Beyond Jefferson's Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia | Book Review / by Brian Yost

Beyond Jefferson's Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia, by Richard G. Leahy. New York: Sterling Epicure (2012).

With increasing frequency Virginia wine country is gaining attention from the press and Virginia wines are winning gold in both national and international competitions. Deservedly, accolades and recognition are being heaped on Virginia wine. In Beyond Jefferson's Vines, Richard Leahy guides his reader through the Commonwealth's 400-year trajectory from failure to excellence. Based on its title, one might assume that this book is simply a history of Virginia wine production. Leahy, who earned a Master's Degree in History from University of Virginia, is certainly qualified to deliver such a historical account, but he does not stop there. Leahy uses a brief history of viticultural failure and success to provide context for the rise of fine-wine production in the Commonwealth and then moves on to explore the current state of the industry and postulates a vision of where we're headed. Leahy's book also introduces the reader to many of the key players in the industry. As if that's not enough, Beyond Jefferson's Vines might also be described as a guidebook to Virginia wineries.

The history of viticulture in Virginia involves many early failures. Thomas Jefferson, despite his confidence in the future of the region's wine production, never successfully produced a single vintage. Those who followed experimented extensively with hybrids and from these efforts came the Norton, which is widely grown today. Leahy deftly guides the reader through the details of the early attempts and brings us to the current age when success is finally realized with vinifera (traditional European varietals). Indeed, grapes like Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are recognized as ideal for the mid-Atlantic growing conditions and Viognier is now the official state grape.

Leahy also takes us for a ride through the wine regions of the state, describing the various routes and key landmarks along the way. It reminds me of the river guides I used when paddling the rivers and streams of Virginia. Instead of descriptions of put ins, take outs and the location and classification of rapids along each paddling course, Leahy describes various routes, points of interest and the merits or unique features of each winery. During a conversation with the author, he admitted that this was part of his intent. He hoped that the book might serve as a supplement to the Virginia Winery Guide, aid in locating the various vineyards and provide assistance in making informed decisions about which wineries to visit.

As Leahy takes his reader on a tour of Virginia wineries, he never strays far from his central theme. At each stop he explores the questions, what does it take to succeed as a winemaker in Virginia and what is required to make world-class wine? Winery owners and winemakers throughout the state weigh in and provide insights. Varietals suited to Virginia growing conditions are one common theme. Dennis Horton of Horton Vineyards in Central Virginia indicates that he's pulled up as many vines as he's planted. These are still relatively early times for Virginia wine production and experimentation continues to be important.

A general lament among winery owners is that despite the continued increase in quality, national and international recognition are slow to follow. It's necessary to cultivate an educated public. Even in the state, Virginia wineries only have five percent of the market. Local wine drinkers view the wineries as a quaint weekend destination. This perception needs to change, if Virginia is going to compete on a global level. Some successful wineries, like Barboursville Vineyards and Barrel Oak Winery recognize the importance of social media and have embraced the blogging community in order to cultivate a local audience. One very positive sign that Virginia wineries are approaching a tipping point is the increase in wine tourism. So with persistent effort and more market-savvy business models, it is just a matter of time before the wine-drinking public becomes aware of Virginia wine.

Another positive indicator of the looming success of viticulture in the Commonwealth is that winemakers from all over the world are flocking to Virginia. This represents a lot of new experience and an accumulation of wine knowledge, which is having dramatic effects on wine production. The bottom line is this; Virginia wines are growing in quality and will continue to compete successfully against better-established wine regions.

Leahy did not write Beyond Jefferson's Vines solely for industry insiders. His book is approachable for the average reader. No special knowledge of wine or wine terminology is necessary. I use my copy as a reference when writing about Virginia wine, but this book can certainly serve as a field guide to anyone exploring Virginia wine country. It is the only book of its type and a must read for anyone desiring to learn more about Virginia wines.