Imagine Thomas Jefferson—never a totally willing politician—alone in his room in Philadelphia or Annapolis, eagerly writing out orders for more cases of white hermitage or frontignan to be shipped from his beloved France. Then imagine him at home in Monticello, in the hills of northwestern Virginia, trying to cultivate cuttings from the noble vines of Europe—and failing, time after time, until finally he admits defeat, writing in a letter to a friend in 1809 that he is unwilling to expend any more ''time & efforts in the search of foreign vines, which it will take centuries to adapt to our soil & climate.''
Just off his tractor and smoking a small, sweet-smelling cigar, Dennis Horton rummages for a wine thief—a glass pipe used to siphon samples out of barrels—in the cellar of the winery he owns with his partner, Joan Bieda, near Gordonsville, about 20 miles north of Monticello. Horton, a Missouri-born entrepreneur (he cofounded the high-tech Automated Systems, Inc., in Springfield, Virginia) who only recently came to viticulture (and who bears little resemblance to Jefferson in style or appearance—he has curly dark hair and twinkling eyes behind dark-rimmed glasses), operates his Horton Vineyards down in the rolling plains just beneath Jefferson's mountain.Yet Horton and a half-dozen or so other Virginia winemakers, mostly here in the state's Piedmont region, are overcoming the problems inherent in winemaking in the mid-Atlantic states—such as sweltering summers and frigid, windswept winters—and making superior wines that Jefferson himself would have gladly savored.
To Horton, it's just a matter of finding the right grapes. ''If my claim to fame is anything,'' he says with a sly grin, ''it's probably that I've ripped up more vines than most people have put in.'' Last year, for instance, he gave up on syrah—a grape he had high hopes for when I talked with him in the mid-1990s—after losing a large number of his syrah vines each year to winter kill. In their place he has been planting pinotage, a South African cross between pinot noir and cinsaut (a Rhône wine variety). Not long ago, he tore out his zinfandel and pinot meunier, too.
But Horton has had his successes. His best white wine, year after year, is viognier. It is earthier and fuller than the viognier produced increasingly by California vintners, yet it has the same haunting, floral aroma of peaches and lichee nuts. Horton's best red, on the other hand, is a dark, rich, complex proprietary blend called Dionysus—a mixture of Portugal's touriga nacional and tinta cão, grapes even the Californians have yet to catch onto for table wines.
Along with his failures and his award-winners, Horton also produces a variety of pleasant, sometimes very good wines from such grapes as marsanne, mourvèdre, and an American cultivar, of the species aestivalis, called norton (the wine is inevitably labeled Horton Norton). In a foggy plot in front of the winery, he has also recently planted rkatsiteli, an Eastern European grape for use in ''something I said I wouldn't do—champagne''. And it's too early yet to judge how the six varieties of Spanish grapes he has in the ground will show once they bear fruit. ''The idea isn't to try to be different,'' he explains, ''but I am more of a viticulturist than a winemaker.''
Horton does employ a winemaker—Virginia-trained Graham Bell—but it is evident, as he draws samples from the rows of barrels in his cellar, that he is keenly interested in that part of operations as well. He talks excitedly of the potential for his inky nebbiolo, then tells me to keep a dollop of maturing 1997 touriga nacional in my glass while he fetches a thief full of tinta cão from the same vintage to mix in. He points out what each adds to the blend as I swirl the two together: The touriga provides tannin, structure, and a brambly flavor, and the tinta, ''a full, aromatic component''.