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Dennis Horton, founder of Horton Vineyards, died yesterday, June 19, 2018, at his home in Madison County, Virginia.

Dennis was a father, grandfather, husband, entrepreneur, and Virginia wine pioneer.   

Horton got his start in wine in 1983 when he planted a small vineyard at his home in Madison County.  

Recognizing the potential (and challenges) of viticulture in Virginia, Horton, along with his business partner, Joan Bieda, purchased 55 acres of land in Orange County, which would serve as the base for Horton Vineyards. 

From taking financial risks to viticulture experimentation to training the next generation of winegrowers, the pioneering Horton contributed as much to founding the modern Virginia wine industry as anyone.

Dennis’s impact on the Virginia wine industry is immeasurable,” says Annette Boyd, Director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office.

He was the first to plant Viognier vines in Virginia in 1989.  “When we planted the first ten acres of Viognier in Virginia back in 1989, it was estimated there were only 200 producing acres in the world,” recalls Neil Glaser, who has worked at Horton Vineyards since the inception in the early 1990s.

“Figured we had 5% of the entire world market when we made our Viognier in the 1992 vintage.  Turns out there was no market for Viognier at that time. We had to make that market. Those first 300 cases were sold one bottle at a time.”

Horton was also the first winegrower in the Commonwealth to cultivate important varieties like Tannat and Rkatsiteli and was the first in Virginia to bottle a varietal Cabernet Franc for commercial sale.  He brought Norton back to Virginia in 1992 and was one of the early Rhone Rangers, and organization dedicated to promoting American Rhone varietal wines.

“I consider Dennis to be the architect of the current wine industry in Virginia,” noted Alan Kinne via email, who was hired by Dennis in early 1991 as the first winemaker at Horton Vineyards. “It was his vision, along with Sharon’s dedication in the vineyard, that created much of what other wineries now produce.”

His most important contributions to the local wine industry may be knowledge sharing and time spent cultivating the next generation of talented young winemakers.   

“I’m really struggling and not sure where to start,” says Andy Reagan, who first met Horton two decades ago and became winemaker at Horton Vineyards in December 2017.

“Dennis was always so cheerful and helpful and all about making great wines. Swisher Sweets [cigar] and a glass of red, a big laugh and smile.  He did what very few would do at the time. He was instrumental in starting a wine revolution in Virginia.”

I had the pleasure of sharing a few glasses of wine with Dennis in the early days of my wine journey.  I remember him for his unique personality, wit, humor and the viticulture insights he shared.

During one of our conversations he told me that he tore out more vines than most others have ever planted.  Given his trailblazing personality, I believe this to be true!

A celebration of life will be held at Horton Vineyards on July 9 at 4pm.  

Sincerest condolences to the Horton family and winery team.