Virginia Wines 101: Lessons From Richard Leahy

Wine expert Richard Leahy is indeed the go-to guy for anyone who wants to know anything about Virginia wine.  The Charlottesville resident is passionate about wine and in particular, Virginia wine.  His involvement in the industry runs the gamut from wine consultant to wine judge to wine historian, and to wine reporter.  In fact, Richard even has his own backyard vineyard!  Richard also coordinates with Blue Ridge Wine Tours to offer expert tours of wineries on the Monticello Trail.

We asked Richard to provide for us and our readers a brief comparison of Virginia’s AVAs and wine regions, a review of the past several vintages from Virginia, and a few details about his upcoming book about the past, present, and future of the Virginia wine industry.

(Before you read on, a brief definition of AVA, the acronym for American Viticultural Area from Karen McNeil’s The Wine Bible: a ‘delimited grape-growing region distinguished by geographical features, the boundaries of which have been recognized.’)

1. There are six AVAs and 9 wine regions in Virginia. How do the soils and climates compare and contrast in some of these regions?

In the Eastern Shore and Coastal plain there are sandy loam soils, much like Bordeaux without the gravel morain.  West of the fall line (basically Rt. 1/I-95) you’re in the lower piedmont, mainly distinguished from the upper Piedmont from the Southwestern Mountain/Monticello to the Blue Ridge by topography. If you look at a Virginia soils map, it’s a very diverse complex mix in the Piedmont. Soils there are on the acid side of the scale with lots of clay in the central Piedmont but less so in the northern Piedmont.  The Shenandoah Valley is markedly different with limestone-based soils dominating. Drainage is the main quality aspect for soils and wine in Virginia, so the role of topography is important or being located where there are well-drained soils such as Eastern Shore, and the Valley. The Shenandoah Valley is compelling in both limestone-based soils and cooler, drier climate and you can tell wines from that region have a cooler climate character than just over the mountain in Monticello, for example.

The Monticello AVA has the advantage of warmer temperatures and lots of elevation for the vineyards as well as for aeration and water drainage, so that area can produce big reds. However, the lower vigor and better acid retention in the reds from the Northern Piedmont (as well as the noticeably higher acid and fresher character in the whites from there) shows that this region should be recognized with an AVA. You may know that a Middleburg AVA is now pending.

The other AVAs frankly don’t have enough of a track record in the market or with critics to be able to stand out in a blind tasting in a coherent way, as I believe Monticello and Shenandoah. Valley can. As you know politics plays as much of a role in AVAs as anything else. 

2.  Do the different climates/soils, elevations make for varying flavor profiles?  For example, would a viognier or cabernet franc in one Virginia wine region have features that are different from the same varieties grown in another region in the state?

I have noticed that wines from the Eastern Shore are very fresh and clean but light bodied, where wines from the complex soils of the Piedmont have more depth, and the Shenandoah Valley gives both whites and reds a fine minerality. I think my answer above suffices for more.

3. Since Hurricane Isabel struck this area in 2003, Virginia has produced some outstanding vintages due to optimal weather conditions.  If you had to rate some of the past vintages, since 2003, which ones would be at the top of your list?

2005 (B+ but not long-lasting; drink up for most); 2007 was ripe and juicy but low acid, drinking hedonistically well now. Reds with tannic grapes will last up to a decade. 2008; very mixed bag (viogniers pretty much wiped out), some reds are world-class. Meritage blends promising, also norton. 2009: good for high-acid whites, very spotty for reds esp. merlot and cab franc, but this varies widely, and surprisingly cabernet sauvignon the best of the reds. 2010: Very good all around; ripe but balanced whites, and forward, very fruity reds. Tannins and acids a bit low like ’07; a vintage you can glug and enjoy now across the board, but look carefully for tannic based wines for what to lay down. I should say people shouldn’t write off 2011; early-ripening varieties like chardonnay, pinot grigio, riesling, gewurztraminer and pinot noir (!) have been excellent since they came in before the long September rains.

4. Isabel’s younger sister, Irene, paid us all a visit last year just in time for harvest. How have you assessed the 2011 vintage?

It seems to us that the eastern most regions of the state were hit hard by heavy rain and then came the botrytis and sour rot, but the western regions of the state were a bit more fortunate. See above. It was highly variable by location and by ripening cycle of the variety. People should buy carefully but taste widely. Consensus is that due to the heat spike in July/August it will be better (for early-ripening varieties and then sheltered regions) than 2003 and could have good value for smart shoppers.
5. We know that you have a book coming out about Virginia wine.  Can you give us some details about the book?  When will it be released?

The title is Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, because it goes back in time to 17th century Jamestown, and up to the present. Jefferson is often portrayed as a protean figure, bringing European vines, and culture, to the frontier, but in fact he was on a continuum. I reveal some chapters of previously unknown 18th century Virginia wine history, but most of the book is both a travelogue through the Commonwealth visiting individual wineries, and a focus on the various issues of the “evolution of quality wine in Virginia” (the book’s subtitle). These chapters range from “The blessings and challenges of nature” (a more in-depth discussion of soil and climate issues), to the changing perception of Virginia wine by the American wine media (now including bloggers), “Richmond roots for the home team” about the importance of the support of state government and our current administration in particular; and “what the British think of Virginia wine and why it matters.” I also have a profile of two very different Virginia wineries, both new in 2011, and how they illustrate the versatility of Virginia wine today, and what the Virginia wine industry means to whom. The book will be available for purchase in May of this year, and your readers can find details of when I’ll be doing scheduled book signings at Virginia wineries and bookstores by early February by visiting

Yelper Helper

This place was completely terrible…as others mentioned families are relegated to a fenced in “pen.” I get that it is private property, your business, etc. but please mention your lame rules before I drive a mile down your crappy unpaved road.

The whole process felt a little like an assembly line for me, although we did come in with a big group without reservations.

On the plus side, they did squeeze in our group of 14.

Her reasoning was that if she gave me a cup, I might pour my wine in it and give it to some underage minor who would sneak around the corner and drink some.

There were 6 couples plus kids. The owner was unhappy with our kids playing soccer during the picnic in a tiny field next to the parking lot. He was also unhappy we set up a sun cover over a picnic table and several other things.

I lifted these comments from Yelp, the popular online review service that allows customers to rant and rave about any and all establishments that provide goods or services to the public. Disgruntled tasters left these particular comments on Yelp in regard to several Virginia wineries, but rest assured that virtually every Virginia winery has been negatively Yelped at least once. Some Yelpers do keep their comments focused on the wines and their impressions of them; however, others, like the ones presented above, follow a similar pattern and center on poor customer service due to _____(fill in the blank:. Large party of tasters, toddlers on board, Fido gets the boot.) And oh—the wines suck. So there! There is certainly no excuse for poor treatment at a winery, and customers have every right to speak up on the matter. However, I do think that customers owe winery owners, their harried tasting room staffs, and other customers some basic courtesies. Here are my tips to make certain that your winery visits are pleasant ones.

1. Here Comes the Bride: Most wineries consider groups of more than six to be large, and their ability to accommodate large groups can be rather limited especially if the group arrives during peak hours. It therefore makes sense that the winery would appreciate some notice before your large group arrives. The most notorious violators of this common sense rule are the bridal parties. Nothing throws a tasting room staff into a panic more than the sight of the unannounced limo dropping off a bride to be and her tipsy band of bridesmaids at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Yes, some wineries will be more than happy to help you share your special moment and may even provide you and your guests with a private tasting. However, do not expect deluxe treatment if you suddenly pop in as part of an afternoon winery crawl. Therefore, make your plans early and contact the winery well in advance of your trip. Be sure to provide as many details as possible, and have at least an estimate of your party’s size. Will you all be travelling in a limo? If so, the limo or bus may take up too much parking lot space; perhaps special parking arrangements can be made. (A limo or bus might be a great idea since no one in your party needs to worry about drinking and driving.) Therefore, call ahead! I’ll repeat that one more time. Call ahead! The same advice holds true for any large group (party of more than six) that is planning a visit to any Virginia winery. Call ahead! Trust me, this basic courtesy is greatly appreciated by the winery staff.

2. Kids in the car: Remember that wine tasting is really an adult activity, and children cannot be anywhere near the tasting bar. Most Virginia wineries do maintain a kid friendly environment; however, some may prefer to maintain an adults-only atmosphere. Therefore, call ahead to find out. Please be aware, though, that many tasting rooms do have small gift areas with breakable items that may be attractive to curious toddlers. And I cannot tell you how many times we’ve seen little ones at food tables helping themselves to snacks with their own tiny hands while mom and dad are sipping at the bar. Teens on board? Again they cannot be near the tasting bar, and even if your well-mannered teen is somewhere outside waiting for the adults to finish their tasting, I would advise informing the tasting associate that you’ve brought a minor along on the trip. ABC agents do not announce themselves when they visit wineries, and their mission is to be sure that rules are being followed. If they suspect that minors have access to alcohol at the winery, the consequences could be severe for the owner. Keep an eye on the kids, and the tasting staff will be glad that you did!

3. Fido the Wino: Dogs—I love dogs. However, I am not certain that I like dogs at a winery. At one recent winery visit, Paul and I attempted to share wine and conversation at an outdoor table when we were treated to a nearby barking duet between Fido and Fluffy as they sang sweet love songs to each other. Our conversation ended when we could not hear a word we were saying to each other. However, I do understand why some tasters would want to bring their dogs to wineries, because I am sure that even Fluffy would appreciate the mountain views that many Virginia wineries offer. However, rather than risk being told to keep Rover in the car, call ahead to find out if he can come along for the trip. Also, while Rover may be friendly to you, he is still an animal and other customers may not want to find out just how friendly he can be. And there is a liability issue to consider. Fido’s bad day may cost someone a trip to the doctor, but who’s responsible? Does Barney sometimes take a nip? Open wine bottles and bar snacks may not look or taste too appealing to others once he has been allowed a sniff, sip or nibble. (Yes, we’ve seen this happen.) I attended a recent tasting where the owner, despite toothpicks in clear view, grabbed cheese squares with his hand and fed them to his dog as it then voraciously lapped at the tasty morsels. Owner then took his slobber-covered hand and used it to take more cheese squares from the same bowl. (I’m not kidding.) As in tip #2, if indeed you can bring your dog, be mindful of the dog’s (and your own) behavior.

4. Time Is On My Side: Not really. Tasting rooms get really crowded in the afternoon, and you will have to wait for service. Most Virginia wineries and their tasting rooms are small, because most Virginia wineries are small agricultural businesses. In fact, the guy behind the counter who will be pouring your wine may also be the winemaker. The cashier? Probably his wife. So why not hire more help, you ask with your ears steaming? Because wine making is an expensive operation, and the staff that you see behind the counter is probably all that the owner can afford to maintain and still stay in business. In fact, some tasting room associates work for wine in lieu of pay. So know your patience level before making that late afternoon trip to the winery. For example, if you avoid the supermarket at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon because you hate standing in long lines, then do not make a visit to a tasting room at that time either. We hit the trails early in the day for that very reason. And that way, you really can have that intimate chat with the winemaker and ask as many questions as you’d like—just like we do!

5. Stay Focused: Virginia winemakers have a focus—to pour their passions for winemaking into the vineyard and then into a bottle for you to enjoy. Party halls? Kiddie Korners? Dog parks? Probably not part of the vision for most winemakers. Therefore, remember why it is that you want to visit Virginia wineries in the first place—to taste passion in a bottle. Winemaking starts in the vineyard and getting the grapes into the bottle is a difficult, expensive, and time-consuming task. Therefore, do the winemaker a favor and maintain your own focus—on the wine. If your priority is to really just to have a party or to give Rover some exercise, then find wineries that offer those perks. How can you be sure that any particular winery will meet satisfy your own agenda? Plan ahead and call ahead!

6. Respect: This last tip is probably the most important. We’re rather spoiled in this area. Virginia offers outstanding wines while providing tasters with nature’s own spectacular views. Most area wineries will allow you to stay and picnic while appreciating a bottle of favorite wine with your meal. Napa? Bordeaux? The expectation at most wineries in other regions is that you will taste, purchase and leave. In fact, most regulars on the Virginia wine trails may have noticed that more wineries are adopting a “no picnic” rule these days. Why? Stories of facilities being trashed by inconsiderate visitors, guests bringing in outside alcoholic beverages (this is illegal by the way), and other tales of rudeness have become more frequent in our chats with winery staff. Remember, the tasting room that you are visiting is part of the owner’s personal property and in some cases is a room in the house. The vineyard? His/her backyard. So think twice before loading up the van with all of the kids’ favorite toys, your own lawn furniture, and that secret six-pack in case you opt for a brew instead of a chardonnay after the tasting.

So still want to rant on Yelp? Reflect on these tips before you pound the keyboard, and ask yourself how you might react from the other side of the tasting bar. Some planning and preparation as well as a large dose of common courtesy will go a long way to ensure that you, the winery staff, and fellow customers can all have an enjoyable and memorable experience.

Face Lift

As you can see, we’ve had a little bit of a face lift here at Virginia Wine Time. It was time to update the theme and modernize it a bit. We hope you enjoy the new look. What do you think? Was it a good move?

Check Out These Links!

It’s been an interesting week in the Virginia wine world. Dave McIntyre has a very interesting post about a few things. One of the things he writes about is viognier becoming Virginia’s signature grape. Check out the article here.

On top of Dave McIntyre’s piece, Frank Morgan from Drink What You Like has written about this topic as well. There is a huge string of interesting comments with the post. Check out his post here.

The folks over at Virginia Wine In My Pocket are helping make today (Friday the 13th) a little less scary by offering their iPhone/iPad app for only 99¢. That’s a deal! If you don’t already have the app, you might want to get it today. It is only on sale today! You can learn about the app here.

And finally, you might be looking for something to do next weekend. The annual Wine Festival at the Plains is taking place next weekend. We usually attend this event but are unable to this year. Think about going and if you do, let us know how it was. You can check out the event here.

Bloggers Favorites for Virginia Wine Week

Recently Allan from CellarBlog suggested we follow up our top 20 Virginia wine list with another list. To help celebrate Virginia Wine Week it was suggested we post our favorite wineries for different categories. After several emails a bunch of the wine bloggers came up with the following 10 categories. We selected the wineries that we thought best fit each category. This one might be helpful for those looking for a specific kind of winery. Here are our selections. Would you agree? Have different ideas? Share them in the comments.

1. Most Dog Friendly: Barrel Oak Winery
2. Most Family Friendly: Bluemont Vineyard
3. Best Winery to Take a Date: Potomac Point Winery
4. Best Winery to Hear Music: Notaviva Vineyards
5. Best Winery to Bump into Owner/Winemaker: Fabbioli Cellars
6. Best Winery for Someone New to Virginia Wine: Chrysalis Vineyards
7. Best Views: Delaplane Cellars
8. Best Place to Visit With a Big Group: Breaux Vineyards
9. Best je ne sais quoi/indefinable quality that makes it special: Linden Vineyards
10. Best Winery to Laze Away the Afternoon: Gray Ghost Vineyards

Invisible Glassware?

Yes, the wine glasses are virtually invisible thanks to the latest in glassware technology from Ravenscroft. I sampled their invisible cab/Bordeaux glass this past weekend, and I can testify to the invisible-weight nature of this glass. The lead-free crystal glass allows the aficionado to appreciate the wine to the fullest extent possible without the extra weight of lead-burdened glass. Wine lovers who want to know more about this new development in glass technology should visit Ravenscroft.