A young worker tends a vine at Loew Vineyard in Mt. Airy, Md.
A young worker tends a vine at Loew Vineyard in Mt. Airy, Md.
Kelly Koehler

Vintage Shopping, Close to Home

Tastes like home: Bottles on display in the sales room at Elk Run Vineyards in Mount Airy.
Tastes like home: Bottles on display in the sales room at Elk Run Vineyards in Mount Airy. (By Kelly Koehler)
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

In a small patch of vineyard turning green in the springtime sun, a voice bellowed out, "You arrived just in time to help."

The utterance came from a slight man in a straw hat who was idling on a hulking red tractor encrusted with earth. His hands were covered in thick work gloves, his eyes shielded behind dark sunglasses. I couldn't tell: Was that an order or a joke?

In Maryland wine country, one can never be sure.

Let's be honest: The state is more associated with crabs and beer than wine and cheese. Its winemakers can't compete with the big-time producers on the West Coast, or even the medium-size guys one state to the south. According to 2006 figures from WineAmerica, the national association of American wineries, Maryland churned out fewer gallons of wine (230,163) than New Mexico (535,376) and not much more than Colorado (206,497) or Tennessee (204,607). And don't expect to find any Gallo malls here: Most of the state's operations are small-scale and family-run. Staffs of two to four, plus the neighbor's kid, are common. But that doesn't seem to faze Maryland's ardent wine operators, or dampen their passion.

I met Bill and Lois Loew during a recent weekday tour of Frederick County wineries. Lois was headed to her day job as a psychologist, so she passed me off to Bill, who was trundling around the former cornfield in his tractor. The spry winemaker said that as a child in Austria-Hungary, he used to steal sips of honey wine from his family's winery. He and his wife started their own vineyard in Mount Airy in the 1980s because "the winery smell is still persisting in me; it's an aroma that never goes away."

Indeed, Loew Vineyards smelled sweetly pungent and slightly loamy. Its 36 acres, five of which are planted with grapes, sit on a verdant hilltop that slopes into forest or farmland, depending on where you are standing. Its tasting area is housed in a simple structure that looks more like a storage shed than a wine shop.

But the Loews' winery is more than just a sentimental trinket; it's a business. Hence, the half-serious call for assistance. "We do everything by hand," Lois said as she gave instructions to a neighbor's home-schooled teen, who was helping prune the Reliance grapes. "We've deliberately stayed small."

Yet the Loews, and other Maryland winemakers, might consider beefing up their staff. That is, if the predictions of Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, are correct.

The state has 25 licensed wineries concentrated in four growing regions (Central Maryland's Piedmont Plateau, the Eastern Shore, the Southern Plain and the Western Mountain). Atticks expects at least eight more wineries to be licensed within the year, five of which will be open to visitors. (So far, 20 are.) In addition, five new wineries near Ocean City plan to welcome guests within the next 15 months.

"As you can see," he said, "we are on the verge of amazing growth."

Add to that spurt the Frederick Wine Trail, which debuts this weekend. (The state's other organized route, the Mason-Dixon Wine Trail, links eight wineries, but half are in Pennsylvania.) The Frederick trail, which mixes roller-coaster country roads with fast interstates, extends 30 miles from end to end and wraps around five wineries. A sixth, Black Ankle Vineyards, will join next year.

The trail will supplement Frederick County's established appeal as a weekend destination that can satisfy interests as diverse as antiques hunting-and-gathering (New Market is the "Antiques Capital of Maryland") and mountain climbing (1,282-foot Sugarloaf Mountain in Dickerson). A full day of wine-hopping, shopping and/or sweating easily morphs into a mellow evening on the wraparound porch of the Inn at Buckeystown, a BYOW establishment with eight frilly rooms, followed by a gourmet meal in Frederick's historic district. Or skip dinner and go straight to drinks: The Tasting Room on Market Street serves nearly 150 wines and plans to add an Elk Run Vineyards chardonnay to its beverage menu.

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