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.
The county is a swift hour's ride from the District. But don't be fooled by the low mileage; this is real how-now-brown-cow country, with the ripe scent of Bessie in the air and long grasses swaying in the wind. The five wineries are as down-to-earth as their farming neighbors. In other words, you won't be belittled if you don't know your sweet from your dry, your buttery notes from your citrus overtones.
"Wine has always been about the where, the soil," said Carol Wilson, who owns Elk Run Vineyards in Mount Airy with her husband, Fred, and another partner, Neill Bassford. "Unlike breweries, we are farmers."
The Elk Run folks are also rapturous drinkers -- hey, ever hear of quality control? When my friend Kelly and I walked into the large, bright tasting room after a spin through the 24-acre vineyard (including an outdoor barrel storage area, a fermentation room hidden behind a lipstick-red church door and a treehouse), Bassford was standing behind the counter, cradling a glass of white wine. The jocular 60-year-old was sipping his morning chardonnay, Liberty Tavern 2005, which he jokingly described as being "good for breakfast." Pairs well with cornflakes? I wondered.
With a bowl of Cheez-Its at the ready, we sampled a pinot noir (Elk Run is the only vineyard in the state growing and producing this wine), a 2006 Gewurtztraminer and a port that didn't make me drop to the floor. (I am usually leveled flat by port.) We finished with a 1999 sparkling wine topped with Sweet Katherine, a sweet after-dinner wine. The three owners poured for five, generously filling our oh-so-proper glasses. With three more wineries to visit, Kelly and I celebrated with prudence. But the crew drank with delight, toasting the good fortune of having bubbly grown in their own yard.
* * *
Of Frederick County's five wineries, four are surrounded by classic viticulture landscape: tidy rows of vines with hardly a tendril out of place, a nearby weathered barn barely hinting at the wine flowing within. It's Napa Valley downscaled. Frederick Cellars is the anomaly. The winery is urban, or as urban as tranquil Frederick can get.
Emily Williams and her husband, Charlie Daneri, bought the winery last July from Catoctin Vineyards and opened in November. The grapes are grown in Middletown and Annapolis but are made into wine at the Frederick site, which sits near antiques and art stores, restaurants and rumbling traffic. Currently, only three of its wines are local from start to finish. But that didn't seem to bother visitor Rene Montserrat of Rockville, who walked away with four bottles after commenting: "That's good. That's local?"
Before visitors sample the wares, Williams implores them to tour the facility, which is attached to the art-gallery-style tasting room and retail store. The tour lasts no more than five minutes, and you need only to crane your neck to take in the whole operation. White pieces of paper with black type are taped onto each piece of equipment; a large posterboard with colored Magic Marker lettering explains the four winemaking steps. One of the more interesting attractions is the bottling machine, which resembles an entry for a 1950s science fair. The machine fills the bottles with red or white wine, then sticks the cork in and slaps on a label. No fingers are stained in the process.
To watch the machine in motion, check the cellar's Web site, which posts upcoming bottling sessions. (One is scheduled for late June.) The other wineries also have public viewings of their operations: Loew's grape-crushing machine operates out front during harvest time (August through October), and Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Dickerson has a mobile bottling station in its parking lot.
"We're not hiding out in the back making wine," said Carl DiManno, Sugarloaf's California-trained winemaker. "We are out front and center."
As are the owners, who seem more comfortable playing the role of host than businessman.
Half an hour before Berrywine Plantations/Linganore Winecellars of Mount Airy closed for the day, I bumped into owner Lucille Aellen by the spouting Bacchus fountain. Inside the renovated red barn, the family's matriarch pointed out photographs lining the hallway, including a black-and-white picture of her German-Swiss father, who gave his daughter her very first wine press. Her 47-year-old son, Anthony, the winemaker, showed us around the pastoral 230-acre property, but Lucille returned midway through the tasting with a bowl of strawberries. The berries were to be eaten with the May wine, but unfortunately she came two dessert wines too late.
While Anthony poured wine after wine -- 13, until we screamed "last call" -- Lucille chirped in with recipes (mix raspberry wine into brownie batter), kitchen tips (use frozen grapes instead of ice to chill your wine) and commentary richer than anything to come out of Martha Stewart's mouth.
"Before you start housekeeping, put a glass in every room and a bottle of Mountain White in your pocket," she said. "When you've had enough of cleaning, pour yourself a glass and kick your legs up on the couch."
Spoken like a woman who was raised on wine made in her family's basement -- and has finally moved upstairs.