By Paul Vigna
Rob Deford knows about the footsteps he follows as owner and president of Boordy Vineyards, which sits on an historic 240-acre farm with its signature 19th century stone barn in the Long Green Valley of northeastern Baltimore County.
It’s the winery started by Philip Wagner, a former editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun who made wine with, among others, H.L. Mencken and became so immersed in the development of his vineyard that the dean of American enologists, Maynard A. Amerine, once called him the most influential on grape growing east of the Rockies. Indeed, it was Wagner who wrote a book called American Wines and How to Make Them that was published in 1933, around the time Prohibition was repealed. It was widely distributed and used by many, wrote Regina McCarthy in Maryland Wine: A Full-Bodied History, because all the other books on on wine making and grape growing at that time were written in French.
Now it’s Deford’s business to grow, the family having purchased the operation in 1980. “Boordy is a winery with a 72-year history in Maryland, so the pursuit of excellence had to be against the headwinds of this history,” he said. “The key is to maintain an open mind, and avoid complacency. At various points, I have felt that our winery was bumping its head against a ‘glass ceiling’ of wine quality, and at each of these moments, we have taken steps to break through this ceiling to achieve the next level of quality.”
That included the creation of the “Landmark Project” in 2006, which involved replanting all 47 acres of its estate vineyards and building a new winery, which opened in September 2013. “The effect upon the quality of our wines from these two initiatives has been remarkable,” he said.
Boordy is one of a handful of the state’s 85 licensed wineries (as of 2016) that have sunk a significant investment into their business, encompassing the vineyards, production equipment and tasting room. They have been at the forefront of a steady growth in wineries – there were 41 in January 2011 – and gallons sold – a more than 12 percent increase in fiscal year 2016 over the previous year. Annual sales of Maryland wine in 2015 are estimated at $47 million.
Still, getting noticed by the state’s consumers remains a work in progress, said Kevin Atticks, longtime executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association and founder of the Baltimore-area management firm called Grow & Fortify. That company also represents the state’s craft brewers and distillers.
“The biggest obstacles continue to be the lack of retail market penetration and the general perception of local wine by retailers and restaurants, based on old experiences,” he said. “… to advance Maryland’s wine industry, we need to continue to raise the quality throughout the state, while concurrently engaging in promotions that increase awareness of those wines and the incredible diversity of the region.”
Among those producers raising the bar is Big Cork Vineyards in western Maryland, within earshot of the cannons at Antietam National Battlefield. Its founding was one battle Maryland won, luring winemaker Dave Collins from a successful tenure at Breaux Vineyards in Virginia. He’s the master winemaker and head of operations at Big Cork, where the long list of grapes grown there include Gewurztraminer, Vermentino, Barbera and Petit Verdot. Its Russian Kiss, a dry blend of Muscat and Russian grapes, has been a hit in the tasting room and among judges. And a growing number of state and national awards, including the state’s Comptroller’s Cup this year for its Cabernet Franc, attests to the quality of those grapes and the winemaking. Big Cork opened in 2016.
“One of our greatest accomplishments is the success in growing such a wide number of varieties,” Collins said, noting there are 21 grape varieties growing on 35 acres. They’re adding another 5 acres of vines in 2018, eyeing the obstacles they face. “One of our goals is to establish enough estate vineyards to meet the ever-growing demand for our wine experience,” he said.
Big Cork Vineyards Tasting Room, photo by Ryan Smith
That Big Cork succeeded so quickly in the vineyard was helped by Collins’ 25 years at a winery 20 minutes down the road. Collins: “My experience with growing and making wines in the Piedmont led me to choose varieties I knew I could grow successfully, make wines out of masterfully, and deliver to an emerging market.”
Another winery that has seen a similar acceleration in profile and success is Black Ankle, in Mount Airy, about a 45-minute drive west of Baltimore. Founded by former management consultants (and couple) Sarah O’Herron and Ed Boyce, they purchased a 146-acre parcel in 2002 and soon planted grapes. Six years later they opened for business, buoyed by a Governor’s Cup award before they had released their first wine.
Now one of the East Coast’s top wineries, Black Ankle has created a demand and supply unlike any other producer in the state, evident by a wine club that has topped 2,300 and necessitated an expansion of its tasting room that will be completed this fall.
Black Ankle Vineyards
Achieving excellence, O’Herron said recently, is through consistency.
“We take the most pride not in our best wine, but in our worst, which we go to great pains to ensure will still be good,” she said. “One of the best compliments that we get from customers is that they feel safe trying, sharing or giving any of our wines as a gift, because they know it will be good. That reliability across vintages, varietals and blends is what we strive for.”
The challenges to attaining the reliability, she said, are numerous, starting with the vagaries of the climate and the effects on each vintage.
“I believe that consistency is the key to growing our region,” she said. “By consistency, I do not mean sameness – there is plenty of room for a huge variety of styles, tastes, and price points, but what customers want to know is what to expect, and they want to get it every time. We don’t need to all be making ‘hand-crafted high quality wine,’ but whatever we go for, customers should know what to expect.”
Ed Boyce and Sarah O’Herron
That, agreed Atticks, has to be the goal of all of the state’s producers, which stretch from Bordeleau Vineyards on the state’s southeastern tip to Deep Creek Cellars on the state’s western border with West Virginia. In between are a handful, like Boordy, that have been around for more than 30 years – Basignani, Fiore, Linganore and Elk Run, to name a few. Amid the larger group are specialty producers of mead (Orchid Cellars), ciders and cysers (Millstone) and sparkling (Great Shoals).
“A wine industry has many segments with different winery business models and market approaches throughout,” Atticks said. “Quality, though, should run deep through each. It’s no longer enough to market as ‘local’ wine… it must be excellent in quality and marketing in order to compete in today’s market.”
They can compete better now than 15 years ago, Deford noted, by what he said were strides made by the industry in fixing the state’s legislative environment for wineries, sticking together as a group and lobbying Annapolis annually. It doesn’t mean every hurdle has been removed, he added, bemoaning what he called the “lack of dedicated viticultural and enological research” by the University of Maryland.
“For years wineries have worked in semi-isolation, like mini experiment stations; a single varietal trial can take 10-15 years to resolve; grape growing and winemaking protocols need to be tailored to the specific conditions of our region,” he said. “We do have the benefit of [University of Maryland extension specialist] Joe Fiola; however, he has a near-impossible task [small fruit specialist] and a miniscule budget. Far more research is needed to accelerate the improvement in the quality of our region’s wines.”
Maryland’s wine industry is similar to neighbors Pennsylvania and New Jersey: growing in size, its wineries stretching across the state; wine lists largely a mix of sweet and dry; its presence most often recognized with five or six major festivals throughout the summer months. Stories on the state’s wineries, like a recent one in Wine Enthusiast, are documenting the growth. As O’Herron said, stressing Black Ankle’s aim for consistency, quality and customer service, “the more good Maryland Wine experiences that people have, the more they will be open to trying more of what is out there and spreading the word about our industry.”
But while more consumers are familiar with the industry’s existence than 10 years ago, recognition remains a challenge in the shadow of the well-funded Virginia industry to the south and against the many brands that proliferate retail shelves. Maryland wine right now accounts for less than 3 percent of the wine consumed by Marylanders. That, Deford said, needs to change.
“This is a low figure, even by regional wine industry standards,” he said. “We have an affluent customer base, so this begs the question of how we can claim a greater market share? In my view, the answer lies in offering wines that are of exceptional value. Many wineries, including Boordy, have produced top-notch wines and sold them for $50+/bottle. This mountain has been scaled: the real estate at the top is scarce, and the air is thin. Can we consistently grow and produce table wines of exceptional quality for $14-18/bottle? I believe this is what will ultimately have the greatest impact upon our market share and upon our reputation as a region.”
Additional wineries to consider for a taste of quality Maryland wines:
- Bordeleau Vineyards & Winery, 3155 Noble Farm Rd, Eden, MD
- Fiore Winery, 3026 Whiteford Road, Pylesville, MD
- Linganore Winecellars, 13601 Glissens Mill Road, Mt. Airy, MD
- Old Westminster Winery, 1550 Old Westminster Road, Westminster, MD
- Port of Leonardtown Winery, 23190 Newtowne Neck Road, Leonardtown, MD
- Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, 18125 Comus Road, Dickerson, MD
This article is just one of our exclusive “In Pursuit of Excellence” series that highlights the champions of wine quality in Eastern U.S. wine industry who are impacting the reputation of the entire region. In Pursuit of Excellence is also the theme for the 2018 U.S. Wine & Beverage Exposition & Conference scheduled for February 21st & 22nd in Washington, D.C.