A Chat with Richard Leahy

By Posted on Apr 21 2012 | By

Author of New Wine Book Muses on Virginia’s Industry 

Richard G. Leahy grew up in a Foreign Service family and was exposed to European wine and food culture at a young age. Being a natural raconteur, he can spellbind a person with tales from his colorful life.

One fascinating story involves a trip on the Orient Express at the age of 15 with a buddy that resulted in both being tossed off the train because of passport issues. The duo then grabbed a series of freight trains and arrived safely at the Black Sea eighteen hours later. 

“I particularly remember that adventure because the next day we had dinner on the Danube. Two teenagers with access to unlimited wine soon turned the repast into a smashing good time. It was an early object lesson in moderation in all things,” he recalls smiling. 

Fortunately, moderation did not inform Leahy’s work ethic and sense of wonder. After recovering from his first wine dinner, he went on to become a world traveler, earning a Masters Degree and doing stints as a hospital administrator, educator, wine steward & judge, wine journalist, home winemaker, and producer of winery trade shows. His latest trade show was the successful Eastern Winery Exposition held March 7 & 8 of this year in Lancaster, PA. 

Recently, I caught up with this Renaissance Man to discuss his latest book, Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia. 

Richard Leahy

So how did the idea for the book come about?
I’d been thinking about a treatise devoted to Virginia wine for sometime. In the 1990s, I was Mid-Atlantic regional editor for the Oxford Companion to Wine and had the honor of working with its author Jancis Robinson. Then last year, Carlo Devito, a noted wine journalist and publisher, asked me to pen a book on Virginia as a follow up to another author’s work on the Finger Lakes region. My desire to write a book was fulfilled with an actual request and the project took shape.

You travelled extensively throughout the state to gather portraits of proprietors and winemakers. How long did it take to write the book?
Negotiations with the publisher extended over several months but when it came time to start writing, I learned I had somewhat over a month to complete the volume. It resulted in a whirlwind tour of the Old Dominion that worked in my favor. I devoted myself full time to travelling and writing. It was fun. I had no time for writer’s block to set in.

Why did you create a travelogue format to tell the Virginia story?
The Commonwealth’s wine industry is diverse in both players and terrior. I felt that by profiling its men, women and vineyards it would best convey to readers what was unfolding here. And I surprised myself with the scope the industry now encompasses; from Northern & Central Virginia, to the Shenandoah Valley, the Eastern Neck and the Southwest. The state’s enterprise covers all points on the map.

At times one hears that Virginia wine is overpriced.  Your thoughts?
I don’t think it’s valid. Look at any artisan producers worldwide and you will see prices commensurate with Virginia. Can the state compete with wineries producing 200,000 cases or more a year? No. The economy of scale simply isn’t there. But our wines are not homogenized either. There is a terroir distinction to Virginia and to bring these unique wines to market in limited quantities requires a substantial investment. I think most buyers recognize the good price to value ratio.

What’s your take on wine tourism?
Tourists are also wine drinkers. When I wrote my book eight months ago, there were about 200 wineries. Today, there are some 230. I believe much of that expansion is fueled by rising quality combined with tourism. Some wineries do not embrace the tourist trade but for many it is a channel to success. Our reputation can grow through a diverse group of travelers who visit, taste and return home with words of praise for what is happening here; each visitor has the potential to be an ambassador for the industry.

How else can Virginia grow its reputation?
The Virginia Wine Board Marketing office is seeking to build market share in the Mid-Atlantic region and I agree with the strategy. I don’t think we can simply leap to the national stage without expanding regionally first. There’s simply not enough wine to make that happen.

Advancing our status through acclaim from regional wine critics and sommeliers in major markets like Washington and New York is important. Also, more vineyards need to be planted to match demand from the increasing number of wineries. I think we should seek new markets on the East Coast first and let national expansion unfold from there. Finally, we shouldn’t under estimate the power of online sales to stoke growth. You don’t have to have product in a shop in Chicago to sell wine there.   

Closing Thoughts?
Thomas Jefferson spent the better part of his life unsuccessfully trying to advance the cause of wine consumption in the United States. Today, his dream is being fulfilled. We are now the largest wine consuming Nation on earth and Millennials—folks under 30 years of age—are fueling much of that expansion.

The future for Virginia wine and other emerging domestic wine markets couldn’t be better. It’s an exciting time to chronicle the Old Dominion’s success. Perhaps I should start thinking now about a sequel to the book. It’s fascinating to contemplate where the industry will be in another decade.

Beyond Jefferson's Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia

Categories : WINE ARTICLES