The John Deere chugged along the hillside, guided by GPS, in a precise line five degrees to the northeast. Its plow churned up the rocky soil, while two people in the back of the tractor fed vines into a contraption that resembled two Ferris wheels. The contraption then turned downward toward the center, planting the vines a few feet apart.
It was twilight, April 25, the fourth day of planting at Burnt Hill Farm, the new vineyard of Old Westminster Winery near Clarksburg, Md., in northern Montgomery County. This patch of hillside was the last of 13 acres planted with approximately 20,000 vines.
Two years ago, I scrambled into a six-foot-deep soil pit dug into this hillside to examine the crumbling phyllite rock just below the topsoil. On this recent visit, Drew Baker, Old Westminster’s vineyard manager and the oldest of the three 30-something siblings who run Maryland’s most dynamic winery, cajoled me onto the John Deere to feed vines into the planter. Years from now, if two rows of gamay underperform, you’ll know who to blame.
“Gamay is not widely planted in this region, but I love it, so we gave it a prime spot,” Baker said, as his winemaker sister, Lisa Hinton, infant son in her arms, arrived to check on the progress. When I asked about the orientation of the rows, he explained that the 5 percent variation on the standard north-south axis “gives us slightly more morning sun than afternoon,” taking advantage of the cooler part of the day. And they are using biodynamic farming practices, determined to make a low-intervention approach work in the challenging Mid-Atlantic climate.
The Bakers have said they hope to produce an “iconic Maryland red” at this site. But they are also eager to experiment. Along with those rows of gamay, they have planted some pinot noir, also uncommon in a region dominated by cabernet franc and other Bordeaux varieties. They have devoted a plot to 90 experimental varieties bred by Cliff Ambers, an iconoclastic viticulturist who pollinates native grape vines with pollen from European vinifera varieties.
Clarksburg is emerging as Montgomery County’s new wine region. The owners of Black Ankle Vineyards, near Mt. Airy, are developing a vineyard and planning a new winery nearby on the west side of Interstate 270. And yet, this sleepy little time capsule of a town, just off the interstate connecting the urban sprawl of Washington to the bedroom community of Frederick, played an important role two centuries ago in the history of American wine. In 1819, John Adlum, a retired military officer and hobbyist grape grower who had a vineyard in Georgetown, procured some grape cuttings from a Mrs. Scholl, who ran an inn in Clarksburg. Those vines were the catawba variety, developed in North Carolina in the early 1800s. Three years later, in 1822, Adlum bottled the first catawba wines. He later sent cuttings to Nicholas Longworth of Cincinnati, who popularized catawba with dry, sweet and sparkling wines as he helped establish America’s commercial wine industry.
The vineyard along Burnt Hill Road marks a new phase for a property that has been farmland at least since 1865, when it was owned by Rufus King, said John Liebertz, a Montgomery County Planning Department historian. There are still Kings in the area, Baker said. The land divided through inheritance and marriage, and the property was purchased in the early 1950s by Edgar Riedel, who left it to his daughter, Kathleen Riedel Cumberledge. Kathleen’s stepdaughter, Kelly Johnson, sold the 118-acre property to the Bakers just before Christmas 2016.
“We know tobacco was farmed there once, because we found the racks and baskets used in tobacco farming when we went through the barn,” Johnson told me in a phone interview. “My father leased the land to other farmers to bale hay or grow corn.”
Johnson’s father, George Cumberledge, put the property in preservation status after his wife died in 2010, to prevent the farm from falling prey to urban development. After Cumberledge died in 2015, Johnson, who lives in western Pennsylvania, put the property up for sale. The Bakers, looking to develop a premium vineyard site, were outbid, but the original deal fell through because the county rejected the prospective buyer’s plan to build a large home on the property. Johnson then turned to the Bakers.
“I wanted to sell the land to someone who would use it for what it was intended for, not just building townhouses or condominiums,” Johnson said. “My dad was a beer drinker, but I think he’d be happy someone will be growing grapes there for wine.”
Today, Drew Baker, 31, lives in the old farmhouse right along Burnt Hill Road with his wife, Casey, 28, and their 16-month-old daughter, Noelle, a new generation shepherding a historical property into its next era. The stubby infant vines on the torn-up hillsides will grow up to be a lush vineyard.
As he watched the tractor rumble up and down the hill in the final hours of planting his vineyard, Baker thought about Clarksburg’s past and future in wine.
“Maybe we will put in some catawba,” he said, with a smile equal parts possibility and adventure.
Old Westminster Winery will host a natural wine festival at Burnt Hill Farm in Clarksburg on June 22 to celebrate the summer solstice. Details and tickets are available at burnthill.farm/solstice.