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Move over Napa Valley. Southern Maryland has become the new wine country.

There are no less than six wineries in St. Mary’s and Calvert counties with a new winery planned for La Plata in Charles County. Some former tobacco farmers who took the buyout 11 years ago have considered turning to grapes as an alternative crop and there certainly are plenty of places for them to sell their product.

Slack Winery - 16040 Woodlawn Lane in Ridge

Jim Grube and Margaret O’Brien’s venture in winemaking was twofold. One aspect was the winery, the other was helping to preserve agriculture in Southern Maryland.

“I grew up in Annapolis and rode horses as a kid through the last 400-acre farm on the Severn River every single day,” said Margaret “Maggie” O’Brien. “When we retired we were looking for farms that were still intact that we could buy and preserve from development. We found Jubilee Farm and we have 26 acres of vines planted there.”

There are also 10 acres of vineyards at Woodlawn Farm in Ridge, home of Slack Winery.

“We called ourselves Slack Winery from a project by Andrea Hammer, a former professor of English at St. Mary’s College. She had her students do a series of articles called Slackwater on the state of farms in Southern Maryland. [Farms have] been sold to development at the rate of 5 to 8 percent a year since the 1990s. Our intent was to save these farms and to figure out if a farming venture was viable in St. Mary’s County.

“It was eight years before our first harvest of grapes,” she said. “It was at least five years before we started making wine. The first year we harvested grapes was 2008, but we didn’t particularly like the product. So it was 2009-2010 before we made our first wine. ... In 2005, we bought Woodlawn, which we saw as a sales place for the wine. It also lent itself to a small inn. It sort of became an informal gathering place beginning this year on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoon. We became a place where people wanted to have their weddings. ... We’re well booked into 2013.”

“... In Southern Maryland, the soils predict what you can and cannot grow in terms of grapes,” she added. “... Jubilee Farm has exceptional soil. We have three more fields there targeted for vines.”

The weather in Southern Maryland also is not always conducive for growing grapes, she noted.

“We lost 100 percent of our crop last year due to Hurricane Isabel,” O’Brien said.

Woodlawn was originally the manor home, the country home of Maryland’s first governor, Leonard Calvert. When they bought the property, Grube and O’Brien were awarded the original land tract document dating to the early 17th century, now framed and hanging on the wall at Woodlawn. The present house was built in 1798.

Woodlawn was recently voted the best bed and breakfast in the state by Maryland Life magazine. “It was nice to get a little recognition from afar,” O’Brien said.

Their first product was a far cry from what most local wine makers venture toward.

“Most people are afraid of making sparkling wine because it’s under intense pressure,” O’Brien noted, “but that was one of the first wines we made and it won a California wine competition. It did as well as some of the California wines.”

Port of Leonardtown Winery

The Port of Leonardtown Winery is a little different from other wineries in the region. For one thing, the enterprise came about as a collaboration between the state of Maryland, St. Mary’s County, the town of Leonardtown and a cooperative of 18 members.

The winery is located in the old state road garage at the intersection of Route 5 and Newtown Neck Road in Leonardtown.

The hard part was the building itself, said manager Richard Fuller.

“The dirt underneath the floor had hydraulic fluid and engine oil all through it,” Fuller said. “We had to extract all of the soil and put new soil underneath. That cost us a lot of money to rectify. If you go down about 5 foot, you hit water. The building was offered to us at no cost.

“The state gave us a loan,” he added. “The county purchased a lot of the equipment in the building. The town provided the facility.

“ ... Our big question was is there an interest in growing grapes to make a winery work? Fortunately, enough people were interested. The proof is in the pudding. We’ve been winning awards since the first wine came out of the barrel.

“Pat Isles is our winemaker,” Fuller added. “He’s a defense contractor, a really brilliant guy. He knows what he’s doing and thankfully for us, he keeps really good records.

“ ... We have vineyards in St. Mary’s County, three in Calvert County, one in Charles County and one across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Chestertown. One of our members inherited her parent’s farm with her brother. She lives in St. Mary’s County. They split the harvest between them.

Fuller, like O’Brien, said it can be challenging growing grapes in Southern Maryland.

“It’s a difficult environment for growing grapes,” he said. “Grapes like a lot of moisture in the spring, dry summers and dry falls. Grapes like warm days and cool nights. We have very few cool nights here during the summertime. We don’t tend to get dry falls, either. ... Last year, with Hurricane Irene, we lost 20 to 30 percent of our grapes.”

He said some years have been outstanding, however, which can be a good problem to have.

“We are struggling with the volume of grapes,” he admitted. “We bottled late in 2011 early this year, so we currently have a warehouse full of wine.”

The array of equipment now housed at the old building makes for an impressive display for visitors. They also have the former bar from Pennie’s in Leonardtown, complete with old photographs under glass.

“That’s always of interest to people,” Fuller said. “We had one guy come in here and saw a picture taken outside Pennie’s back in the day, and he said, ‘Hey! That’s my father’s car in that picture. That was pretty neat.”

Fuller said they filter their wine thoroughly before it ever gets to the bottle.

“We filter our wine three times during the bottling process, because Southern Maryland has a lot of mold and mildew, so we strain our wine to make sure all of that gets out of it,” he said. “We grow about 80 percent of our grapes locally.”

Really, the only problem confronting Port of Leonardtown Winery is sort of a space issue.

“We’ve won so many awards we have problems finding a place to put them all,” Fuller noted.

Barbara Scarborough Running Hare Winery

The tale of how Running Hare Vineyard at 150 Adelina Road in Prince Frederick has its origins in old-time Calvert County.

“This is a good story,” said Running Hare’s Barbara Scarborough. “This was a hobby that got way out of hand. My husband did everything in college to avoid having to take biology [which he could have used in his wine-making efforts]. He bought this property from Judge [Perry] Bowen in 2000. It didn’t look a thing like it does now. We lived in Annapolis and were looking for a hunting property. In 2003, Mike planted 100 vines to see if he could grow grapes. And the rest is history.

“The harvest in 2007 was the one that changed everything,” Scarborough said. “Prior to that, Mike was just growing grapes to make his own wine. That year, we got 800 gallons of juice. We had only gotten 80 gallons the previous year, so it was a huge jump. Eight hundred gallons is more than what the federal government says you can grow for personal consumption. You can only grow 500 gallons for your own use. So, since we were over our legal limit, we decided to open a winery, which we did in 2008.”

Since then, Running Hare has won five international gold medals for their wine.

“We grow and import our grapes,” she said. “The Malbec grapes for making red wine, we import. We can’t grow them in Southern Maryland. We import the whole grape and do the production of the wine here. The white grapes we grow on the farm.

Scarborough said an unexpected sidebar to their business has also been the most lucrative.

“People started approaching us about doing weddings here,” she said. “After we had done a few, we kept hearing, ‘the tent’s okay, but do you have a building available?’ ... We designed the building ourselves, everything from the fixtures to the décor. What made it really interesting, 30 couples booked the hall for their weddings before it was ever built. ... It was built in five months, three days, three snowstorms and a hurricane. We never thought we’d have 30 inches of snow, but we did, just after we got the roof on. It was a little stressful.”

How the winery got its name is an interesting story, too.

“Mike did a lot of research and discovered that 60 percent of wine purchases were by women,” she said. “He also found that women like animals small, fluffy non-confrontational animals. He saw a running rabbit, and that was it. Running Hare became our trademark.”

Mike noted that they have “weathered the storm,” so to speak.

“Due to last year’s hurricane, we did just as badly as the other growers in the region,” he admitted. “Our white grapes, we harvested just before the storm, so we were able to get them out of the field. The others didn’t fare so well.”

Although Southern Maryland soil has been given the “not good for growing grapes” designation in some instances, Mike noted, “Our soil is excellent. It’s sandy and gravelly, and they’re doing very well. We’ve done well. I guess even a blind squirrel can find a nut now and then.”

Another interesting aspect of Running Hare’s imaginative way of doing thing you will find in the tasting pavilion. Almost all of the furniture, from glass racks down to the tables, is made from recycled wine barrels. It’s a nice twist, along with the cypress trees and the Italian look of the landscape. One can almost imagine they’re in Tuscany.

“For me, the part I like, I was working in a lawyer’s office going back and forth to D.C. and working 12 to 14 hours a day.” Scarborough said. “Now, I commute five steps out of my front door.”

Not there yet

Patch Hendricks in La Plata hasn’t taken the plunge yet, but he and his family are thinking about putting in a vineyard in Charles County. If and when it happens, it would be the first for the county.

“This is something my sister and I have been talking about as a way to preserve our farm,” he said. “Joe Fiola, vineyard program specialist for the University of Maryland and Ben Beale, University of Maryland extension agent for St. Mary’s County, have been running a news grower’s workshop for vineyards. They do it every year. It’s very informal and pretty intensive. My sister and her busband and my wife and I attended one and that’s when we first had some interest. We were a little intimidated at the chemical issues of pesticides and herbicides involved in growing grapes. But this involves our family and all four of us are college educated... we don’t want that to be the only reason we didn’t do this. neccesary equipment investment.”

Hendricks said his initial thought is to plant in the neighborhood of five acres and said he knows that it would be a long-term investment.

“in some instances you can get marketable crop in the fourth year, but not too often,” he said.

“We have a total of about 13 acres that we feel is suitable and ready for vine growth and we may go that far, we don’t want to get in too deep before we see if shows enough promise,” he said. “Our initial thought is to go with five acreas, to start small and build our way up.

“I actually want to do it because I want the farm to work,” he added. “You have to create a venue, you’ve got to have draws, tours, create attractions that will draw people. Just having a vineyard or a winery are not going to draw in the number of people to make it work. Two of the properties are currently horse farms so we may offer hayrides, horseback riding or a horse stable operation. It’s got to be multi-pronged, everybody I’ve talked to has said that.”

Other Southern Maryland wineries:

Cove Point Winery, 755 Cove Point Road, Lusby

The oldest winery in Southern Maryland, Tim and Sheryl Lewis have been operating Cove Point Winery since 2004. Cove Point Winery is a small boutique winery located six miles north of Solomons Island and just a short distance from Cove Point Lighthouse Maryland’s oldest operational lighthouse. They harvest grapes and juice from various growers all over Maryland in addition to their own vineyard. Cove Point also obtains fruit from other sources in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Starting out in 2004 making only around 2,000 gallons of wine, the vineyard now produces well more than 7,000 gallons and are growing more every year.

The current vineyard is a small experimental vineyard with plantings of cayuga white, chardonnel, cabernet franc, chambourcin, merlot, NY73 (noiret), vidal, seyval, foch, mars, neptune, Niagara, catawba, dornfelder, blaufrankisch and symphony vines.

Their goals are to produce a variety of wines that the non-wine drinker would enjoy, as well as impressing the connoisseur.

Solomons Winery

Solomons Winery was founded as a micro-winery by Ken Korando in fall 2002.

On 10 acres just north of Solomons Island in southern Calvert County, the Solomons Winery grows a small amount of their own grapes, however, their wines are currently produced predominantly from fruit produced by other growers. As such, they are able to produce a wide variety of wines.

Produced in limited production are four dry premium wines: chardonnay, rose of merlot, cabernet sauvignon/merlot and marytage. Their marytage (meritage) is a Bordeaux-style blended red wine made with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and malbec.

Also available are sweet wines labeled Solomons Island Mist that are light and fruity: Green Apple Riesling, Pineapple Chardonnay, Mango Symphony, Kiwi Pear Sauvignon Blanc, Blueberry Pinot Noir, Black Raspberry Merlot, Watermelon White Merlot and Exotic Fruits White Zinfandel.

The winery also produces outstanding seasonal dessert wines.

Friday’s Creek Winery, 3485 Chaneyville Road, Owings

Fridays Creek Winery is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday. The wines are available to take home or enjoy at the winery at those times. Friday’s Creek offers a sampling of most wines at a small charge. The facility has ample seating both inside and out. Visitors are welcome to bring friends, snacks and/or picnic foods.

jnorris@somdnews.com

Riverside WineFest

The 10h Annual Riverside WineFest at Sotterley is coming up Oct. 6-7 and the historic plantation has many opportunities for companies and individuals to join the event as sponsors.

The generous support of many people ensures a successful event, enabling Sotterley to continue significant preservation and educational efforts and keeps Sotterley open to the public year after year. Not only is this excellent exposure to a large and diverse audience of thousands, but it benefits the plantation’s important mission of preserving, researching and interpreting the site’s diverse cultures and environments, and to serve as a public education and cultural resource.

To be included in the Riverside WineFest at Sotterley 2012 marketing materials as a sponsor, program advertiser, or both, Sotterley is asking for commitments (and artwork) by Sept. 4. Call Eileen Miller, marketing manager at 301-373-2280 or emailmarketing@sotterley.org.

The Riverside WineFest at Sotterley celebrates the best of Maryland wineries in the breathtaking setting of this National Historic Landmark. Combining fun and education, guests come to the place where wine flows freely, live music is jamming, kids are making crafts and playing Colonial games, informative demonstrations and exhibits on wine making and tasting are offered, artists are selling their exquisite creations, food is scrumptious, and the 1703 Plantation House Mini Tours and the Colonial Revival Garden Tours are free.