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Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2024: Sharon Horton — The Generational Leader the Virginia Wine Industry Needs


By Paul Vigna

Farming grew on Sharon Horton from the time she started helping her father with the row crops and livestock on their Missouri farm in the 1960s. Today, at 77 years old, she’s still spending her days in the field — only now it’s vineyards that she and her late husband, Dennis, began planting almost 35 years ago in Virginia’s Orange County. “I love the outdoors,” she says. “I knew all the tractor work.”

Sharon Horton (Photo courtesy Horton Vineyards)

Early in her career, Horton worked as a nurse for several years, but the patient that eventually needed her care the most was the vineyard, especially after the couple hired a manager who didn’t work out. “[’Dennis] said, ‘You gotta get out there,’” recalls Sharon, a former 4-H member. “So I’ve been out there since we started in 1989.”

Over the ensuing years, Horton Vineyards has served as one of the cornerstones for the Virginia wine industry, particularly with the Viognier grape but also with the full variety of grapes planted on the family’s 67 acres (located northeast of Charlottesville). 

Sharon Horton was a 2022 recipient of the Monteith Trophy, awarded annually by the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association. It recognizes individuals or organizations that have made exceptional contributions to the development and sustainability of the American wine industry. (Photo by RL Johnson, Wine & Country Life)

In March 2022, Horton received the prestigious Monteith Award, on behalf of the family, as recognition of its contributions to the industry. Among the winery’s other awards is taking top honors in the 2019 Virginia Governor’s Cup for its Petit Manseng. That scope of influence and success is just part of the reason Horton has been chosen as one of Wine Industry Advisor’s Most Inspiring People for 2024. Her work ethic is legendary, as is her willingness to share her knowledge — even to those outside the state.

Far Reaching Influence

Bonny Doon Vineyards founder Randall Grahm lauds not only Horton’s “continued fortitude” in keeping up the vineyard work after Dennis died in 2018, but also her kindness “to provide me with planting material — gratis — for my own vineyard in California, which was enormously appreciated.”

Viticulturist Lucie Morton, a Virginia native who was, herself, a Most Inspiring Person in 2021, and whose history with the Hortons goes back decades, says among the attributes that make Sharon Horton so valuable to the industry are her “curiosity, work ethic and willingness to share.” 

“I don’t know very many owners of a vineyard and winery of that size who are still out in their pickup truck, running crews in the vineyard,” Morton adds. ”[Sharon’s] very special in that regard.”

Generational Leadership

Horton Vineyards is run today by three generations of women, with Sharon a fixture in the vineyard. Daughter Shannon works full-time as a quality improvement coordinator for UVA Health Children’s Hospital and then helps at the winery with “whatever we need to keep the company and the legacy together.” Shannon’s daughter, Caitlin, raised in the vineyard, has successfully gravitated to the cellar. That includes producing her own line of wines under the Gears & Lace label.

Sharon Horton (Photo courtesy Horton Vineyards)

Shannon laughs when told her mom indicated she might reduce her workload in 2024. “I’d like to see her try and do that,” she says. “She can’t help it. She’s completely hands-on. She’s not doing this from afar. She’s not off traveling or whatever while everybody else is doing the work.” If the morning plan goes awry — for instance, when a tornado cut a path through the vineyard — “she gets it all fixed by noon and we’re back on track.”

Sharon says being a nurse helped teach her how to get organized every day. “You can’t just show up in the morning and have 15 guys looking at you and say, ‘Hi’ [without a plan. Rather,] it’s ‘Here, jump in a truck. We’re doing this. Get on the tractor. We’re doing this.’” 

Sharing Knowledge

Horton is free with advice, she says, because of the hesitancy she and Dennis encountered from other wineries when they first started. Her education has come from her years of experience in the vineyard and from what viticulturist Tony Wolf and his staff at Virginia Tech passed along.

Morton talked about her own recent efforts to differentiate between the Norton and Cynthiana grapes, and revealed that Horton proactively shared cuttings of both varieties with her and (to further similar efforts) to the University of Missouri.

Joe Fiola, one of the East Coast’s preeminent viticulturalists, says that Horton “has relentlessly pursued premium viticulture and wine production and has unselfishly shared information to help the Virginia and Eastern wine industries.”

Sharon Horton (Photo courtesy Horton Vineyards)

It was left for Shannon to sum up that side of her mom, noting that her “industry knowledge is limitless” but that what sets her apart is her willingness to share. “I don’t know what other owners actually hand out [details of] their spray program. I don’t know what other ones take an afternoon and walk you through the field and say, ‘This is how you grow Norton.’

“A lot of other places or consultants” won’t talk to a new winery seeking guidance. “But mom’s like, ‘If you show up at 12 o’clock, I’m walking the fields. If you want to tag along, great.’”


Paul Vigna

Paul Vigna is a writer and editor in Harrisburg, Pa., who has been covering East Coast wines for 10 years. He was the first winner of the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association’s Birchenall Award in February 2018. You can find him at the Wine Classroom at www.pennlive.com and follow him on Twitter @pierrecarafe



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