Beyond Jefferson’s Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia
Reviewer: Neal D. Hulkower I got carsick reading a significant portion of this book but it wasn’t because I was doing so in a moving vehicle. Here is an example of why: “Leaving Tarara on Rt. 658 and continuing northwest, you’ll intersect Rt. 15 again. Turn right onto Rt. 15 and make sure to put on your left turn signal and turn left on Rt. 672 before you find yourself suddenly going over the Potomac River into Maryland. At the intersection of Rt. 287, continue straight, now on Rt. 673, which soon becomes Rt. 690.” (pp. 101–102) Between pages 56 and 163, passages like this mar Leahy’s otherwise honest and useful portrait of the Old Dominion’s mushrooming wine industry. Ironically, while he admires the achievements of Virginia’s vineyard growers and winemakers due in large part to the implementation of modern technology, Leahy himself ignores the advent of online mapping and the Global Positioning System in favor of these turn-by-turn instructions. Does he really expect wine tourists to take the hardback book along, prop it up on the dash and read the directions while behind the wheel? Absurdly, he neglects to include addresses, phone numbers, and websites of the wineries he visited. Instead, almost as an afterthought on the very last page, he points you to his website, www.beyondjeffersonvines.com, for tasting notes. Nevertheless, there is much to recommend in this volume by a well-credentialed resident connoisseur of Virginia wines. In it, we are treated to an overview of four centuries of grape-growing in the commonwealth, a grand tour of wineries and vineyards, a brief discussion of the importance of support from the state government, cameos of several “Virginia Women of the Vine,” and an up-to-date snapshot of the challenges and efforts to gain domestic and worldwide recognition and market share for the industry.
Leahy divides the 400-year history of the commercial wine industry in Virginia, America’s oldest, into 5 phases, each fitting nicely into one century beginning with the seventeenth. In 1619, the Jamestown Assembly passed Acte 12 which required under penalty that each male head of household plant 10 (incorrectly stated as 20 in the book) imported vinifera vines with the intent of supplying wine to Great Britain. When this proved unsuccessful for various reasons, not the least of which was an inhospitable environment, efforts turned to growing tobacco. Experiments with vitis vinifera continued the following century most notably by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and at a farm named Colle. While his efforts failed, it was recently learned that others were fruitful even before Jefferson’s first attempt in 1771. One of the more fascinating tales recounts the discovery of records of the work of Charles Carter whose success was certified by the Royal Governor in 1763. In the nineteenth century, the emphasis was on native and hybrid grapes especially norton, named after Dr. Daniel Norton. As Leahy notes: “It is unclear whether Dr. Norton manually ‘created’ the variety by physically hybridizing it, or whether hybridization was accidental, due to cross-pollination in his garden. . .” (pp. 26–27). To this day, norton remains a popular and versatile alternative to the traditional vinifera grapes, producing a range of styles from rosé to table reds to port-like dessert wines. With a recognized world-class grape that flourished in the Virginia climate, things were looking up. “Unfortunately, just as the promise of quality commercial Virginia viticulture was being realized, Prohibition took hold in 1914.” (p. 27) It wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century that the wine industry began a very slow recovery. Now in the twenty-first century and well into the fifth phase, Old Dominion’s vinous odyssey has taken a sharp turn toward the promised land, a wine industry with serious national and international creds.
Leahy describes visits to dozens of wineries and vineyards in the six American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and other regions in all parts of Virginia. When I was taken off of the virtual road and directed into a tasting room or vineyard, I was treated to insights into the personalities and opinions of the proprietors and varying degrees of detail on the grapes grown and/or the wines produced. During my residence in Alexandria, Virginia from 2004 to 2011, I visited several of the wineries that are mentioned by Leahy. For the most part, his impressions matched mine. For example, I was quite taken by Linden Vineyards which I visited twice leaving each time with a mixed case of truly impressive bottlings of Bordeaux blends and seyval blanc, a hybrid varietal that has been a guilty pleasure of mine. On the other hand, Leahy is too kind to even briefly mention Naked Mountain Winery & Vineyards which I consider a genuine blemish. Perhaps its inclusion is due to it having “one of the best slogans in the business: Drink Naked!” (p. 86) I’ll demur.
Leahy points out that experimentation to determine the most suitable grape varietals for the various Virginia terroirs continues. Several of the winemakers quoted in the book cite viognier as Virginia’s signature grape. I certainly found the examples I’ve tasted to be noteworthy. I have also been impressed with some of the chardonnay, the varietal with the most acreage. Cabernet franc and petit verdot are also mentioned as producing very successful wines, an observation that once again matches my personal experience. Nebiollo also does surprisingly well in selected sites. As a transplant to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, I found it amusing to read that pinot noir is produced by some wineries.
Stylistically, the wines of Virginia produced from vinifera grapes occupy the middle ground between those from Europe and those from California but lean more toward the former. Because of exceedingly inconsistent and occasionally inhos- pitable weather, fruit and alcohol tend to be much more restrained than in what comes from the west coast. Leahy quotes Rutger de Vink, founder of RdV Vineyards: “We’re ripe but not as ripe as California; we’re kind of between Napa and Bordeaux. . .” (p. 8) Virginia viogniers compare more favorably with those from the Rhône than with those from Paso Robles. The cabernet franc based wines are reminiscent of those from the Loire.
Any of the half dozen women in Virginia’s wine industry introduced in the book would make delightful company over a glass of the local product. Lucie Morton, “a Virginia native with an international reputation as a viticulturist, vineyard consultant, and researcher” (p. 169) is in the spotlight first and gets the most ink. We also meet three winemakers, a regional sales manager, and a vineyard manager. Leahy notes “that despite a lopsided gender balance, women can and do make valuable contributions to [the Virginia wine industry]” (p. 169).
Being personally involved in turning national and international attention to Virginia wines, Leahy is particularly well-qualified to write a book on the industry in the state. But the book he did produce suffers from a number of problems in addition to the one I opened this review with. Unfortunate ordering of chapters resulted in unnecessary repetition of material. Poor editing suggests a rush to print. Three uninspiring black and white photographs alternate as illustrations above chapter headings failing to do justice to the beauty of Virginia’s vineyards. Especially irritating is the index. While its four three-column pages appear impressive, the listing is woefully incomplete. For example, Middleburg, recently named Virginia’s seventh AVA, is not included nor is the historically significant Acte 12. At least one important fact in the five pages of additional information at the end of the book is out of date; the total economic impact of the wine and grape industry in the commonwealth is listed as $362 million per year (no year given), which is less than half of the $747 million in 2010 documented in a study commissioned by the Virginia Wine Board. Old Dominion’s rapidly maturing wine industry is arguably the most exciting and potentially the most influential east of the Rockies. It certainly merits better treatment, perhaps along the lines of Cole Danehower’s Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest.
Like the commonwealth’s wine industry it describes, Beyond Jefferson’s Vines has both glaring flaws but more than enough compensating virtues to fill the need for an authoritative reference adequately for the moment. One can only hope, however, that like the best winemakers we meet in his chapters, Leahy will learn from his mistakes and produce a much improved edition in a not too distant vintage.
Neal D. Hulkower