When Erin and Lester Melanson III first started dating, they both shared a growing passion for wine. They frequented wineries, often discussing how they might envision their own wines.
“We’d always say, ’Oh, this is what we would do’ or, ‘We would do this different,’” Erin said, describing it as a dream — a dream that one day would become a reality.
In 2008, they visited a make-your-own-wine place and, shortly after, began pursuing winemaking on their own, producing hundreds of bottles a year. Ready for the next step, Lester, an active Navy lieutenant commander who is an engineer and program manager, started taking classes, and the couple began searching for the perfect property to open their own winery and vineyard.
Although they first considered starting their winery in Northern Virginia, they decided to open up in Southern Maryland. They had lived in St. Mary’s County twice, both times when Lester was stationed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, and fell in love with the region. “I love this community,” Erin said. “It’s rural but it’s only, you know, an hour outside of [Washington] D.C. I mean it’s just, it’s the perfect place to raise our kids, to have a winery.”
Having found a place with sufficient space for their family of five and needed growing accommodations for the vineyard — such as type of soil and drainage capabilities — they finally settled in Mechanicsville in 2016. They soon moved in and planted grapes. Xella Winery and Vineyard, the name they coined for their business, was “off to the races,” Lester said.
But winemaking is a rather slow race. Grapes have to be harvested at a specific time for desired sugar and acid levels, they said, and creating the wine can take multiple months, from the fermenting period to the period of letting it sit in bottles. Today, they make 250 cases of wine a year, with each case holding a dozen 750 milliliter bottles, Lester said, and use a mixture of local and out-of-state grapes to produce the white, rosé and red wines.
They primarily make dry wines, as these are Erin and Lester’s favorites, but do sell the occasional sweet or dessert wine.
Their two most popular wines are the Almost’cato and Bad Barn Red. A not-so-sweet moscato, the Almost’cato is a dry and tart wine with a green apple flavor. “The people that love moscato say, “Oh, I want that! Let me try that!’ and we say, ‘Well, it’s actually not like any moscato you’ve ever had,’” Erin said.
The Bad Barn Red, which was recently awarded a bronze medal at the Maryland Comptroller’s Cup Competition 2019, is aged in oak barrels for 18 months and contains notes of currants, smoke and caramel, according to a Xella’s handout. It’s also named in honor of a tobacco barn on their property that collapsed.
When naming their wines, Lester said they go with whatever inspires them. The Pax River White and Pax River Red pay tribute to the locality of the grapes, which are grown in St. Mary’s. The Sauvage Blanc is taken from the traditional name for the Sauvignon Blanc, giving a nod to wine’s history.
“So that’s what we love about wine, right? It’s not just drinking or just wine for the taste of wine, there’s, there’s so much, like, history and chemistry and, you know, agriculture and art … it’s a little bit of everything like all in one bottle,” Lester said.
Xella — an acronym of their family member’s names, daughter Xenia, Erin, Lester III, son Lester IV, and daughter Amara — began offering tastings and bottles at the Shepherd’s Old Field Market in Leonardtown, in July of 2018, the month and year the indoor market opened.
“I’ve had a lot of fun just getting to meet people in the community and talking to people,” Lester said. “Some of the most fun is being able to share something you created, right, and then actually have them enjoy it.”
Xella’s hours at Shepherd’s Old Field Market are most Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, visit Xella’s website xellawine.com or one of their social media pages.