Sage of Monticello Smiling at Virginia’s Wine Ascendancy

By Posted on Mar 16 2012 | By

                                                                                                                  Book Review

Beyond Jefferson’s Vines

The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia

By Richard G. Leahy
Sterling, 230 pages, $19.95

In 1809, Thomas Jefferson, contemplating the future of making wine from Vinifera grapes wrote his friend John Adlum, stating, “I think it will be well to push the culture of that grape (Alexander) without losing time and effort in search of foreign vines, which it will take centuries to adapt to our soil and climate.”

Jefferson’s observation was prescient. It would be two centuries into the future before Vitis vinifera grapes would prosper in abundance in the Old Dominion.

Today, some 230 wineries are operating throughout the state with over 80% of the vines being Vinifera; a species that produces 99% of the world’s wine. Mr. Jefferson would be pleased.

Science, coupled with perseverance, has produced a vibrant wine culture in Virginia that is on the cusp of national and international recognition. It couldn’t be timelier then to have a book appear that explores the Commonwealth’s vinous achievements and showcases the men and women who are the driving force behind the revolution.

Author Richard Leahy, who interestingly enough, lives near Monticello, has created a career as a wine educator and promotional maven. His writing centers on the Virginia and East Coast wine industries. His Wine Report chronicles his writings and travels.

Beyond Jefferson’s Vines takes the reader on a tour of selected Virginia wineries, spending time with owners and winemakers to better assess how the state has catapulted itself into the top five wine producing states in the Nation.

The journey begins with a thumbnail sketch of the state’s wine history centered on a visit by the Circle of Wine Writers, a predominately British group of journalists and lecturers, who travelled to Virginia in 2010 to experience first hand its winemaking and wines. The scene is set next to the re-planted vineyard at Monticello; an appropriate venue for the beginning of a leisurely tour of all the major wine regions in the state.

The excursion itself starts with a visit to the eponymous RdV Vineyards in Delaplane, owned an operated by Rutger de Vink, a talented and committed vintner producing Bordeaux reds that have garnered surprising critical acclaim for his first two vintages.

de Vink has raised more than a few eyebrows among the state’s winemakers for his flash-like leap to prominence. Reputations in the industry are generally hard-earned and there are some who question the accolades being extended to the creative artisan. Nonetheless, he earned his bona fides as an apprentice to noted winemaker Jim Law and has established a following of wine lovers eager to see if time will confirm his initial impressive bottlings.

Jim Law, Dennis Horton, and Luca Paschina receive early on attention given the out-sized roles they’ve played in Virginia. These are men who will be chronicled in the future as major contributors to the industry-wide advancement of what grapes to grow and how to craft the best wines.

It’s not widely known that Jefferson worked tirelessly for thirty years trying to produce a palatable wine but without success. Thus, it’s intriguing to learn the owner of Phillip Carter Winery, Philip Strother, discovered through diligent research that Charles Carter successfully made wines in the mid-eighteenth century—nine years before Jefferson planted his first vines.

In 1763, Carter shipped a dozen bottles of wine to England from grapes grown in his vineyard.  He earned a gold medal for his efforts. It is the first recorded history of successful wine grape production in Virginia using European vines.

The reader is then guided on a fascinating tour of the state’s wine regions, including; the Tidewater, Northern, Central, Southern, Blue Ridge Highlands and Shenandoah Valley appellations. Along the way, personalities—known and new—are profiled, offering perspectives on career backgrounds and wine philosophies of a broad and diverse group of owners and winemakers. Only a select number of businesses are highlighted given the sizeable number of wineries in the state but it produces a rich tapestry of the industry as a whole.

A transition device used between visits is driving directions leading to the next winery on the tour, creating a useful guide book within the larger work itself.

The role the state government has played in building the industry is explored in a separate chapter. One learns that Governor Robert McDonnell signed into law last year a bill requiring the portion of the wine liter tax collected from the sale of wine produced by farm wineries be deposited in a Virginia Wine Promotion Fund. These revenues now total $1.35 million annually; double the previous amount and further advancing efforts to promote the industry’s growth.

Moving beyond the winery journeys and government support, Leahy pays respect to the small but increasing cadre of wine women in the Commonwealth. From legends such as the internationally known viticulturist Lucie Morton to Christine Lezzi, a regional wine distribution executive, to winemakers and vineyard managers such as Jeanette Smith, Kirsty Harmon, Amy Steers, Debra Vascik and Emily Hodson Pelton; fascinating women all who are contributing to the state’s repute.

Richard Leahy

Leahy also focuses his attention on how the national wine media is increasingly noting the accomplishments occurring within the state. For years, positive reviews were hard to come by but today as proprietors and winemakers set the bar higher the media is taking note.

Closing out the book, the phenomenon of exporting Virginia wine overseas is examined. The nascent but growing overseas distribution of Virginia wine by entrepreneur Christopher Parker and his company, New Horizon Wines, has almost single-handedly raised the profile of the state’s wine in Great Britain.  Overseas acclaim and acceptance is emblematic of the broader recognition unfolding stateside.

Beyond Jefferson’s Vines is a valued addition to current genre of wine writing. It’s clean, straight forward prose and broad scope assures its use as both a who’s who of  Virginia wine and a ready reference for readers who will be drawn back to its informative content often.



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