It's a crisp Sunday afternoon, and the view beyond the barn at Boordy Vineyards is bright with autumn colors. Rob Deford, the winery's owner, cranks the handle of a vintage crusher and white grapes emerge, their skins broken and stems removed. He jokes about what it would be like to make the winery's annual 90,000 gallons of wine with this antiquated equipment. But, of course, he doesn't have to—behind him loom almost three dozen stainless steel tanks, the largest with a capacity of 12,000 gallons.
On the other side of the barn, visitors browse among craft booths—here each Sunday in October—or stand at the tasting counters, swishing and sipping tiny portions of wine. Others sit at picnic tables, grazing on food they've brought along, accompanied by Boordy wine.
While it's easy to spot the colorful labels of the winery's sweet and fruity offerings—wines that Deford calls "just for fun"—there are plenty of bottles bearing labels that speak of more refined contents: the Landmark Chardonnay, made of grapes from five different clones and fermented in separate barrels before being blended and packaged as part of the vineyard's high-end line; the lush Vidal Blanc, made from a French hybrid vine smuggled into Maryland decades ago, or the Landmark Reserve, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Merlot from Boordy's South Mountain Vineyard in Burkittsville.
There are currently 36 operating wineries in Maryland, up from about 10 a decade ago. Boordy, the oldest, has been around since 1945, and has been owned by Deford's family since 1980.
Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, says the growth of Maryland wine parallels its popularity throughout the United States. "In the last 15 years, we've gone from little or no interest in wines to the average person having knowledge we once would have attributed to a wine expert," he says. Expectations are high, and the wineries that stay in business in Maryland face an increasing challenge to meet them.
In the past five years, several new wineries have leapt to the foreground, creating sophisticated wines from grapes grown in Maryland soil. While these newcomers are putting the state on the winemaking map, they are also fulfilling a promise staked out long ago. Deford points out that vineyards like Montbray Wine Cellars and Byrd Winery produced exceptional wines in the 1970s—though they ceased operations when their owners retired. "Those wines were somewhat anomalous," says Deford, "but they proved it could be done." He calls Maryland wine "a work in progress."
And the new wave of award-winning wineries, says Atticks, "are on track to create some of the best wine in the world, and make it right here."
We'd like you to meet four of Maryland's wine families.
Black Ankle Vineyards
Ed Boyce figures that he and his wife Sarah O'Herron logged about 10,000 miles driving around Maryland and Virginia looking for bad farmland. "We were really fussy. We were looking for weak soil," says Boyce, paraphrasing a European adage that "if the great vineyards in the world weren't the most valuable farmland, they'd be the least valuable farmland."
The two had never made a drop of wine in their lives, but they'd done their homework. They met at corporate consultants Kaiser Associates (Boyce was managing director; O'Herron was a vice president), where they advised companies on "best practices," which involved, in Boyce's words, "going all the way back to the beginning, and examining every assumption along the way to see if it's right." When they left that world to make wine, the couple heeded their own advice.
Boyce and O'Herron finally settled on 146 acres in Mt. Airy, land that had formerly been leased to an alfalfa and soy farmer, who confirmed that the soil was hardly fertile. But one element, drainage, was excellent, thanks to the flaky shale beneath its layer of topsoil. The couple bought the land in 2002 and planted Syrah and five Bordeaux reds the following year.
In 2008, Black Ankle released its 2006 vintage and immediately won Maryland's coveted Governor's Cup for its appropriately named Crumbling Rock blend. "It sort of blew us away," says Boyce. "We thought, 'Wow, this is as good as anything we ever expected to make.'" The 2007 vintage was recently awarded the 2009 Governor's Cup.
The secret? Winemakers in the United States, says Boyce, tend to look to California for inspiration and instruction in viticulture. "We decided to look East," specifically regions in France and Spain, where the topography more closely resembles that in Maryland. Boyce says his vineyard is more densely planted than any in the state. In Bordeaux, Black Ankle's 2,000 vines per acre would be considered low, he says.
"If you plant grapes in really fertile soil, you get a huge grapevine with lots of leaves, but not much fruit," says Boyce. "Keep them a little stressed, and they put all their energy into their children."
While they have five children (four under the age of 10), Boyce and O'Herron seem anything but overwhelmed. They live in Silver Spring to be close to in-laws who pitch in with child care, but work the farm, raising beef, chickens, and vegetables. A year ago, they completed construction of a building for tasting and sales that is a model of sustainable construction with a green roof and "earth plaster" walls from the farm's soil, reinforced by straw.
Their wine was chosen as the only Maryland representative last year at Slow Food Nation, a four-day gathering in San Francisco to celebrate regional and sustainable food.
Black Ankle—named for the road leading into the farm, which presumably can leave your ankles crusted in mud during rainy spells—will make about 3,500 cases this year. Some will be filled with the recently harvested Leaf Stone Syrah, a wine the owners have high hopes for. It's already claimed a runner-up award in the 2009 Governor's Cup as well as best in class at the Atlantic Seaboard Wine competition. "In my opinion," says O'Herron, "it's pretty good."
Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard
The moment of inspiration may resonate for fans of Sideways, the buddy movie about two friends who sample wine through Napa in anticipation of one character's looming nuptials. In this case, brothers-in-law Mike McGarry and Jim McKenna were in California in 2002 to attend the wedding of their nephew.
McGarry and McKenna are married to "the O'Donoghue girls," Carol and Lois, who had, with their two brothers, Dan and Phil, inherited a 92-acre farm in Maryland. Nobody wanted to sell the farm, which the elder O'Donoghues had purchased in 1962 as a weekend retreat and where they grew wheat crops and raised black Angus beef.
"We had decided to go to Napa, and we were having some wine," recalls McKenna, a retired Montgomery County Circuit judge. "McGarry [a retired lawyer] said, 'Let's do this. Let's grow wine.' I must have been pretty pliable after my second glass, so I agreed." McKenna is fond of admitting that, in 2002, his "favorite wine was Sam Adams."
They sought advice from their neighbors, Carol and Fred Wilson, who own Elk Run Vineyards in Mt. Airy; had the soil tested to see if it would support grapevines; and were good to go. The next step, says McKenna, was "finding the best vines on the planet." With the help of a consultant, they ordered root stock from California and grafted shoots from Bordeaux.
The first grapes—mostly Bordeaux reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot—were planted in 2004, and the families hired a winemaker, Carl DiManno. The winery currently produces about 4,900 cases per year and has won multiple awards, including two "double gold" medals from the Fingerlakes International Wine Competition in upstate New York—a record among Maryland wineries.
The winery is a hands-on family affair. "We need the resources of all four families," says Kathy O'Donoghue, who works full time as its festival director. Everyone has a role, including McKenna, who is a devoted—and entertaining—tour guide.
While McKenna says he still loves his beer, he beams as he prepares to pour a taste of Circe, a light Bordeaux blend, one of his favorites—not only for the taste, but for its mythical connection to Sugarloaf itself. In some accounts, Comus, the drunken youth, is the love child of the wine god Bacchus and Circe, the enchantress, McKenna tells us. But when the family started the winery on Comus Road, says McKenna, "I asked a lady in town who the road was named after, and she told me it was old Frank Comus, who used to have a farm down here." He adds with a laugh, "We're sticking with the mythology story."
St. Michaels Winery
The way Mark Emon sees it, many nascent winemakers are driven by passion, chasing the singular goal of making a great bottle of wine, no matter the cost. For Emon and his business partners, the decision to start a winery came about a little differently: "It was a way to create a career in a sleepy small town in a gorgeous setting," he says.
That isn't to say the creative impulse was absent. Emon and his wife Lori Cuthbert—who both worked in media (most recently for The Discovery Channel)—were wine enthusiasts, had taken wine courses, and even sought out vineyards when traveling. When the couple moved to St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore five years ago in search of a quiet place to raise a family, Emon says he did research and settled on winemaking as "a really attractive entrepreneurial opportunity."
Emon and Cuthbert discussed the idea with two friends and St. Michaels neighbors (who, as silent partners, help in crucial areas of law and information technology), and the couples started the business.
St. Michaels Winery was established in record time. "We came up with the concept in May, formed an LLC in June, and by September, we were fully licensed," says Emon. The winery—which gets most of its grapes from local commercial vineyards—bottled and sold its first wines in December of that year (2005).
It now has nine full-time and five part-time employees—including Emon— along with a roster of contractors, producing about 10,000 cases a year. (Cuthbert still works for Discovery, but logs plenty of hours designing labels, stocking the retail shop, and working festivals.)
Emon is proud of the Long Splice, a dry white made of a blend of Seyval and Chardonnay grapes. But the real moneymakers are Gollywobblers, a line of sweet wines, that "sell like crazy," Emon says, and help to pay the bills.
When his sales manager gave birth last spring, Mark Emon was reminded of why he and his partners started the winery in the first place. "Along with being a real farmer in touch with the pulse of the planet," says Emon, "you are in touch with the pulse of the people who work for you."
No vineyard better exemplifies the Maryland wine industry than Boordy. In fact, the history of the state's first winery pretty much tells the story of wine here.
It was founded in 1945 by journalist Philip Wagner, whose book American Wines and How to Make Them was published at the tail end of Prohibition. Thanks to the prolific wine writing of its owner, Boordy became internationally known. "The reputation precedes us," says current president Robert Deford III. "For better or for worse."
Deford's father Robert Jr. was a Yale-educated businessman who decided he preferred living on the land. The family raised turkeys until the 1960s and cattle until the mid-1980s, when improved highways and an increasingly industrialized agriculture system brought inexpensive foodstuffs to Maryland from far away. "We faced what every small farmer in the region faced," Deford says.
In 1965, looking at the prospect of giving up farming, the Defords came up with the idea of growing grapes for Boordy, then located in the Baltimore County neighborhood of Riderwood. When it came time for the Wagners to retire, says Rob, his family bought the name and winemaking equipment. The grapes, they already had.
Once the Defords decided to go into the business, Rob headed to the University of California's renowned wine school in Davis. "My goal was to create good wine," he says. The land and climate in Maryland had the required characteristics, he points out, "and when properly managed, will create good wine." Currently, Boordy makes about 38,000 cases of wine a year, and they're sold mostly in Maryland. Rob and his wife Julie are the only family members who work full time for the business, though their 31-year-old son Phineas is working in the vineyards and is apprenticing with the intention of taking over one day.
While Boordy's most popular, moneymaking wines are in the "just for fun" series and may hearken to Boordy's past, the winery offers two other lines for more serious drinkers. The Landmark wines, priced from $14-26, are for "wine adventurers," Deford says, those who are interested in more complex wines. At $9-14 per bottle, the Icons of Maryland line competes with thousands of wines from Australia, California, South America, and Europe.
Boordy is also known for its events—Thursday farmers' market and bands on Saturday nights during the summer, and tours and tastings throughout the year. In fact, because of what some describe as Maryland's "Draconian" laws regarding promotion and distribution of spirits, these events are one of the few ways local wineries can get the word out and build a following.
Atticks of the Maryland Wineries Association predicts big changes in 2010, when proposed legislation could make it easier for winemakers to promote their products.
Does that mean Boordy's family themed events will go away? Not likely. "We've worked hard to get people to our winery," says Deford. As a result of the marketing, he says, sales in restaurants and stores have increased.
But in the long run, "Wine is the undercurrent to everything we do," he says. "You can do all you want to create a destination. You can be as flamboyant or aggressive as you wish. But, in the end, it all comes down to the wine."