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.