I was looking through some old desk references and I dusted off a twenty-year-old edition of Oz Clark’s The Essential Wine Book (Clark 1996), which had been fully revised and updated. At the time, Robert Parker referred to it as “the best introductory text to wine.” California was covered in sixteen pages, which was more than the rest of the United States. Fair enough, but wait a minute! Clark devoted two pages to the entire east coast. Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia were lumped together in a single paragraph. From my admittedly limited perspective, that made the book a little less than essential.
I take solace in the fact that we have come a long way since 1996. So let’s fast forward twenty years and take a look at a the 2nd Edition of Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible, which I will point out was also completely revised and updated. Covered in eight pages, Virginia gets roughly the same treatment as Oregon, which is as it should be. California dwarfs the rest of the United States in page count, but that is also true of its wine production. So purely based on a page metric, I am satisfied with MacNeil’s treatment of Virginia.
On its face, I admit that it is absurd to evaluate a book based solely on pages devoted to the state I blog about. Nevertheless, I see a direct correlation between increased page count and the unprecedented evolution of Virginia wine during that same twenty year period. The Commonwealth has come of age and that is reflected in its treatment not only in The Wine Bible, but in other publications like The World Atlas of Wine (Johnson & Robinson 2013) and American Wine (Robinson & Murphy 2013). So the point is that as Virginia grew in total wine production and the quality of that product, the state gained street cred and that was subsequently reflected in the treatment in all the books I just mentioned. I will say, however, that the similarities between MacNeil’s work and those other desk references ends there.
The Wine Bible has a feel that is less utilitarian than the standard reference book. The pages are broken up by easily digestible text boxes and upon closer examination, the entire work is really a series of short, but detailed and informative articles. It is almost possible to approach MacNeil’s offering as a lengthy magazine or book of short stories. The Virginia section contains writeups on Thomas Jefferson, the state of the industry and even an article about Virginia ham. The book is quite compelling in its design and it is unique in the sense that it might just as easily be placed on one’s nightstand as within arm’s reach of one's desk. I don’t think any other book of this type can make such a claim.
Unfortunately, a common feature of wine books attempting to be comprehensive is the fact that they cannot possibly provide great detail or exhaustive examples. I often scratch my head as I peruse the list of “wineries of note” outlined in such books. I always wonder how on earth the author selected his or her particular list or more accurately perhaps, who advised them? MacNeil’s 2nd Edition lists a few such wineries and I will say that I agree with every example she provides. Like every compendium that attempts to cover Virginia, however, all of the wineries listed (with the exception of Chateau Morrisette in this case) are located on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge. I do wish authors would take a look on the other side of the mountains. The Shenandoah Valley produces superb wines and has more potential than any other Virginia AVA. Perhaps MacNeil will look a little further west in her 3rd Edition. Now I will admit, if this is my only criticism (and it is), MacNeil has done a superb job.
I struggled with the idea of approaching MacNeil’s work strictly through a Virginia lens. My blog, of course, is about Virginia. So a broader approach really made no sense. I may get around to a full review for another publication, but I feel that recommending this book, based on its treatment of a topic for which I am intimately familiar, is a pretty strong endorsement. If you are looking for a book on wine that is informative and entertaining, The Wine Bible is a great read. More importantly, it gives fair treatment to Virginia in the context of the entire world of wine.
Advocating for under-appreciated wine regions in the Eastern United States