“Snobs Need Not Apply”: Experiencing Maryland Wines
by Laura Habberstad
When you hear “Maryland,” is the first thing that pops into your mind, “Crabs?” “Chesapeake Bay?” “Boating?” “Basketball?” Probably one of the last things you’d think of is “Wine.” Maryland Wineries Association (MWA) and the 68 wineries it represents are working hard to change this perception.
If you’ve lived in the Washington, DC metro area at any point in the last decade, you’ve probably heard about the thriving wine industry in Virginia. However, despite the two states’ close proximity, scant attention is given to Maryland wines, even by those who live in and around the state. This is unfortunate because, as MWA Executive Director Kevin Atticks points out, “Wineries in Maryland are making some phenomenal wines!”
Founded in 1984, Maryland Wineries Association is the leading advocacy and support network for the state’s 70+ licensed wineries. According to MWA’s website (www.marylandwine.com) in 2013 Maryland wineries sold over 1.7 million bottles or more than 345,000 gallons of wine. Maryland’s wineries produce more than 420 different types of wines, sold by more than 800 retailers and served in over 300 restaurants. Maryland’s geographic location (39oN) shares climate and latitude with some of the most prolific historic wine growing regions of Europe, such as Spain, Southern Italy, Portugal and Greece. More than 450 acres of grapevines are currently in production in Maryland, producing over 800 tons of fruit a year. So while Maryland does not produce the tonnage found in larger wine producing states, it is a significant accomplishment for the smallest state in the Union.
To get to know Maryland wine and wineries a little better, MWA connected me with several active Maryland wineries. My first stop was at Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyards (SMV) (www.smvwinery.com), located near the base of Sugarloaf Mountain in Dickerson, MD. Current owner Emily Yang and former owner/current wine consultant Jim McKenna were my hosts for the afternoon. The land upon which SMV sits is a farm that had been in McKenna’s wife’s family for over 50 years. In an effort to keep the farmland intact, family members established a vineyard and winery in 2002. “During a wine tasting trip to Napa my brother-in-law suggested we start a winery on the farm,” shared Jim McKenna, “I was on my second glass and didn’t really hear what he was suggesting but responded with a whole-hearted ‘Yes!’ And so our experiment began.”
Through the help of wine consultant extraordinaire, Lucy Morton, they determined conditions on the farm were conducive for growing wine grapes. In 2004 they planted more than 19,000 vines from California, in five red varietals and two white. In 2006, their first year of bottling, they took six wines to an international wine competition in New York State. Out of six entries, they were awarded six medals; “Something absolutely unheard of,” explained McKenna.
Since that illustrious start, they have not looked back. Year after year SMV has produced award winning Bordeaux-style wines. They have repeatedly been voted “best winery” by readers of The Washingtonian,The Washington Post and The Washington Post Express. “The keys to success at SMV have been our fantastic location and the fun energy we put into our environment and wine,” explains McKenna, “We want to open the entire wine experience to those who are interested. Wine snobs need not apply!”
The staff at SMV hold true to this philosophy throughout the “wine growing” process. Every year they host an annual event called “The Stomp Festival” where young and old are invited to try their hand…er…um…foot at crushing grapes, ala I Love Lucy style, with bare feet. In addition to regular winery tours, SMV also provides live music on their patio during summer weekends, opening up the yards surrounding the vineyards with picnic tables and lawn games. New owner Yang plans to carry on these traditions and has ambitious plans to expand the tasting room into a large barn that currently sits unused so even more wine lovers can enjoy SMV’s wines year-round.
Next MWA connected me with an innovative “urban” winery that specializes in sparkling wines and ciders. With a tasting room just seven miles from the DC border on New Hampshire Avenue, Great Shoals Winery (www.greatshoals.com) is an unexpected gem. Founded by head winemaker, Matt Cimino, in 2010, Great Shoals has experienced 100% growth over the past two years and expects to do so again this year. “We make more than 25 different types of wines with the largest growth in the sale of ciders and sparkling wines,” explains Cimino. He points to several drivers for this growth, but believes the greatest is that consumers are becoming increasingly interested in supporting locally crafted products. “We want to connect with the consumer that goes to the local farmer’s market to shop for milk and eggs and decides to try some locally produced cider or wine as well.” Great Shoals also follows this philosophy in the sourcing of their ingredients. Cimino explains that while they grow grapes on Eastern Shore property controlled by the winery, the tonnage is not enough to supply their full portfolio of products. As much as possible they source their grapes, apples and other ingredients from Maryland based farms managed by owner/operators. It makes sense, then, that Great Shoals’ motto is “Locally Grown. Locally Cherished.”
Cimino is a self-taught winemaker. After deciding to embark on this adventure, he visited wine making regions around the world. He was especially intrigued by the traditional method of bottling sparkling wines as practiced in France, Italy and other regions known for their bubbly wine. He has now become a leading expert on the East Coast for those that want to learn more about this labor-intensive and intricate process. Establishing and growing Great Shoals, too, has been a trial-and-error “boot-strap” process. Rather than invest huge amounts of money in purchasing land and equipment, Cimino chose to develop relationships with agriculture producers around the state with excess capacity. Their tasting room is located in what was formerly a walk-in cooler at Heyser Farms in Silver Spring, along with one of their four production spaces. To create a fun and memorable compliment to their wines, Great Shoals offers fondue, locally produced pies and ice creams in their tasting room. Many of the ingredients used for the delicacies were taken from the Heyser Farms market that one walks through to enter the tasting room. Don’t let the dirt driveway deter, there is a world of local delights to be had at Great Shoals.
It is generally accepted that Boordy Vineyards started the modern rebirth of winemaking in Maryland with its establishment in 1945. While the Maryland wine industry is growing at a steady pace, with three to four new wineries opening every year, according to MWA’s Atticks, it is still juvenile compared to California’s or even neighboring Virginia’s. Wineries throughout Maryland are working hard to make their presence known. Winemakers often guide interested guests through their fermenting and aging rooms to provide firsthand access to the wine-making process, an experience that can be rare in more mature regions. The wineries and MVA also organize wine-centered events and festivals to highlight Maryland wines and introduce the industry to wine connoisseurs from novice to expert. Annual events like Wine in the Woods (www.wineinthewoods.com) and Linganore Winery’s Reggae Festival (www.linganorewines.com/ai1ec_event/reggae-festival) grow in popularity every year. To create new opportunities to experience Maryland wines MWA is sponsoring the Maryland Wine Passport Experience (www.marylandwine.org/2015events/passport-experience) on February 21-22nd and February 28 – March 1st. According to MWA’s website, a Passport Experience ticket provides exclusive access to all of the participating wineries on any of the 6 Maryland wine trails. “Ticket holders will receive a free wine tasting and behind-the-scene experience at each winery, a commemorative wine glass and 10% off all bottles purchased.”
Maryland’s wine industry is a local treasure that, like a fine wine, is maturing with every year. For those interested in supporting local producers or just looking for some superb wines across the palette spectrum, see what surprises Maryland wines have in store for you!