Fourteen miles north of the Beltway in the Maryland countryside is a little mock-Tudor winery, Catoctin Vineyards. The fields surrounding it are filled with berry and grape vines, but Catoctin -- which leases only the building -- makes its chardonnay, riesling and cabernet sauvignon from grapes grown in the Catoctin Mountains farther north.
At harvest time, these grapes are trucked to the winery and put through their paces by Bob Lyon, a former biochemist for the U.S. Patent Office. His and Catoctin's story is one of determination, serendipity and just rewards -- but first the wines. They are all good, and well made, but the Catoctin cabernet is exceptional. It indicates that Maryland soil and Maryland climes can produce wine that competes with that from Napa and the Me'doc.
Lyon says, with perfect aplomb, "Maryland will be famous for cabernet. The soils are fantastic, very complex, with lots of schist and other minerals that add to the taste. California cabernets are aromatic and make a big impression on the front of the palate; in Bordeaux, they're always talking about the finish. Well, in Maryland, we've hit the middle."
You heard it here first: the Maryland middle palate. It is well represented by Catoctin's '83 reserve cabernet, a bright wine with a touch of cassis on the nose. In the mouth, the wine does indeed provide a fine cherryish hint of flavor that will surprise and delight doubters. It costs about $12.
Lyon left Washington in 1977 to attend the University of California at Davis. He worked nights and weekends in Napa wineries and, after earning a degree in enology and viticulture, went to work first for Napa's Domaine Chandon and then for Chateau Montelena. Most people would have been satisfied with those august institutions, but Lyon's girlfriend had remained in Washington, and he missed her.
In 1979, he received an offer to be the winemaker at Byrd Vineyard, in Myersville, Md., and he came back. He worked at Byrd for three years. "We grow grapes in the dark here, compared to California," he says. "But I realized that the cool climate in the mountains is good for cabernet."
Meanwhile, he met Ann and Jerry Milne. They, too, had come from California, and in 1975 had planted 15 acres of cabernet, chardonnay and riesling in the Catoctin Mountains -- against the advice of locals, who said the vines wouldn't produce in Maryland. But they did produce -- particularly the cabernet.
In 1983, Lyon left Byrd. Inspired by a good vintage, he and the Milnes formed a partnership, dubbed it Catoctin Vineyards and leased the winery. "We put everything together in two weeks," he says. "One day a truck arrived with our tanks. Behind it was another truck with the press. Behind that was a truck loaded with grapes."
That Catoctin was able to make a good wine under such conditions is amazing. Lyon does some rough filtration before putting the cabernet into French oak for about two years. The wine is lightly fined and filtered again before bottling but still has lots of character. He says: "I want to make wine people drink."
Lyon and his girlfriend, by the way, are still together; and the Milnes have planted another 15 acres of vineyard in the Catoctin Mountains. ::