A Bit Complex

Andrew Painter on uncorking Virginia’s wine history

Published in 2019 Virginia Super Lawyers Magazine

It started with a celebration: Andrew Painter had just gotten his master’s in urban planning at UVA and, along with some classmates, was visiting wineries near Charlottesville, Virginia.

“That was my first formal introduction to the wineries of Virginia,” he says. “When I got to law school, I started taking my friends. And then [in 2008], when I moved to northern Virginia, I said to myself, ‘I should write down these itineraries. I should do a wine tour book.’”

The plan was to preface the guide with a 20-page history of Virginia’s wine industry. Painter thought there wouldn’t be much to cover, but it kept growing and growing until the preface became the book: Virginia Wine: Four Centuries of Change.

There were only a handful of books published about Virginia wine when Painter started, but there was a great deal of history to uncover. He used the bibliographies from those books as a starting place for sources, and utilized Google Books keyword searches. 

“I wanted this to be the academic standard for the wine industry in Virginia,” Painter says. “I wanted to make sure that the next person that comes down the line could trace back every source to this one document.”

The 500-page book is divided into four chapters that cover 1572 to today. Painter’s favorite chapter to research was the second, which covers Prohibition. “Coming out of Prohibition, the entire wine industry was basically wrecked. All their vineyards had been torn up,” he says. “We all drank beer and liquor. The wines—you need decades to produce them.” 

The third chapter covers 1967 to 1990, which Painter dubs the “rebirth of the industry.” The pioneering of Virginia’s current wine culture is due to grapes planted in the ’70s, “and a large part of the revolution was led by women,” Painter says.

“The last chapter is everything since 1990, which is when the industry goes into overdrive,” he adds. “The number of wineries grew from about 40 in 1990 to 300 today.” 

Painter says there are approximately 80 types of grapes grown in Virginia. Chardonnays and Cabernet Francs are the state’s “workhouse” wines, and the Viognier grape has become the signature white grape of the state. For reds, it’s the Petit Verdot—a spicy varietal.

He loves writing and telling stories, but the hardest part of putting the book together for Painter was finding the time. “In the last decade, I’ve become a partner in my law firm, I’ve gotten married, I’ve bought my house, we had three kids,” he says. “Being able to find that balance was a real challenge.”

Another thorn was finding a publisher, as it was Painter’s dream to have the book published by an academic press. “I don’t care how many books I sell—I just wanted the stamp of approval behind an academic institution,” he says. “Amazingly, former Gov. Gerald Baliles set me up with George Mason University, and they use the University of Virginia Press for distribution. I had one professor at UVA remark to me how incredible it was that someone who’s not in academia was able to get a big book published by an academic publishing house. I was really proud of that.”

For all Painter learned, though, there’s one area in which he’s like most of us. 

“We were out at a French restaurant one time with some friends, and they said, ‘I’m going to let you choose the wine.’ I said, ‘I don’t know!’ And they said, ‘What do you mean, you don’t know? You literally wrote the book about it.’

“I really don’t know all that much about wine,” he admits with a laugh. “I know what happened to produce it.”

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