Area Wineries Blend Time-Honored Agricultural Traditions with Growing Tourism and Profitablity
Wine is not a new thing. This ancient elixir, along with its cohort beer, sustained populations during many dark ages when drinking water could be deadly. Its discovery was a happy accident, replicated around the world as early societies learned that fruit, honey, grains and flowers could be transformed into heady, intoxicating, liquid sustenance. Indeed, a little patient fermentation killed off dangerous microbes, preserved the harvest, and gave both peasants and kings a reason to be merry. While humanity’s long relationship with alcohol is certainly complicated, it is also undeniably profound and enduring.
Fast forward a few thousand years and such beverages still have a place at the table … and on the books. Small wineries, breweries and distilleries are popping up like dandelions in this region. Sure, people love the products’ taste and the industry’s buoyantly celebratory atmosphere, but they’ve also grown to appreciate these businesses-related jobs, taxes, agricultural preservation efforts, and enticement of tourists with fat wallets. In 2001, there were 12 commercial wineries in Maryland. A decade later, there are 46. By 2014, according to the Maryland Grape Growers Association’s latest vineyard survey, Maryland had 71 wineries and 850-plus acres in grapes.
This vigorous expansion comes despite Maryland’s reputation for strict regulation of alcoholic beverages. Since Prohibition was repealed in 1933, states have ultimate authority over the alcohol sales. Most, like Maryland, employ a three-tier system where manufacturers sell to wholesalers, who then sell to retailers and restaurants. These are hand-to-hand transactions between licensed, tax-collecting parties, as state policy requires, to “obtain respect and obedience to law and to foster and promote temperance.”
Anthony Aellen, president of Linganore Winecellars and a second generation winemaker, remembers the business’ early days, working alongside his parents, Jack and Lucille. Their winery is Frederick County’s first. It’s Maryland’s second oldest, but the longest single-family run operation and its largest. “When we first opened in 1977, we were only allowed to sell, from the winery, one bottle per person .. then they couldn’t buy anything else from us for a year,” Aellen says. Sales limits were lifted around 1980, but shipping wine to consumers was a felony.
Maryland wineries didn’t see major legislative changes until 2000 when House Bill 414 passed, allowing on-site sales of wine by-the-glass and bringing products to licensed retail sites for promotional activities. Then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich formed the Maryland Wine and Grape Advisory Committee in 2004, paving the way for a permanent commission promoting industry growth. The 2010 Maryland Winery Modernization Act created a seasonal permit option, allowing local wineries to sell at farmers markets. One year later, direct-to-consumer wine shipping was finally approved, allowing Marylanders to order and receive wine by mail.
The wine industry generated $40.4 million in statewide economic activity in a year, with only 28 licensed wineries operating at that time, according to the Maryland Wineries Association’s 2009 economic impact report, created by the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute. The report also highlighted that visitors to Maryland wineries and wine festivals spent an estimated $20 million here, including $7.5 million from out-of-state tourists. Keeping pace with industry growth, the state comptroller’s 2015 alcohol and tobacco tax report listed $6.35-million revenue from wine sales alone.
The wine business flourished in Frederick County, too, a natural outgrowth of its agricultural foundation. Elk Run Winery opened in 1983, followed by Loew Vineyards in 1985. Carol Wilson founded Elk Run with her husband, Fred, and associate Neill Bassford. She says research ran deep before purchasing their farm. Its proximity to major markets like Baltimore and Washington, D.C., is a definite plus, but so is the “terroir”—a quality of wine’s “character” that starts before a single grape is picked. “Terroir is what makes my corner on Liberty Road in Mount Airy, with my trees and sunshine and soil, unique. So, nobody can copy exactly what I do. … That’s why Bordeaux is Bordeaux. That’s the beauty of wine.”
Wilson says that area soil content, specifically, porous schist and shale, is good for growing wine grapes because it encourages hearty root growth, down 30 feet, to find minerals and water. At 800-900 feet above sea level, Elk Run Winery’s vines grow above the frost line, too, extending their growing season and producing grapes with more sugar. “We’ve harvested as late as November.” Elk Run’s connoisseur’s tasting experience challenges guests to pair fresh-picked grape varieties with the correlating vintage.
Catoctin Breeze Vineyard in Thurmont is one of the newer cellars to sprout in Frederick County. Owners Voytek Fizyta, an engineer in the automotive-component industry, and wife, Alicja, bought a sloping, hilltop property with good drainage and maximum sun exposure as they dreamed of an adventure, transitioning into retirement. They planted test grapes in 2009 and results were encouraging. While new vines grew, they used honey from a nearby supplier to start a line of spiced, earthy meads. Fizyta’s first significant harvest was in 2013. “This is farming,” he says. “It’s very weather-dependent, so planting in stages helps us figure out what grows best here and gives us better understanding of our site.”
Aellen concurs, saying that patience is paramount. “Adding six acres a year is enough to manage for brand-new plants.” His family started with six acres of grapes in 1972. Now, their Berrywine Plantation has 80-plus acres with 14 varieties of grapes on the 230-acre farm. Mother Nature can be the industry’s greatest benefactor or biggest threat. Japanese beetles are always a menace, munching through grape leaves, stunting vines and production. Deer take their share, too, and Maryland’s humidity encourages damaging fungus. In the best conditions, Aellen says, “It takes five to seven years from planting to first vintage for white wines. Reds may take three more.”
The Fizytas, like the Wilsons, gobbled data about winemaking and running a vineyard before leaping into the fray. Starting “from zero,” they attended seminars and field trips, scoured literature, and talked to successful vintners. Then they hired a professional winemaker and a vineyard manager. “Tasting wine is fun, but it is also a serious business. It’s not something you can easily venture on your own,” says Fizytas.
In the 30-40 years between Frederick’s earliest commercial wineries and Fizytas’ start, the requisite paperwork remains substantial, as does the investment of time and money, but local resources have blossomed. Over the decades the Maryland Wineries Association was founded, the first Maryland Wine Festival was held and the Maryland Winery and Grape Growers Advisory Board was formed.
Fizyta says the Frederick County Office of Economic Development has also been very supportive. In building his business he worked with Katie Albaugh, the county’s agricultural business development specialist.
When asked about the industry’s tremendous growth, Albaugh emphasizes public demand as a primary driver: “I think it’s part of the national farm-to-glass and farm-to-fork movement. People want local food and beverages. They want to get to know the farm and the farmer.” She notes that Frederick County is racking up the milestones. “We are leading the state in the craft beverage industry. We have Maryland’s first cidery, Distillery Lane Ciderworks in Jefferson, and the first dedicated meadery, Orchid Cellars Meadery Winery in Middletown. We also have the first farm brewery, Milkhouse Brewery (at Stillpoint Farm in Mount Airy). … These places are great for Frederick County agriculture and great for our economy.”
Albaugh’s office helps entrepreneurs navigate the county’s zoning and permit processes. It also connects them with resources for marketing, such as Homegrown Frederick, preservation programs, small business loans and tax credit assistance, including Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation’s vineyard planning loan fund.
When John and Amie St. Angelo bought a 135-acre property in Thurmont with a historic country mansion, they intended to subdivide it for a handful of houses. Then the housing market plunged and they took a cue from county reps to explore opening a winery instead. Now they own Springfield Manor Winery & Distillery. The restored estate features an eight-suite bed-and-breakfast (c. 1775) and a modern ballroom addition that seats 300 guests. The renovated dairy parlor serves as the beverage production epicenter. Visitors can peek at the 75-gallon still and aging casks through glass that divides the making and tasting areas. There are Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay grapes growing onsite. They added Traminette vines, too, a variety the Aellen family helped pioneer as a test site for Cornell University’s grape breeding research.
The St. Angelos started making wine in 2011, officially opening in 2014. Thanks to legislative updates, they have integrated a distillery that produces 16 varieties of liquor. Nearby Catoctin Mountain Orchard supplies some of the fruit used to craft blackberry port and potent brandies with apple, plum or pear. All good, since the Class 4 license, Maryland’s “farm winery” license, mandates the use of Maryland-grown fruit. Springfield Manor’s gin is made from its own corn crop and flavored with lavender from sinuous rows of French and English stock growing just below the patio. A unique locust blossom wine, a special small-batch treat, is made with petals from one ancient tree; alas, its flowers didn’t fare well this spring, so next year’s vintage may be scant.
It’s easy to look around and think that so many new wineries translates into fierce rivalry among the locals. Maybe that’s true in taste competitions, but tourism unites them. The more the merrier, according to Aellen, whose Linganore Winecellars’ 600,000-bottle production sold out in Maryland last year. “The competition isn’t the person down the street; it’s Chile, Argentina, Romania and South Africa.” Others agree.
“I don’t think we’re near a saturation point,” Albaugh says. “If you look at Loudon County (Virginia), they have a huge wine industry and it’s very healthy.” Proponents point to other areas of the country, specifically Sonoma, Calif., and the Finger Lakes region of New York, with hundreds of wineries, as shining examples of industry potential.
Big Cork Vineyards in Washington County, sits between Frederick’s emerging market and Loudon County’s well-established collection. Owner Randy Thompson planted grapes instead of corn and soybeans on his family’s farm in 2012 and opened the tasting room last year. For Thompson, preservation and profit go hand-in hand. “We are the only [substantial] employer in Rohrersville. We have 25 people at peak and payroll close to $1 million. The wine industry has the potential to do that all across the state.” He’s working to get Pleasant Valley designated as an agricultural enterprise zone and would be happy to see 10 more wineries in the area.
Elk Run’s Wilson was instrumental in starting the local wine trail. It’s supported by a grant from Frederick County Tourism’s Reinvestment in Promotion & Product program, to encourage overnight tourists. The strength-in-numbers concept plays out as potential customers are lured farther afield to explore. Out of towners might stop by one winery while passing by, but wine-lovers will plan a special trip for several stops. They’ll make a weekend of it, dining at local restaurants, seeing local shows and perusing local shops.
Onsite activities help draw customers, too, usually promoted via social media to “followers.” Wineries routinely feature live music and dining events. Catoctin Breeze Vineyard recently presented a family-friendly Birds of Prey event with Peregrine Falcons, while Linganore Winecellars is celebrating its 40th business anniversary (1976-2016) with a weekend shindig Sept. 23-25. Linganore’s popular music events sell thousands of tickets. But perhaps the best way for fledgling wineries to get established is through exposure at regional wine festivals, such as the premiere Frederick Wine Festival last month.
Amy Green, Mt. Airy Liquors’ marketing manager, says it’s hard for craft winemakers to compete against big national and international brands with name recognition and volume pricing, but local consumer support is strong. Nearby Black Ankle’s premium wines sell between $30-$50 a bottle at her store. Widely distributed wines start closer to $10. Despite the difference, she says, “They do an amazing job and we can’t keep them in stock for long.” Green says that Maryland wines are especially in-demand as holiday gifts. “That’s a big draw for people.”
Looking ahead, Aellen insists that Marylanders are still learning what grows best where and refining legislative structure. He says being in business for 40 or 50 years is “not a drop in the bucket in wine time. … It will take generations [to hone the right formula]. … We all only have temporary use of this land. [The] object is to leave the soil in better condition. At best, you’ve got 80 or 100 years to work on it. Choices define who you are.”
Fall tends to be the industry’s busiest time, with visitors attracted by harvest excitement against the backdrop of fall foliage, but Carol Wilson reflects on the simple allure of wineries: “It is wonderful, at the end of the day, to walk through the vineyard with a glass of wine.”