A view of the tasting room at Old Westminster Winery. (Lauren Swann)

There were soil pits, barrel rooms, vineyard tours, breweries and a distillery as a group of wine bloggers and other industry professionals enjoyed a three-day immersion in the best of Maryland’s burgeoning alcoholic beverage industry. This was Taste Camp, an opportunity for beverage writers to explore Maryland, and for Maryland’s producers to strut their stuff before an international audience.

A sparkling Friday morning started with sparkling gruner veltliner petillant-naturel, or pet-nat, from Old Westminster Winery. Pet-nat is catnip for wine nerds these days, and the wine did not disappoint. It was an ideal refresher as Old Westminster’s Drew Baker introduced the thirsty writers to Burnt Hill, the winery’s new vineyard site under development. (I wrote last week about the work to assess the site and plan the vineyard.)

“We’re on top of the world here,” Baker said, with just a little exaggeration as he pointed toward the Blue Ridge Mountains visible 40 miles to the west. “There’s plenty of breeze and sunshine, nature’s antibiotics.” He then led the group down the slope to where his father, Jay Baker, had dug a six-foot hole with a backhoe.

“How many of these wine nerds have ever hopped in a hole as deep as they are tall to see what’s happening below the surface?” Baker said.

Taste Camp was started in 2009 by wine writer Lenn Thompson, founder and editor of Cork Report, an online magazine based on Long Island. It was a counterpoint to the Wine Bloggers Conference, an annual gathering of writers that tends to be focused on the West Coast. (The bloggers conference, started in 2008, was held in Virginia in 2011 and New York’s Finger Lakes in 2015, but has been west of the Rockies all other years.) In contrast, Thompson held Taste Camp in more unheralded regions, such as Vermont, Niagara (in Canada and in New York) and Quebec.

“There is so much good — even great — wine being made in places that aren’t the normal or traditional places in North America,” Thompson says. “California, Oregon and Washington don’t have a monopoly on wine that’s worth drinking.”

And while the bloggers conference attracts hundreds of attendees and is quite commercial, Taste Camp remains small. This year’s group included 32 participants who came from as far as California, Ottawa and Quebec City, as well as Michigan, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.


A view of the tasting room exterior at Black Ankle Vineyards in Mt. Airy, Md. (Courtesy Black Ankle Vineyards)

On Saturday, the group visited Black Ankle Vineyards in Mount Airy, the winery that ignited Maryland’s wine renaissance a decade ago. There they did vertical tastings of each vintage of Black Ankle’s Crumbling Rock Bordeaux-style blend and its Leaf Stone Syrah. Then they took a vineyard tour at Big Cork Winery in Rohrersville with winemaker Dave Collins before tasting samples from several wineries of central and western Maryland. The program concluded Sunday morning with a tasting at Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, with wineries from the Eastern Shore joining in. I was able to participate on Friday and Sunday.

“It’s not often that we are able to present our wines to local wine advocates who are passionate enough to spend their weekend traveling to and learning about a relatively unknown wine region,” says Phineas Deford, Boordy’s vice president. The Boordy 2016 Albarino was a crowd favorite, and a bargain at $20. I also enjoyed the 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve and 2013 Landmark Reserve, a Bordeaux-style blend, lighter bodied reds than most wineries make, but with delicious, sustained flavor. A 2015 Cabernet Franc from Chateau Bu-De on the Eastern Shore had more weight and density, but showed similar finesse.

Wine was not the only potent potable on the menu. Taste Campers also visited McClintock Distillery in Frederick, where they tried the Forager Gin and other spirits. Tenth Ward Distilling poured a smoked corn white whiskey and a caraway rye that Thompson said “really tasted like rye bread.” Gray Wolf Distillery of St. Michaels and Miscellaneous Distillery of Mount Airy participated in the tasting at Boordy.

For the Taste Campers, the weekend was an opportunity to try wines and spirits they can’t get at home.

“It gives me a perspective of the potential across the country,” says Richard Auffrey, a Boston-based writer and founder of the Passionate Foodie blog. Auffrey said he hopes his readers will learn to enjoy their local wines and spirits through his reporting on Maryland and other regions. “And someday, maybe these wines will be available in Massachusetts.”

Rémy Charest, a writer in Quebec City, has attended every Taste Camp. “I can’t say I walk out of here with a clear sense of what direction Maryland wants to go,” he said, as he prepared to drive back to Canada from Boordy. “But there’s great potential here. It’s beautiful country. Visiting is a no-brainer.”

I asked Thompson why he organizes Taste Camp every year, and he seemed taken aback by the question.

“I get to see some friends every year and let them in on a secret about an emerging wine region,” he said. “And when we’re tasting wines and I see their eyes widen and their pens start scribbling notes quickly, that’s awesome.”

“There is so much good — even great — wine being made in . . . in North America. California, Oregon and Washington don’t have a monopoly on wine that’s worth drinking.”

Lenn Thompson, Taste Camp founder