Meanwhile, Horton is visibly frustrated with his fellow Virginia grape-growers, whom he believes wrongly concentrate on chardonnay (though he makes a credible one himself) and cabernet sauvignon. These may be popular with local customers, he says, but they can't generally compete nationally in their quality/price ratio. ''I'm a little disappointed that there aren't more surfers getting on the wave,'' he adds—that is, focusing on niche wines they can excel at.
Horton's annual production of almost 35,000 cases proves his success in marketing and distributing his wines outside the Old Dominion itself. California is Horton's biggest non-Virginia customer, and his wines have been served in some of the country's best restaurants, among them Jean Georges and Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, Rubicon in San Francisco, and Lucques in Los Angeles.
Horton has been compared with the exuberantly multivarietal California winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, one of the first of the ''Rhône Rangers'' (so named for their fondness for grape varieties such as syrah and viognier, grown in France's Rhône Valley). ''At least they have the Rhône Rangers out there,'' he says, lighting up another cigar. ''Here, I'm the Lone Ranger.''
Dennis Horton is without doubt the most colorful of the new breed of Virginia winery owners. But among the fifty or so commercial facilities scattered throughout all regions of the state, there are a few others who produce delicious wines—even if their interests in national markets and exotic grapes are more limited. Less than two miles from Horton, for example, adjacent to the ruins of a mansion Thomas Jefferson designed in the early 1800s for statesman James Barbour, is Barboursville Vineyards—founded in 1976 by one of Italy's largest wine producers, Zonin. Its extensive line includes a good pinot grigio and a succulent malvasia-based dessert wine called Malvaxia Riserva. And just around the hillside from Monticello, where Jefferson's Italian friend Filippo Mazzei tried in vain to grow vinifera 226 years ago, is Jefferson Vineyards, which makes nice cabernets, both sauvignon and franc.
There are also two Tidewater wineries of note: Williamsburg Winery, with very good chardonnays and bordeaux-style blends, and Ingleside Plantation Vineyards, near Fredericksburg, which makes a convincing sparkling wine. And if you follow the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains north from the red clay country where Dennis Horton dwells, you come to the heart of Virginia's chardonnay territory: Here, one of the state's new crop of wineries, Piedmont Vineyards, in the horse country surrounding Middleburg, makes excellent chardonnay under the direction of John Fitter. (It received an influx of capital when it was purchased in early 1998 by Baron Gerhard von Finck of Germany.)
But the one winery that gives Horton a run for its money—and that, in fact, surpasses Horton in consistency over a full range of varietals—is Linden Vineyards, perched like a small, pristine jewel on a wooded hillside east of Front Royal. Winemaker and owner Jim Law creates wines that are unfailingly elegant, complex, and flavorful. Law believes in ripe fruit and in not heavily oaking his wines. The Linden whites—a riesling-vidal blend, several sauvignon blancs, and a seyval blanc—are all lean and intense, with delicate fruit. Law's cabernets, sauvignon and franc, are reminiscent of those made in California's Alexander Valley, with moderated fruit and good tannins. Law's next steps are to experiment more with Virginia oak barrels (most of the state's wineries use French or midwestern American wood), to make vineyard-designated wines, and to blend the petit verdot he has recently planted into the cabernets ''to provide complexity down the middle''.
In the end, Thomas Jefferson was right. It did take centuries—just over two, as it happens—for vineyardists and winemakers to learn how to make good wines from European grapes planted in Virginia soil. But now they seem to be on the right track, and they're producing wines of a variety and quality not even our First Connoisseur could have anticipated.