Is Maryland Wine Worth the Trip?

girls-from-old-westminster

Old Westminster Winery

This is part one of our piece on the 2013 Drink Local Wine Conference held in Baltimore. This part covers our experience at the conference and gave an overview of the MD wine scene. Part two looks at which wineries to visit in MD.

Admit it, you know nothing about Maryland wine. It’s OK, you’re in good company. Until recently, when we realized it needed to change, your friends here at PAVC were living in the same state of ignorance. Really, it was more about admission. We could no longer remain aloof from a wine industry blossoming under our noses, just a short car ride away. After all, for as many years as we’ve been on the East Coast, we’ve sortied into Maryland and pillaged its primary booty: Beaches, crabs, Orioles, John Waters. How could we, in good conscience, not exploit its wines?

We’d accepted an invitation to the Drink Local Wine conference in Baltimore, a showcase for winemakers and a congregation of media, associations, restaurateurs and growers. For the associated wine producers of Maryland, the event is an effort to share collected knowledge and vision, past and future. For us? It’s all about the research, people.

The end goal of the conference, as far as we could tell, was to raise the bar and expand the market. “The baseline is quality. You have to have good quality,” said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, who went on to say that it’s been mission accomplished over the past decade. About 60 wineries dot their landscape today.

Naturally, there are mixed opinions at any confab worth its salt. Such is true with Maryland winemakers.

“People just want to have fun,” chimed in Dave Collins, co-owner of Big Cork Vineyards in Washington County, near the base of Maryland’s panhandle. “It’s not about wine. It’s about the experience.” In other words, it’s the music (Kenny Loggins acoustic, anyone?), pretty views, barrel tastings and other gimmicks that seduce the wine-swilling public. We shuddered, knowing he was probably right, before he righted himself a touch. A kick of the dirt reveals the truth, he said. Maryland has the same ingredients for success found in Virginia: Good drainage and soils rich in shale and slate. That is, terrible soils make for excellent grape growing. Problem is, there’s a puzzling lack of vineyards, said Collins. Then he rolled over on on his thesis. “It is about wine.”

Ed Boyce of Black Ankle, the closest Maryland comes to a cult producer, was the voice of reason. “I think the challenge for us is consistency. What makes a great winery…is not that we do it once but that we do it every year…in a climate that’s clearly varied.” He proceeded to outline the maddening variations of cold, sun and months of drenching rain.

Boyce drove home the point that East Coast wine consistency is impossible because of the weather. The antidote is smart, variable blending – the key to high perennial achievement. “We can’t make consistent varieties in this climate,” he stressed, holding up the example of the radically different qualities of the Cab Franc yields of the 2010 and 2011 vintages. Reacting to extreme swings requires flexibility, he said, and Black Ankle ties its production of reserve and non-reserve wines directly to the climate’s temperament. The result is a consistent entry-level wine, but the difficult trade-off is a drought of higher-end wines.

The grape of Maryland? It’s the red blend, he half-joked.

The industry has gotten over the hump, Boyce estimated. “Over the past (several) years…we’re starting to get some really fantastic wines consistently made…I think we’re about to get over that mental barrier…I’m really hopeful about the future.”

Time to put that sentiment to the test. We loaded into a shuttle for a short drive to the Warehouse at Camden Yards (you may know it as the brick building in right field, the one Ken Griffey, Jr. drilled during the 1993 All Star Game Home Run Derby) where we sampled the wines of more than 20 producers participating in a “Twitter Taste-Off.”

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In addition to offering us sips of sometimes-righteous pours, the tasting presented an opportunity to probe the omnipresent pricing conundrum that confronts many consumers who want to “buy local”: Do I buy a $40 bottle of in-state Merlot or put that money toward a killer Rhone blend? (Discuss amongst yourselves.)

Most bottles we sampled dwelled on the elevated price plane ($25 to $50) and only a couple winemakers served up a value play. One was Linganore’s Anthony Aellen, who poured the very good Terrapin white blend that sells for $11 a bottle. Bordeleau’s Pinot Grigio was also a standout value at $14.

In the second half of our Maryland report, Mike will map out some suggested wine routes in the Old Line State.

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