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Lucie Morton, a vineyard expert worth her salt

Lucie Morton inspects the ripening crop during a visit to Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, a former cattle farm that now is the only vineyard in Montgomery County.
Lucie Morton inspects the ripening crop during a visit to Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, a former cattle farm that now is the only vineyard in Montgomery County. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)

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"We asked Lucie to plant her dream vineyard, so we gave her the opportunity to plant what she thought was the best possible," said Rachel Martin, executive vice president of Boxwood Winery. Morton recommended Bordeaux grape varieties: merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec, with a variety of French clones to provide complexity.

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If you were to visit Morton's clients, you might notice something unusual about their vineyards: The vines are much closer together than is typical in the mid-Atlantic region. She is a leading advocate of close spacing, or high-density planting. Most vineyards in the region are planted at a density of 600 to 800 vines per acre, which is thought to help with air flow and to fight humidity. A Mortonian vineyard is likely to have 1,600 to 2,000 vines per acre; the premise is that it helps promote even ripening by reducing the amount of fruit per vine. The practice is controversial, however, primarily because of its expense.

Five years ago, Rob Deford, manager of his family's Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Md., sought to improve the quality of his vineyards in Baltimore and Frederick counties, so he called Morton. She took along a bottle of wine from one of her local clients with high-density vineyards, and Deford was hooked.

"It was a 'Road to Damascus' moment," Deford recalls. (Vineyard consultants, like wine, can inspire religious devotion.) He decided to replant all 40 acres of his holdings, at a cost of at least $15,000 per acre, not including lost production.

"The first thing she makes you do is be patient, and that drives you nuts," Deford says of the process. "You pull out vines and stare at an empty field for a year." After another year of planting, and then plowing, a cover crop, new vines can finally be put in.

Later this year, Boordy will rip up the last of its old vineyards, which were planted at 500 to 800 vines per acre. Last month, Deford harvested the first grapes from his new plantings of 1,600 vines per acre.

"They taste fantastic!" he says.

McIntyre can be reached at food@washpost.com.


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