Mr. Richard Leahy
Former regional editor for Kevin Zraly’s American Wine Guide, former Mid-Atlantic and Southern Editor for the Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America, former East Coast Editor of Vineyard & Winery Management; author of Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, on the evolution of quality wine in Virginia
Mr. Richard Leahy gave an engaging and informative speech to the Society entitled “Beyond Jefferson’s Vines” based on his book of the same title about the growth of quality wines in Virginia. Himself a graduate of the Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences (’91), Mr. Leahy received the Jefferson Society’s Best Debate Award in that year. Mr. Leahy has been writing about wines, in particular Virginia wines, since 1986.
Though Mr. Jefferson is often referred to as the “Father of Virginia Wine,” Mr. Leahy explained that wine making in Virginia began before and continued after Mr. Jefferson to gain international recognition. However, Mr. Jefferson did play a strong historical role in the growth of American wine making operations in the 1700s. He deemed wine “necessary for life,” and was not content to rely on the importation of quality wine, advocating for the potential of American viticulture. 1771 marked the first plantings at Monticello in a painstaking European style vineyard. Despite his attention and research on the matter, and the careful maintenance of the vineyards, Jefferson would never harvest a crop of grapes with which to make wine. In a letter dated 1808, Mr. Jefferson wrote that America had the resources to make as great a variety as the wines of Europe.
Mr. Leahy noted several beneficial aspects of Virginia’s climate and terrain that have helped to overcome primary problems that plague other areas, such as fungal disease and animals feeding on the grapes. He described the ideal climate that Virginia offers for vineyards, far enough north to avoid the worst humidity during the summer and far enough south to avoid the cold winters that limit the varieties of grapes grown in the north. During the question and answer period, Mr. Leahy championed the varietals that had gained popularity in Virginia, such as Petit Verdot, Viognier, and Cabernet Franc. He noted that Virginia currently ranks 6th among states in terms of volume of wine produced, composed of around 200 vineyards occupying 3,000 acres of vines. Vineyards make up a significant portion of Virginia agriculture and the rural economy, and have the potential to support more agricultural growth in the Commonwealth.
Mr. Leahy explained the opportunity that Virginia has to produce “the Old World in the New World” in terms of wine style. He portrayed wines produced in places such as California, New Zealand, and Australia as clean, fruit wines that some critics say lack depth, while so called “Old World” wines, such as those traditionally produced in Europe, are more complex. “Virginia,” he described wine scholars saying, “has the chance to make wine fun again,” referring to the broad growth in wine production in the state. Overall, the talk was an engaging and informative introduction to the history of wine in America, the current wine industry, and the future of viticulture in Virginia.