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posted: 12/21/2012 6:00 AM

Book tells the tale of Napa Valley's rise

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By Dave McIntyre
The Washington Post

With the holidays approaching, it's time to sift through this year's harvest of wine books.

The story of Napa Valley is in large part the story of Robert Mondavi, and his story would not be such a spellbinder without Margrit, his second wife. They helped galvanize Napa Valley's rise into the wine and culture destination it is today.

"Margrit Mondavi's Sketchbook: Reflections on Wine, Food, Art, Family, Romance, and Life," by Margrit Biever Mondavi with Janet Fletcher (Robert Mondavi Winery, $35), is an engaging memoir by the "First Lady of American Wine." Fletcher captures Margrit Mondavi's voice, wit and attention to detail, supplementing the story with interviews of other Napa Valley notables.

The changes in the U.S. food scene are evident in the Swiss-born Mondavi's account of her first meal here, served by friends in New York just after she arrived from war-ravaged Europe with her first husband, a U.S. Army officer, in the late 1940s.

"It was Jell-O with celery and marshmallows; and ham with raisins and sugar; and sweet potatoes and Langendorf bread with salted butter," she recalls. "Oh, and iceberg lettuce with bottled pink dressing that looked like toothpaste."

Two decades later, working as public relations director at the Robert Mondavi Winery, she caught her boss's eye by offering to roast a chicken instead of serving guests tired cold cuts from the local grocery store. And the rest is Napa Valley history.

Fans of Virginia and Maryland wines have two books to help put history and personality in context for their next winery visits. In "Maryland Wine: A Full-Bodied History" (History Press, $20), Regina McCarthy chronicles the rise of winemaking in the Free State, including a discussion of how that nickname reflected Maryland's opposition to Prohibition. We meet Philip Wagner, who founded Boordy Vineyards and championed the use of French-American hybrid grape varieties on the East Coast, and Rob Deford, who is transforming today's Boordy into a viticultural powerhouse. We also meet Hamilton Mowbray, who pioneered Maryland's use of European vinifera grapes and, on one frosty October morning in 1974, made the first true ice wine in the United States.

McCarthy, formerly with the Maryland Wineries Association, is conscientious in describing the rapid growth of the state's wine industry since the turn of the millennium. As a result, she downplays the significant impact Black Ankle Vineyards had in igniting Maryland's dramatic improvement in quality. But she has excellent perspective on the industry's struggle to receive legislative respect in Annapolis. While Maryland may have resisted enforcing the Volstead Act during Prohibition, until recently its legislature has been less friendly to wine.

Across the Potomac, Richard G. Leahy tackles the more complex rise of Virginia's wine industry in "Beyond Jefferson's Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia." (Sterling, $20. Disclosure: I wrote the foreword.) Leahy has an encyclopedic knowledge of winemaking along the East Coast, and he uses it to add perspective.

Some Virginia wineries concentrate on making the best possible wine, while others are entertainment venues. Leahy sees a role for both and begins with contrasting profiles of Rutger de Vink at RdV Vineyards and his emphasis on producing a world-class wine, and Dean Andrews of Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyards, who wants to transform a spectacular mountain site into an events venue and culinary destination. There are chapters on the women who helped shape Virginia's wine industry, and on how Virginia wines have slowly gained national media attention.

Leahy could have pruned some details. (The R-value of the insulation in the Pippin Hill tasting room?) At times the book reads like a trip planner, with driving directions between wineries. But it is an engaging discussion of a wine community that is beginning to achieve its potential, by an ardent and knowledgeable champion.

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