by Hope Holland
With a full year of unusual and persistent rains that followed late spring cold snaps, any farmer in Maryland could not be blamed for feeling a little put upon. Add to that the threat of having the tail end of a large hurricane threatening you with more rain, and being darn well discouraged is almost a given, especially when it comes right in prime harvesting time.
But discouraged is not a word that growers of any kind easily acknowledge, and for the four farms that make up the Legacy Wine Trail of Southern Maryland the feeling is one of hope and determination.
Susan Watson White and her husband Bob run Robin Hill Farm & Vineyards. A couple of days before Hurricane Florence (at that time a Category 4) was supposed to land in North Carolina, the couple still had two tons of grapes to gather from their vineyard.
The harvesting of grapes is done by hand with scissors and a trug (a shallow, oblong basket made of strips of wood) while walking between the rows. The trug is dumped into a larger container that is eventually taken to the winery, where the grapes are moved into production. This is done by family, friends and by clients who volunteer because they enjoy being part of the process of grape gathering as the start of wines they will enjoy later.
Robin Hill Farm is able to grow sufficient grapes from two of their chosen varieties, Vidal Blanc and Chardonel (a variety created by the merger of Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc) on five acres planted with 3,100 vines. They also grow Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc and Merlot vines.
The rain that plagued Maryland is not friendly to the vines or to the grapes they grow. Bob White said that he combats the worst of the water build-up in the soil by allowing grass to grow unchecked in the rows (not under the vines themselves) between the lines of vines.
“Grass uses a lot of water,” he said, “and the more that it uses the less there is for the vines to have to deal with.”
Susan White noted, “This much rain can cause the grapes to crack and rot on the vines, so we have to get them in before the hurricane can send even more rain than we have dealt with this year.”
Asked what her plans were for emergency problems on her land, she replied, “I plan to pray a lot.”
A side note for all four farms in the Legacy Wine Trail: most of the grapes have been planted on land that was previously used for growing tobacco, which was a money crop in southern Maryland for many years. The sandy loam that grew fine tobacco is now the home of long lines of vines. It is also interesting to note that all of the vineyards are relatively new, most being four to six years old.
Each of the farms on the Legacy Trail has its own tasting room and creates a client-friendly atmosphere for those who want to visit the vineyards to enjoy the bottled fruit of those vines. Often there is live music and last year there was a special winter tasting in mid-December that was so successful that it was repeated in March with great success. It will be repeated this winter with a maximum of 100 tickets to be sold on later this year.
The four farms are within nine miles of each other, with some as close as two miles apart. All of them work together in a mutual outreach to the wine clients who travel the Legacy Trail.
Joseph Romano’s Romano Vineyards and Winery holds pride of place for being the first of the young vineyards to the area offers five varieties – Chambourcin, Barbera, Vidal, Cayuga and Traminette. His wines are offered in 18 to 20 different off-vineyard stores but he also has a tasting room and said his customers are a good mix between novice wine tasters and the more knowledgeable people who enjoy discussing the differences between the vintages.
Rain has been his most determined enemy this year, he said, as most of his grapes are cold tolerant. Romano said, “I still have about five tons of grapes out there that we have to get in before the worst of the storms hit and I hope that I can get most of it done.”
Romano noted, “I have vines that are planted on ground that was used for tobacco and then on the other side of the road, I have vines that are planted on ground that was used for corn, hay, et cetera, and the vines definitely seem to like that tobacco-producing ground better.”
Romano said he and his wife Jo-Ann enjoy the social end of the wine business, helping his customers to choose the wines that they like best as well as the fact that a vineyard is a family business.
Gemeny Winery and Vineyards, owned by William Livingston, has been growing grapes since 2007 and making wine since 2011. Of this year’s quasi-washout conditions, Livingston said, “Our harvest is over for this year as rain has greatly affected it. We have four acres of vines but we have plans to add an additional four acres of vines over the 2019-2020 season and our eventual goal is to reach a full 10 acres of vines.”
He sells his varietal wines from his own retail store at the Gemeny Winery tasting room and said he “prefers to stay with the varietal wines in order to promote the grape.” His tasting room is a popular place with a great deal of entertainment going on to enchant the lovers of wine, music and food as well.
Gemeny Winery and Vineyards grows several varieties, including Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. He also grows Traminette, which produces a dry white wine and is an Americanized type of Gewürztraminer, as well as Norton, which is a variety native to the Americas and which gets along well in most conditions.
Livingston said, “The Norton offers a taste that I would term ‘foxy’ – an earthy, rich, almost jammy sort of taste.” He is quick to qualify that “Each person’s palate is different and so, of course, they might have quite a diverse experience of the grape.”
Livingston’s four-year investment from planting to harvest and offering his own vintages is typical of the other four wineries too. It takes about that long for the vines to take firm root and start producing enough grapes to give a good vintage for bottling. Some move faster on one variety or the other, but that four years is certainly the average time to expect to invest.
Janemark Winery and Vineyard, owned by Jane and Mark Vogt, is another of the four year turnaround vineyards, adding to that about two years of consideration and planning ahead of any actual planting of vines. Located on 2.1 acres of land previously used for tobacco, they have 1,225 vines of Albarin᷉o, Barbera, Chambourcin, Petit Manseng and Pinot Blanc varieties. New to the vineyard is Petit Verdot, which is principally used in classic Bordeaux blends.
Jane’s take on the weather threatening the southern Maryland counties is, “We’re going to wait and see what the weekend brings. The longer that the grapes stay on the vine, the more concentrated the flavor is, and so we are going to chance it.”
The fact that Janemark Winery was invited to display their wines and offer information on the growing experience at nearby the Anne Arundel County Fair may have something to do with the decision, as it is very hard to be in two different places at the same time. This is the first time that the Anne Arundel County has offered this experience to its fairgoers and Jane Vogt is taking her responsibilities to spread the word about winemaking very earnestly.
She believes in winemaking not only as a method of creating a business but also a great way to speak about the community of people who have decided to take that large and not inexpensive step.
“We have a wonderful community of winemakers here in southern Maryland,” she said. “I don’t know of a more supportive industry to try to make a living in. This is truly a business where the lines between friends and family blend happily into one another.
“I have reason to be thankful for that,” she continued, “because a lot of our clients have been calling and asking ‘Have we missed harvesting?’ as many of them come out to the vineyard and actually help pick the grapes with us. They like being a part of the process as much as the end of it when we get to go into our tasting room and sample the very grapes that they volunteered to pick. You just can’t get a better client base than that, can you?”