Columnist, Food

Geologist Ernest “Bubba” Beasley examines a soil pit at Old Westminster Winery’s future Burnt Hill vineyard near Clarksburg, Md. (Ashli Johnson)

The hole was six feet deep, and despite the symbolism, I was eager to jump in. This wasn’t a final resting place, but a soil pit carved in a hillside in upper Montgomery County that in a few years will become one of Maryland’s top vineyards. Crouching in the dirt, I could see grass roots reaching deep into the soil, and crumbling rock called phyllite that spoke of centuries of evolution and decay. It was a visual representation of what wine lovers call terroir.

These were data points — among many — the Baker family of Old Westminster Winery will use to configure their Burnt Hill vineyard, in Clarksburg, Md., near Little Bennett Regional Park. And it’s a family effort: Drew Baker tends the vineyards, sister Lisa Hinton makes the wines, and their younger sister, Ashli Johnson, manages the tasting room, publicity and special events. Over the next year, the Bakers will decide which grape varieties to plant and where to plant them throughout the vineyard, decisions that will affect the quality of the wines they make here for years to come. They won’t plant vines until spring 2019, and we won’t see wines from Burnt Hill until 2022 or later, but decisions made now will reverberate in our wine glasses for years.

I wrote in January about the Bakers’ purchase of Burnt Hill Farm and their hopes to produce an iconic, world-class red wine there. I will follow their efforts over the next few years to describe the choices, efforts and risks involved in creating a vineyard. They have enlisted geologists Ernest “Bubba” Beasley and Katie Bryant, along with viticulturist Lucie Morton to help them develop the Burnt Hill vineyard. Joseph Brinkley, a specialist in biodynamic viticulture, contributed to the initial plans for how to prepare the land.

These are crucial decisions, because there are few do-overs when planting a vineyard, and mistakes are costly.

When I visited Burnt Hill in April, all sorts of modern technology was on display, including electromagnetic imaging, and, of course, everyone’s favorite toy: drones. Beasley was using them to map Burnt Hill, looking for clues of which slopes, swales and ridges will be best for merlot, cabernet sauvignon or syrah. Wheat, ankle-deep, covered the ground as a temporary nutrient to help prep the soil. Next year, the Bakers intend to plant buckwheat and sell it to chef Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore to use in making a local style of soba noodles.

This fall they will place orders for about 30,000 vines, to be delivered a year later and planted in spring 2019 across 17 acres of their 117-acre farm. Their work now is to decide which grapes to plant where.

The day before I visited, Beasley loaded up his imaging camera on a red plastic sled and towed it back and forth across the vineyard. The camera measured the capacity of the soil to conduct electricity — a characteristic that has no direct impact on wine quality but reveals the nature of the soil.

“Electromagnetic mapping and the conductivity of the soil don’t necessarily correlate to anything,” said Baker. “But the images highlight variations in the soil and tell us where to dig pits.”

And those pits tell stories. On the north side of Burnt Hill Road, the soil is predominantly clay, and the wheat cover crop is more vigorous, suggesting a more fertile topsoil than on the south side of the road. With its more southerly exposure, this might be a place for white varieties, Baker said. That showed his thinking was changing with each new data input; in January, he told me Burnt Hill was “definitely a red-wine site.”

Baker’s father, Jay, roamed the hillsides in a backhoe, digging the pits at various sites where Beasley’s electromagnetic mapping showed soil variations, while Johnson took photographs. Morton, the viticulturist, took notes, as her job in helping decide what grape varieties to plant would come later, influenced by Beasley’s work. Morton’s dog, Biscotti, a Chihuahua-terrier mix, romped in the wheat as it swayed in the wind.

Beasley scampered into a pit and measured the deepest grass roots at 50 inches below the surface.

“I haven’t seen any root limits,” Morton said. “I’m so happy about this site.” When vines can dig their roots deep into the soil, they can withstand the region’s rainy climate better. As the old winemaker’s saying goes, vines don’t like wet feet.

Beasley agreed. “It’s really well drained and aerated,” he said. “The soil is speaking to me.”

Next week: A wine group called Taste Camp soaks in the atmosphere at Maryland wineries.