Book Review: Virginia Wine

By Posted on Jul 18 2018 | By

Virginia Wine
Four Centuries of Change
Andrew A. Painter
George Mason University Press

Virginia’s history is the heart of the Nation’s history.

Beginning with the first permanent English settlement in Jamestown in 1607, it went on to become the birthplace of eight presidents, endure more Civil War battles than any state, create one of the most effective state governments and be blessed with extraordinary beauty.

Proud to be Virginian is no idle boast.

So it’s fitting the history of wine in America began in the Old Dominion. Today it’s the fifth largest wine producing state in the Nation. It’s also fitting the definitive history of the state’s industry has been penned by one of its native sons, Andrew A. Painter.

Painter is a land use attorney and partner in a Leesburg law firm. A graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of Richmond School of Law, he was raised by Virginia wine loving parents and spent many summers working as a farmhand in Fairfax County and spending time with his grandparents in rural Amelia County. His bona fides are self-evident.

To state a book is the definitive work on a given subject courts reservations. But consider the author read hundreds of books on the subject, interviewed dozens of experts and winery owners, spent countless hours on library research, visited over 200 wineries and devoted 10 years in writing the book.

The 436-page treatise includes 74 photographs, many of the state’s early legends, and has a bibliography of 1,021 research notes. Methodical comes to mind when one considers the work and passion required in producing such work.

And while ‘scholarly’ aptly describes the book it is immensely readable. Painter’s style is conversational and educational; particularly his description of the early personalities that launched the modem era of the state’s viniculture success.

Chapter and Verse
The book is divided into four parts: the nascent birth of the state’s wine story from 1572 to 1800; its struggles from 1800 to 1967; emergence of a viable industry from 1967 to 1990; and the success of the modern era from 1990 to present.

Each section deftly builds on previous chapters and in totality provides a vivid description of an industry of fits and starts now enjoying the fruits of its hard-earned success.

Chapter one opens with a fascinating tale of a band of seven Jesuits who established a small mission near present-day Jamestown in 1570. On a subsequent resupply of the mission one Jesuit wrote, “We made landfall in the Bay of the Mother of God, and in this port we found a very beautiful vineyard, as well laid out and ordered as the vineyards of Spain.”

Who knew? Historians now believe the grape growing was the work of an Algonquian community and offers proof of a grape culture nurtured by Native Americans.

The long and arduous path to successful wine cultivation by the English commenced shortly after Jamestown was founded. However, while native grapes grew in profusion, the wine it produced was unpalatable.

Every early attempt to grow the European grape species known at Vitis vinifera—the species that produces 99 percent of the world’s wine—resulted in failure; a pattern that largely repeated itself until the 1960s. Weather and a hostile insect environment simply proved insurmountable until science was brought to bear during the modern era.

Nonetheless, it’s startlingly to read how numerous attempts to create a Virginia wine industry for 200 years ultimately resulted in repeated failures. The effort had a ‘search for the Northwest passage’ aura; an idea so compelling previous failures did not dissuade future generations in trying to achieve a breakthrough.

Chapter two continues with the search for the Holy Grail and describes little known tales of marginal successes that ended badly and thwarting hopeful vintners. The era did see the cultivation of new native and American hybrid grapes. Most notedly was the effort of Dr. Daniel Norton from Richmond who produced a pleasing red wine by cross-pollinating clusters from two types of grapes.

Wine historian Thomas Pinney described the grape as the “best of all native hybrids for the making of red wine.” Some 170 years later it caught full traction when Dennis Horton, owner of Horton Vineyards, created his now famous “Horton’s Norton”.

The Civil War devasted the Nation and along with it whatever embryonic wine industry was emerging in the 1850s. By the 1870s, however, wine was again being produced throughout the Commonwealth but was of medium-to-low quality. It would set the stage for consumer tastes in the first half of the 20th century.

One of the hopeful entrants during this period was the Monticello Wine Company. The company entered its golden age in the 1890s, producing 68,000 gallons wine annually. The industry itself was producing 461,000 gallons a year. But with the onset of the prohibition movement the company failed in 1915 and the other players weaken and faded.

The “Drys” ultimately prevailed with passage of Prohibition in 1919 and the Nation’s wine industry came to a halt.

After Prohibition was repealed wine was not considered the libation of choice for much of the population. Low grade and sweet wines were often consumed by the few who chose to imbibe wine.

Chapter three is perhaps the most fascinating section of the book because some of today’s wine drinkers will recall the early successes that led to a revolution in wine drinking. Concurrent with California’s growing interest in high quality wines Virginia soon followed suit.

Many of the pivotal Virginia leaders of the new culture are showcased here but two early standouts are Charles J. Raney and Robert de Treville Lawrence. Raney secured the first Virginia winery permit and opened his winery in 1975 called “Farfelu”, meaning eccentric or crazy in Old French.

Lawrence was a one-man marketing machine who for over two decades espoused the joy and viability of Virginia wine and organized the Vinifera Wine Growers Association in 1973.

With prescient of a sage he told Time magazine in 1977, “The key to quality is vinifera. There is no other way to make good wine. Other wines are hamburger wines.”

The chapter goes on at length sharing one fascinating story after another about the pioneers who broke the back of cheap sweet wine and turned Virginia into a powerhouse of quality vivifera.

The fourth chapter spans from 1990 to the present and is accurately titled “End of the Beginning.” Exploring continued industry growing pains, it covers subjects diverse as the Direct Shipping controversy, emerging wine regions, home winemaking, growth of festivals, successful business deals (and ones gone sour) and real estate deals of noted magnitude.

As one sets the finished book aside, it’s with awe and respect that an individual could devote one-fifth of his life to such a notable subject. Painter’s commitment to produce the seminal work on Virginia wine is a gift to all wine lovers.


Published in the Summer 2018 issue of Dine, Wine & Stein magazine.


Categories : WINE ARTICLES