The Winegrowers of Horton and Early Mountain Vineyards

By Matt Fitzsimmons

The Winegrowers of Horton and Early Mountain Vineyards

“Great wine is made in the vineyard” is a common cliché in the wine industry. Yet no matter how repetitive this statement seems, that doesn’t make it any less accurate. While winemakers are often the public face for most wineries, the vineyard managers who plant, cultivate and harvest grapes play an equally crucial – if less famous – role.

Winegrowers make a host of decisions long before the grapes are made into wine. What vines make the best sense in the vineyard? On which blocks should they be planted? What sprays should be used to protect against insects and disease? Should the grape clusters hang an extra week for optimal ripening, or should they be picked before rot, bad weather, and pests take their toll? The list seems endless.

This role is underappreciated because most consumers don’t understand how difficult it is to grow wine in Virginia. While California benefits from near-optimal growing conditions, Virginia winegrowers must contend with the occasional late-season frost, high humidity, and the threat of early hurricanes. It’s also a relatively young wine region, still learning what practices and vines work best for its terroir. Katie Henley of Casanel Vineyards once bragged that if you really want to learn how to make wine, come to Virginia, because that’s where the real challenge is.

Fortunately for me, I was able to speak with two experts in the field of viticulture; Sharon Horton of Horton Vineyards, and Maya Hood White of Early Mountain Vineyards. Both shared their opinion on how far Virginia’s viticulture has come and the direction it should go next.

Sharon Horton, winegrower and owner of Horton Vineyards

Sharon Horton knows plenty about viticulture; she’s been growing wine since 1983 when she and her husband Dennis founded Horton Vineyards. Sharon also realizes winemaking is a group effort, which is why when Horton won the Virginia’s Governor’s Cup in 2019 she had her team join her on stage to accept the award.

Horton’s history tells the story of Virginia wine. There were only a handful of wineries in the entire state when they started. But four decades later, Virginia has almost 4,000 acres of vines planted, making it the 8th largest wine producer in the US.

Yet Horton’s impact on Virginia wine isn’t about how much they’ve planted, but rather what they’ve planted. When the Hortons first started, most vineyards were planting popular but fragile vines because that was what the market wanted – despite these grapes often not holding up to Virginia’s climate. Alternatively, many vineyards turned to hybrid grapes that were hardy but lacked the same market appeal. It was Dennis who pioneered a 3rd option.

His solution was to experiment in the vineyard until he discovered what varieties worked best and explored new farming practices to improve their longevity. The Hortons were the first to plant Albariño, Norton, Pinotage and Viognier, some of which now rank among the most widely planted grapes in the state.

Horton and Chrysalis Vineyards were also the first to plant Petit Manseng, which many experts now herald as one of Virginia’s most promising wines. If that wasn’t enough, the Hortons planted Touriga Nacional, Syrah, Malbec, Marsanne, and a host of other grapes rarely seen here, to the point where they manage one of the most diverse groups of vineyards in Virginia.

Although she grew up on a farm, Sharon got into winegrowing the traditional Virginia way… by accident. While she is a trained nurse by profession, operating her vineyard became a full time job once things got rolling.

Q: How did you get involved in viticulture?

A: Although we had a vineyard manager when Dennis and I started, we were having trouble with the vineyard so Dennis asked me to step in. It wasn’t planned! We first started planting in 1983 and went commercial in 1989. I’ve been in the vineyard since almost the very beginning.

Q: What is planted at Horton Vineyards?

A: We have 67 acres and 18 varieties planted in three locations. Except for Norton and Vidal, all are vinifera (European-style grapes). The Mourvèdre and Syrah are struggling, but I love my Touriga and Viognier!

Q: What’s the biggest challenge for winegrowing in Virginia?

A: Weather is the biggest challenge. But also there’s lack of wine education in the state. There are a lot of customers who want wines like what’s made in California, so we have to explain that Virginia is different.

I’ve learned you need to pay attention to your plants and see what they give you. Growing grapes is like raising children – they’re all different!

Maya Hood White, Associate Winemaker and Viticulturist at Early Mountain Vineyard

If Sharon Horton is a pioneer who shaped Virginia wine to what it is today, I expect Maya Hood White of Early Mountain Vineyard (EMV) will raise the bar for Virginia wine in the future.

Maya first came to EMV to assist with the 2014 harvest and joined the team a year later. While her titles include ‘Associate Winemaker” and “Viticulturist”, she actually wears many hats. During our chat she emphasized the collaboration between herself, winemaker Ben Jordan, and vineyard manager Dustin Wade as a single wine growing/wine making team.

Her path to the vineyard was indirect; Maya started in the wine cellar and only gradually worked her way into viticulture. She initially laughed when asked how she got that job, claiming she previously “couldn’t keep a basil plant alive”.

Given Maya now overseas over 50 acres of vines I’m sure that was an exaggeration. That seemed especially true given how excited she was when discussing correct vineyard placement and the introduction of new varieties. Those discussions have been ongoing for decades, but climate change is giving them new importance.

Q: How did you get involved in viticulture?

A: What I love about this industry is everyone ended up here in a less traditional way. I came from Southern California; I never thought I’d stay in Virginia. But Virginia is so interesting and dynamic I ended up staying. Because Virginia is so young we’re like pioneers – always learning.

Q: What is planted at Early Mountain Vineyards?

A: I oversee around 50 acres and about a dozen varieties. We do blend some grapes from separate sites, but I try to keep each vineyard separately bottled, including our vineyard at Quaker Run and the fruit we purchase from Capstone Vineyards (near Linden).

Q: What’s the biggest challenge for winegrowing in Virginia?

A: It all ties back to weather. We’re also looking more closely at the plant material we use, specifically the rootstock and the scion which we use for grafting. It’s primarily the weather but other items which are interconnected, like climate and site.

Global warming is also having an impact. The earlier that people can conceptualize things are changing, the easier it will be to get on top of this now and thoughtfully plan ahead. We’re already looking at what is going to fit us 20 years down the road, including planting grapes like Petit Manseng.

 

Author: Matthew Fitzsimmons is a wine blogger well on his way to visiting every one of Virginia’s nearly 300 wineries. Track his progress on https://winetrailsandwanderlust.com/.

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