Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Old Westminster Winery: Bringing Youthful Vigor to the Old Line State

Maryland Wine is receiving a youthful boost with the entry of Old Westminster Winery into the industry. The winery is owned and operated by the Baker Family, with siblings Drew, Lisa, and Ashli managing the vineyard, wine making, and marketing respectively. And evidently the housing crash of 2008 lead to the creation of the winery. Wanting to sell the winery, and seeing reduced property values, the family investigated alternative uses for the land and decided, why not a vineyard and winery. They then planted seven acres of grapes, some unique to Maryland: Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay, Albariño, and Sauvignon Blanc. The first harvest from these vines occurred during the Autumn of 2011, so they will need to wait two more years until they can utilize estate fruit. In the meantime, they are sourcing fruit from other Maryland vineyards, Chatham Vineyards in the eastern shore of Virginia, and from California.

As their name suggests, the winery is located just outside of Westminster, Maryland and expects wine sales to be driven through their tasting room. They are located only twenty miles from the Baltimore Beltway. They also plan to follow the wine style modeled by neighboring Black Ankle Vineyards and eschew the sweet wine market and concentrate on premium dry wines. Currently the winery is not open to the public (expect a Spring 2013 opening) but are allowing 100 Century Club members to receive lifetime access to the facility in order to taste the wines as they progress from barrel to bottle.

Lisa Baker invited me to visit the winery and sample the wines from barrel. While planning the trip I realized their story may be interesting to viewers of VirginiaWineTV, so we also filmed an episode which will be available in early April. How interesting? Well, how often to 20-something year old siblings start a winery. Drew, the elder, is 26 and could not join us since he is on sabbatical in New Zealand, learning from the southern harvest. Ashli, the youngest, will graduation college this year take over all marketing functionality. And Lisa, 23, is the full time wine maker. Her Chemistry degree is an obvious advantage in her new vocation and there are plenty of consultants available to instruct through each phase of wine making. However, my initial skepticism was how has she developed a palette for noticing the nuances in different wines. She acknowledges this potential handicap and described to me how she and Drew have tasted hundreds of wines trying to identify missing structure or imperfections. They will continue this crash course in order to improve both their palettes. And Lisa is getting plenty of practice in the winery. Last year the Maryland Assembly passed a law legalizing the equivalent of a custom crush. So this year, Old Westminster Winery became such a facility and Lisa assisted consultant John Levenberg in making wine for two other Maryland start-ups, Crow Vineyard and Winery and Vineyards At Dodon.

I arrived at the winery to find their first bottled wine, the 2011 Maryland Rosé, produced from the bleeding of their Maryland sourced Merlot. The also bottled a Rosé from the Chatham grapes, keeping that juice separate so they could enter the Maryland Rosé into state competitions. Since their red wines will remain in barrel for another 12-14 months, the saignée rosés provide the Bakers with quick proof that there infant enterprise is truly a functioning winery.

Before we sampled the wines, Lisa described how each stage in the wine making process is dictated by their core philosophy: producing high quality wines. These include hand sorting the grapes, separate heating and cooling systems built into the fermentation tanks, and close oversight with the winery's consultants (initially John Levenberg, now Carl DiManno).

We started our tasting with the Merlot from Chatham and it was quickly evident that another to creating quality wine was obtaining quality fruit. And this lot contained solid fruit. After only two months in new French oak, the wine retaining a fruit forward character and a little harsh tannins from the stems and skin. Over time these tannins will mellow and change as tannins from the wood are imparted into the wine. Yet this wine is really drinkable now - a solid wine that hopefully will retain its fruit during the next 14 months in barrel.

The next two wines were sourced from California and will be used to supplement the Maryland and Virginia lots. The fruit from both barrels, one Merlot, the other Syrah, were lighter than the Chatham Merlot and will need more time in barrel to generate more body and structure. The wines will also benefit from barrel aging to introduce more tannins. Ironically, these batches will test Lisa's wine making skills.

The final wine was a Maryland Cabernet Franc, where they grapes were sourced from a vineyard in Thurmont Maryland. In general, this wine is coming along nicely. It had as much fruit flavor as the Chatham Merlot, but with less tannins. Evidently the tannins are mellowing quickly because Lisa noticed a change since the last taste a week ago. And paired with a proprietary chocolate, the tannins disappeared completely. Maybe that's how they will market dry wines to a sweet wine market.

I look forward to returning to Old Westminster in six or seven months when they start crushing and fermenting their white wine. And hopefully at that time Drew will be available to navigate us through their second year of harvest. Check out their Century Club video below and I'll be adding the link to the Virginia Wine TV episode soon. Cheers.

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