Mike McGarry walks around his family's Dickerson farm, surveying the 170 evenly spaced rows of vines with stems producing the small, juicy grapes that he plans to turn into cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot grigio and chardonnay.
He plucks a red grape, rubs the dirt off and deposits it into his mouth. "It just oozes," he says.
A few rows down, he reaches the green grapes. He tries one that leaves a sour taste. "Complex," he declares as he spits out its thick skin.
McGarry is a lawyer, not a vintner, by trade. But three years ago, he and three of his brothers-in-law -- a State Department official, a retired Montgomery County Circuit Court judge and a lawyer -- decided to convert 92 acres of wheat and soybeans into what is now Montgomery's only commercial winery and vineyard. In two weeks, they will harvest their first grapes, ferment them and then age the wine in barrels for six months to a year. By April, they hope, the first bottles of Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard wine, named for the mountain that abuts the property, will be sold.
"It's hard, hard work, but you feel great being out here," said McGarry, 62, a pair of pruning shears at his hip and a green John Deere cap shielding his face from the bright morning sun last week.
Virginia traditionally has been the region's wine country. Maryland has 16 wineries, compared with about 100 in Virginia, said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association. That's partly because affordable land is in such short supply, particularly in Montgomery.
And Maryland state law bans shipments directly to consumers. Montgomery's controls are even tighter: Wineries must sell to the county, which supplies restaurants and liquor stores.
While Virginia has aggressively marketed its wineries and provided them financial help, Maryland is only now starting to recognize winemaking as a viable agricultural enterprise, one that can replace tobacco and corn as a top crop, Atticks said.
This year, the legislature appropriated $100,000 for a task force to support wine marketing, education and research. State officials, acknowledging that the industry had the potential to create jobs and attract tourists, are also discussing ways to ease distribution restrictions.
Montgomery has two wineries that produce wine for sale but do not grow their grapes on site; Sugarloaf is the only commercial winery and vineyard that does both, Atticks said. By November, he expects Maryland to have 21 wineries. Right now, 250 acres of grapes are planted across the state. By next summer, Atticks anticipates 400.
"For agriculture to survive, they usually have to come up with some kind of industry that will be efficient and have high profitability," said Joe Fiola, a specialist in viticulture for the Maryland Cooperative Extension at the University of Maryland. "Grapes and wineries are very good for that."
It took a trip to Napa Valley in Northern California to persuade McGarry and his partners, Philip and Daniel O'Donoghue and their brother-in-law Jim McKenna, to get into the business. After visiting a friend's vineyard, they decided that the venture would be a good use of their land in northern Montgomery, which the O'Donoghues' parents bought in 1962.
Although the traditional crops on the farm weren't bringing in enough money, the O'Donoghue brothers and their two sisters -- one married to McGarry, the other to McKenna -- didn't want to sell to developers.
"We hated the idea of doing that," McKenna said. "We love the notion of keeping green space, and we wanted to do something with it."
Of course, Napa is Napa and Maryland is Maryland.
"Makes a big difference," said McGarry, who lives in Chevy Chase and is retiring as a partner in the D.C. office of Winston & Strawn, a Chicago law firm.
The difference is that California is warm and dry, with winters that aren't cold and summers that aren't rainy, making for a grape-friendly climate.
McGarry and his partners needed some expertise.
"I've got to admit. I really knew very little about wine when we started this venture," said Daniel O'Donoghue, 66, a real estate portfolio manager for the State Department.
So they hired a consultant, viticulturalist Lucie Morton, who lives in Virginia. And they imported a California vineyard manager, Carl DiManno. He came with impressive credentials, including a master's degree in oenology from the University of California at Davis -- the "Harvard or Yale of winemaking," McGarry said.
The two convinced the partners that they could work around Maryland's wet summers with the right vines. It turns out that the Bordeaux region of France is rainy, too, Morton said.
They selected 19,000 certified French clones of the five Bordeaux grapes -- cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot -- and two white varieties -- chardonnay and pinot grigio. "Those are big decisions," McGarry said. "It's like a chess game."
They bought the vines in 2003 at a nursery in Northern California and let them grow there for 18 months before shipping them to Dickerson. They planted them, by hand, over 10 acres in April 2004, placing them 40 inches apart, much closer than they would have been in California. The purpose, McGarry said, is to "stress" them, or have them compete with one another. If the vines have to work harder to survive, he said, they will produce better grapes.
Then they pulled together about $1.5 million to build storage for 470 barrels, a fermentation area and a tasting room with glass walls, all still under construction.
"It looks like a real vineyard," Morton said. "It doesn't look like a ratty, young vineyard trying to be established."
Now, all they have to do is wait for the grapes to ripen.
"I don't know if a bunch of Irishmen can make wine," McKenna said. "We're doing the best we can."