Chesapeake Farm to Fork: Travel Along the Wine Trail of Anne Arundel County
Sep 11, 2017 01:43PM ● Published by Arden Haley
Adventures in the Art of ViticultureBy Rita Calvert || Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.
Anne Arundel County may boast just three vineyards at this time, however, each one has a unique character, all its own. Most likely, the owners and vintners wouldn’t call themselves conservationists, nevertheless, they all have dedicated their businesses to protecting the heritage and natural wealth of the Chesapeake. Now our county can mark its own Wine Trail along with the numerous trails highlighted by the Maryland Wineries Association.
The terroir (the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma) of our county’s three vineyards are quite similar, with frequent rainfall and high-humidity summers, posing a great challenge to winemakers. Another element, the soil, heavily influences the outcome of wine. Here in Anne Arundel County, most of the soil is quite loamy, with actual oyster shells in spots and a higher percentage of sand closer to the coast.
Surveys by the Maryland Grape Growers Association found 12 wineries in the state in 2001, then 46 in 2010. The Maryland Wineries Association counts 70 wineries licensed in Maryland today. That is, 70 facilities where wine is produced, but not necessarily vineyards, where grapes are grown. The three vineyards of Anne Arundel County all grow their own grapes and have a wine-making facility on their land, which is a great accomplishment in the art of viticulture.
Let’s meet our local vintners, Great Frogs, Dodon Vineyards, and Thanksgiving Farms.
An old and charming farm truck marks the narrow road leading to a small vineyard capped by a historic, former tobacco barn—which contains a small tasting room and a modern winemaking facility. As one approaches, there are actually two different activities happening: Great Frogs Winery, where the wine is made, and aged and Harness Creek Vineyards, home of the vines.
Nathanael and Andrea O’Shea are crafting wines with an artistic approach and rustic expression that requires a visit to truly be understood. The vineyard and winery are incredibly inviting with a relaxed ambiance. In fact, when I approached, three lively dogs. Finn, Bruno, and Scout barked out a welcome and then continued to hover during my chat with Andrea.
It is clear that the vintners of Great Frogs have a progressive hospitality background from the many successful events they host. Nowadays, small intimate events fit the vintners’ creative style. For example, every Friday eve, spring to fall, the vineyard holds a Date Night where wines are paired with upscale brick oven pizza truck offerings. At $75 per person, every Date Night, or “Dine in the Vines,” has been a sellout.
Andrea states, “Great Frogs Winery is located on Harness Creek Vineyards, surrounded by the South River, Aberdeen Creek, and Harness Creek. The land here has been farmed since the 1600s, as recalled by our iconic old tobacco barn—which is our cornerstone. We’re situated on a peninsula in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, so you will still find shucked oyster shells in the soil reminding us of the watermen who are central to Annapolis’ history. We are determined to preserve this rural history and green space so that it will continue to be a farm, as it has been since 1691. Our vineyard was planted in 2000 with French Bordeaux varietals and we’re proud of our lush foliage, organic vineyard floor, and the results we get from employing traditional methods.”
The vineyard’s forested land on Harness Creek Road has been protected by a conservation easement. The Chesapeake breezes protect our vines from the frost and humidity that plagues inland vineyards.
“When we moved from California, we had no idea there was a wine industry in Maryland. We were eager to get involved, not only because of our love for wine, but also our love of farming which goes back to our family farms in the Midwest.”
Nathanael and Andrea also have a second vineyard outside of Easton, which mirrors the French vines in Anne Arundel County although planted with French hybrid vines which grow best in the sandier soil of Talbot County—a fact which facilitates tending the vines well from their Annapolis base.
Just a stone’s throw from Historic Annapolis, Great Frogs is a close escape that transports one to a world of complete escape. Reservations are required for weekend tastings and can be made online.
What an afternoon: sipping the lovely Dodon Vineyard’s signature rosé in the winery’s inviting tasting room. We felt a world away with its handcrafted tables, a gorgeous bar made from fallen trees on the property, and alluring vista views through soaring windows. Without a doubt, this was the direct experience of owner Tom Croghan’s vision of wine appealing to all of the senses.
Croghan, a physician by training, gave us a grand 90-minute tour to share some of the farm’s centuries of history, along with a collection of colorful vintner stories and even some soil science for the layman. The 550-acre farm is a family legacy of his wife, Polly Pittman, whose family has owned the historic farm since 1725, where tobacco was grown up until the 1960s. It is still quite a family affair with six of Polly’s siblings as well her mother living on the land. Today, Dodon is the largest working family farm on the rolling hills of Davidsonville (Anne Arundel County) and has other enterprises such as a large equestrian training center and The Retired Horse Project, as well as the vineyard and winery. Four family homes and two tenant buildings dot the land.
One soil science fact: French grape vines thrive in soil depleted by the past tobacco cultivation. “The terroir, soils, and climate provide the essential foundation for outstanding wines, but it’s the people who make them—creating excellent wine requires that we use all our senses,” Croghan told us. “Each vine is touched by hand every two weeks in our totally hands-on approach.”
“When we began our first experiments with 150 vines, the goal was clear: to practice sustainable agriculture and produce exceptional wines. As ninth generation custodians of this historic farmland, and as demanding winemakers, we are committed to using viticultural practices and winemaking techniques that permit full expression of the unique deep sandy loam ‘Dodon Series Soils’ which lends our wines their distinctive aromatics and subtle minerality.”
While the Dodon wine facility appears rustic, it is a state of the art completely solar-powered enterprise. A lovely, wooden cabin-style building houses the well-appointed tasting room. From that room, a spiral staircase leads downstairs to a modern winemaking facility stocked with temperature controlled, stainless steel tanks and stacks of wine barrels. One could spend a full day at Dodon admiring both the views and the processes.
Dodon has been in the press frequently and Groghan’s networking has attracted much attention from viticulture professionals to study the winemaking terroir of the Chesapeake Bay region.
The Vineyard at Dodon features a clever wine club that provides members with additional use of the facility by way of special tastings within a social hour, invitations to private wine dinners, and access to the lovely tasting room for private group events. Tastings are $25 by appointment.
Thanksgiving Farm Winery
Doug Heimbuch, a fisheries scientist, and Maureen, an attorney with the Environmental Regulatory Commission, described their 58 acres of land as the center of a “doughnut” within the circle of surrounding land, which is still actively farming as Richland Farm. One must bypass barns and farm vehicles to get to the center of the doughnut or bulls eye for Thanksgiving Farm.
Mother Nature imposes many challenges on vineyards beyond what one thinks of already: weather, soil, vine tending. At Thanksgiving, the area’s deer have discovered the winery’s grapes to be quite tasty. While some vineyards employ canines to keep deer at bay, Thanksgiving has wrapped their vineyard with fencing—very tall fencing camouflaged by Crape Myrtle trees. The vintners explained to me that they are developing a system for sound to discourage grape-loving invaders. Birds also covet the tender fruit, so a netting system must be raised and lowered to save the grapes.
Along with winemaking (and active careers), Doug and Maureen continue to systematically restore the property’s 1893 farmhouse that is painted an immaculate white with lively green shutters. Both the house and farm itself are listed on National Register of Historic Places. To preserve the rural character of Thanksgiving Farm for perpetuity, Doug and Maureen were granted an Anne Arundel County conservation easement for the farm.
The trellises of vines follow the land’s contours of a gentle ridge to enable good drainage and minimize soil erosion, which appears as a beautiful wavelike pattern when viewed from some height. As beneficial as this design is to the land, some acreage for production is lost and the arrangement is labor intensive for maintenance. In between the vines, cover crops of clover, rye, and hairy vetch are planted to increase the organic matter in the soil while leaving no soil bare.
After harvesting their grapes by hand, the fruit is then processed in stainless steel tanks for fermentation. This allows the vintners to process their wines in small batches modeled after the wines they came to love in France’s Bordeaux region. Maureen stated, “Everybody has a different business model and originally we intended to create one quality Bordeaux. Now we have five different wines with our blended red being our best seller.” If you peruse Thanksgiving Farm’s website, you will find their wines are meticulously described with percentages of each grape and even the inches of rainfall during the grape maturation—fascinating!
From the comfortable wine-tasting room, one looks through a glass window revealing the barrel aging room and wine processing facility. In nice weather, there are tables next to the vines for an al fresco tasting
Thanksgiving Farm expanded its tasting room hours on Saturday and Sunday to accommodate increasing visitor interest. Look for their news via social media. Call for seasonal hours. Tastings are $10.
Anne Arundel County has so much to offer with three beautiful wineries in close proximity to each other, the Bay and Historic Annapolis. Sounds like quite a weekend trip, doesn’t it?