. Others he experimented on. They were his guinea pigs, assigned the role of testing the ideas and theories he was reading about. One of his ambitions involved crossbreeding varieties to produce a hardy, disease-resistant grape that would make a drinkable wine.
Grape cultivation is difficult, laborious, and not always rewarding work, dependent on weather, soil conditions, insects, and diseases. It’s not for the easily dissuaded or those who don’t possess an abiding connection with the natural world, who can’t live with and among its mysteries.
Crossing varieties was an ambitious undertaking for an amateur, and his success was so improbable—a strange and unlikely amalgamation of fate, chance, intuition, and risk—that for nearly two centuries Norton’s story has been called into doubt by some wine historians and horticulturists. Complicating matters is the fact that the doctor didn’t leave behind a daily or weekly chronicle of his activities.
What do we know? We know that as he made his rounds in the garden one day, probably in 1822, he discovered to his surprise that among all the innumerable darts he had thrown at his target, one of them had stuck. A low-lying cluster of grapes, with small, thick-skinned orbs that were blue-black in color, caught his eye. Drawing his fingers through the cluster, examining the shape of the leaves—broad, flopping, three-pointed—he would have been able to see that it was not a variety of European grape, what horticulturists have termed Vitis vinifera. But neither would it have resembled the native varieties he had seen, called Aestivalis and which he himself had planted.
These new grapes would have impressed him at once with their promise. For one thing, they were healthy and strong—no small accomplishment, because so many vinifera vines were unable to survive for long in Virginia. And they lacked the foxiness dogging every native grape he’d tried. They were sweet, juicy, flavorful. And they were small. Small grapes usually make better wine.
What happened next isn’t entirely known. But the doctor was sufficiently intrigued by the grape to extend the experiment, planting cuttings of it in the hope of producing enough clusters to make wine. He likely would have pulled those clusters of grapes from his wild vine and pressed them, producing a dark juice that he bottled and stashed in his cellar, to begin the process of fermentation, the great transformation from a sweet, grapey liquid into a refined drink.
Bottling the liquid wasn’t a pronouncement of faith; it was simply taking a supposition to its logical conclusion. When, months later, he eased the cork out and poured the inky fluid into a glass, he would have had no reason to be optimistic about the output of his oddball grape, no reason to think he had produced something other than an astringent grape juice. But not only was this wine drinkable; it was good. The native character came through but didn’t predominate.
Norton’s knowledge of wines, coupled with his scientific inclination toward detachment, surely mitigated against unbridled enthusiasm about the prospects of his new grape. What’s more, it wasn’t possible to divine the real worth of such a crudely extracted liquid. And yet he couldn’t help but be encouraged. Rough-hewn though it was, the wine seemed to possess some of the potential for the power and depth of a Bordeaux. And the fact that it was pleasant on the tongue, let alone promising, was significant.
He didn’t yet know that with this act of creation he had succeeded in doing what nobody had done in more than 200 years of trying, not the colonizers at Jamestown, not Jefferson: produce a wine on native grounds that wouldn’t succumb to disease and that was, above all, worth drinking. He didn’t yet know he had cracked the code.
If there had never been wine, or the promise of wine, there might never have been a fleet of ships dropping anchor in Jamestown in 1607.
The English Crown was motivated by something more than the discovery of territory heretofore unknown to the white man. It was motivated by profit.
The monarchy had begun to tire of the monopoly the Iberian governments held over the wine trade. Elizabeth I had resumed relations with the French by the end of the 16th century, but the queen chafed at the high tariffs her neighbors to the south imposed on wine. Wine held great importance to the British. It wasn’t a luxury, a beverage of leisurely contemplation, to the colonizers or the English who sent them. No fermented or distilled beverages were. Water was a dubious proposition; epidemics of dysentery were the bane of cities, towns, and villages in Europe and America until well past the mid-19th century. Whiskey and ale and port could get you drunk, but they possessed a benefit, too, inoculating drinkers to a degree from the ravages of cholera and dysentery. The English drank, on average, 40 gallons of alcohol a year. Drink was a preservative and, because of this, a valuable commodity.
The members of Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1584 North American expedition glimpsed the future site of the Roanoke colony—now North Carolina—with its grapes growing in wild profusion. To the English Crown, this territory represented an opportunity, holding out the promise of a self-sustaining source for wine that would liberate Britain from the grip of its adversaries, while also giving it an opportunity to extend the empire.
Company records note that Virginia “yeeldeth naturally great store” of grapevines “and of sundry sorts, which by culture will be brought to excellent perfection.”
By 1618, the colonists had all but exhausted their available winemaking options. They had experimented with growing native grapes, including the Muscadine and the Catawba, but to little avail. Any number of theories were trotted out to justify the failure of the colonists to produce the wine that had been expected of them. The climate was poor. The soil wasn’t good. They hadn’t been outfitted with the proper equipment. And deer—there were deer everywhere in the new colony, munching the product of the colonists’ backbreaking labors.
The problem with native grapes was that they were a poor match for winemaking. The problem with European grapes was that they were a poor match for American soil and climate. The vines were ill suited to the heat and humidity of Virginia and unable to adapt to the diseases and pests that preyed on them. The mistakes were repeated over and over for nearly two centuries.
Now, however, thanks to this obscure doctor-farmer, this nobody Norton, a new day had dawned in American viticulture. Not another grape in a long line of would-be saviors, but the grape.
In 1830, William Robert Prince published A Treatise on the Vine, the most important book to date in America on wine culture and a volume years in the making. Eight years earlier, Dr. Norton had been favored with a brief notice of his new discovery in Prince’s catalog. Here now came validation of the grape’s worth. Introducing the doctor’s hybrid as Vitis Nortoni, a Latinate construction that conferred on the grape the mantle of the official and acknowledged him as its progenitor, Prince wrote: “This very distinct variety owes its origin to Doctor D.N. Norton of Virginia, whose assiduity and devoted attention to the culture of the vine for a period of years place him among the distinguished connoisseurs of the subject.”
Prince speculated that the grape was the child of the Bland and either a Meunier or Miller’s Burgundy, and went on to note its characteristics: its strong, vigorous vines; its ability to weather winters of the East; its tendency to thrive in profusion. The grapes, he said, “do not contain a great quantity of juice, but what they yield is of the richest quality; the skin is replete with a violet coloured matter, which imparts to the wine a shade equal to the Tinto Madeira, which last it resembles as well in taste as in appearance.”
He concluded by quoting from Norton’s own words about the grape: “For the purpose of making wine, this is hardly to be excelled by any foreign variety.”
Norton’s seedling spread west across the foothills of Appalachia to Ohio, to Missouri, to Arkansas. His seedling had gone forth and multiplied, and its future as the foundation of American wine seemed assured. By the end of the Civil War, the Norton had become the darling of Missouri’s vineyards, producing internationally acclaimed wines and giving rise to the famed Weinstrasse, or Wine Road, the hundred thriving wineries that had cropped up west of St. Louis—the Napa Valley of the 19th century.
Dr. Norton’s own prospects weren’t so certain. As 1841 crossed into 1842, his health had deteriorated, and in mid-January he succumbed to a bout of dysentery. He died not long after.
Dennis Horton’s connection with Norton was more than that of one outsider with another. Horton had grown up in the heart of the Weinstrasse, which by the time he came of age in the 1950s was a moribund destination in the aftermath of Prohibition—a ghost road. His parents made homemade wine, as did many of their friends and neighbors. Wine wasn’t just something to be sipped on special occasions. It was ritual. It was cultural. Even more important, it was part of his inheritance—the Norton, the native grape that nobody outside his hometown of Hermann, Missouri, seemed to know about. The more he read about the Norton, and the more he thought about it, the more he realized it was a part of the country’s inheritance, too.
Bruce Zoecklein, head of oenology and grape chemistry at Virginia Tech, was intrigued by the Norton’s promise but not yet convinced of its long-term commercial potential. Zoecklein had been convening winemakers for roundtables and seminars since 1985, trying to help them make better, more consistent, more expressive wine. He wasn’t opposed to the Norton. He thought it had great potential: Not only was it ideally suited to Virginia’s climate, but the wine it could produce was distinctive and sometimes worthy. “The aged varieties of Norton,” he says, “can be quite alluring.”
But aging meant waiting, and waiting for a wine to fulfill its potential wasn’t something most new winery owners could afford. Nor was the Norton particularly easy, being hard to start and offering generally lower yields than other grapes. And why make a wine nobody was likely to buy? It was hard enough to get people in the state interested in wine. But to get them interested in a challenging wine like the Norton? No one in Virginia was growing it, so no one was buying or drinking it. The fact was no one had heard of it, not even wine writers or critics. Seventy years after Prohibition, the grape had vanished.
“Grapes,” Horton says, “are kinda like men. The preamble says all men are created equal, and we know that’s horse shit. Not all grapes are created equal.” Trying to grow vinifera grapes in the terroir of Virginia, he knew, was disastrous. “God can’t grow Pinot Noir in the state of Virginia. He’d give up and go back to Jerusalem.”
But didn’t winemakers know their history? How could they have overlooked the Norton’s potential? The pioneering insights of the doctor-farmer might as well have been fossilized remains of a vanished civilization.
“The thing of it is,” Horton says, “you’ve got a grape that originated here—a strong, disease-resistant grape, a good grape that went all the way from here to Cincinnati and then from there to Missouri, producing good wine and winning all kinds of awards—and you’re not gonna plant it here?”
Here was the problem: finding it. Federal agents, on orders, had swept the state and ripped out the Norton vines along with every other winemaking variety that had flourished in Virginia in the 1920s. It was possible that the Feds, despite their zeal to expunge every last living wine-producing vine from the state, hadn’t gotten everything, that there were some strays growing in the wild somewhere, but Horton had gone looking and looking and hadn’t found a thing.
“Not a stick,” he says. “Not a one.”
The Norton had migrated west from Virginia to Missouri. Horton rang up Jon Held at Stone Hill Winery in Missouri in the fall of 1988 and asked for a shipment of vines. He buried the roots in the soil that spring, eight acres’ worth of Norton—the first planting of the grape in Virginia since Repeal.
Then he waited. It takes a cutting of vines three years from the time it’s planted to flower. It was a long time to think—too long. Had he known then that the grape’s capacity to endure is perhaps its greatest trait in the soil—“this thing’ll grow through asphalt”—he might not have been so anxious. How to explain this anxiety? If he failed, who would know? Who would care? What would it matter if a grape that no one remembered or cared enough about to keep alive failed in the field? But he had come to believe that he was a go-between who kept the past alive in the present, and if he failed, then something of the past was going to die out.
The Norton lived. It grew. And grew. There was something to this terroir business after all.
It wasn’t simply that the grape was well suited to the soil and climate. The grape was meant to be here. Was bred to be here. He had effected a homecoming. He had returned it to its roots, and it had rewarded him with blooming growth. In three years, he celebrated his first grape harvest in Orange, and a year later his first vintage. The Horton Norton. It hit the shelves in 1992.
With the regenerated grape as its centerpiece, the vineyard became a kind of experimental laboratory for varieties that nobody had dared to try in Virginia. In 1993, Horton released his first Viognier, a sweet, fruity, and voluptuous white wine made from a European grape—one of the rare instances of Vitis vinifera able to grow and thrive in Virginia. The following year Robert Parker, the respected and feared wine critic, awarded Horton’s second vintage of Viognier a score of 91 out of 100. In Virginia, the wine was little understood—many of Horton’s customers referred to it as “Vog-ner,” which Horton with slyness informed them was the “German pronunciation”—but the vintage was a success, wowing winemakers at a California blind tasting and winning awards.
Recounting the travails of the first-time winery owner, Horton speaks in tones of biting irony: “Year one: Write a lot of checks, zero revenue. Year two: Write a lot of checks, zero revenue. Year three: Write a lot of checks, zero revenue. Year four: You can make some wine and, if you’re lucky, generate a little revenue. But nothing to cover the costs of year four. And probably not year five, either. Year six: Now, if all goes right, you’re just starting to cover expenses.”
But already, because of these two wines, Horton had developed a reputation as a maverick, a man bucking trends and the Fates. Which only made him the latest incarnation of the man who would put Virginia wine on the map. In this role, he saw that it wasn’t enough just to grow grapes and make wine: “With the Norton, and with these other grapes, you don’t just have to sell the wine. You have to sell the grape, too.”
Restoring the native grape was a cause, and a cause demanded a champion. He would have to get out there and stump on behalf of his beliefs.
This article is adapted from The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine, published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, a division of Random House. Click here to order a copy of the book.