The Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia have long been home to crops like tomatoes, corn and soybeans. But if you’ve traveled off the main routes lately, you may have noticed a new harvest: grapes. The last eight years have seen three new wineries open in each state (with several more in the works). The majority of these wineries use locally grown grapes and prove that there is good local wine to be had on the Eastern Shore. Stop by the following wineries— one at a time or several on a single trip— and see and taste for yourself.
>Tilmon’s Island Winery
Don Tilmon didn’t intend to open a winery. The University of Delaware professor of agricultural economics characterizes his winery as a hobby that “kind of got out of hand.”
“This is something that I did for fun,” says Tilmon, who started making wine in 1999, but expanded his hobby into a winery after friends who tasted his wine “hinted about wanting more.”
Tilmon opened his winery in 2004 with a tasting room in the tidy cellar of his cream-colored Cape Cod home, next to the room where he does his woodworking. Prettier is the backyard garden, with a small gazebo and compact vineyard of Concord grapes used to make Dame Judith’s Red Hat Red, a slightly sweet red wine named in honor of his wife, Judy, and her membership in the Red Hat Society. Grapes for the Chambourcin, Merlot, Pinot Grigio and other wines Tilmon makes are grown locally in Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Caroline counties.
Be aware, however, that Tilmon’s Island Winery is in Sudlersville in Queen Anne’s County, and not on Tilghman Island. Don Tilmon’s ancestors migrated from Virginia’s Eastern Shore to Yell County, Ark., in the 1870s, changing the spelling of their name along the way. “I thought I was being so clever calling [the winery] Tilmon’s Island, but people come up to me at festivals and say there’s no winery on Tilghman Island.”
Recommended sip: 2006 Chester River Merlot, a pretty, easy-drinking Merlot with soft edges and a hint of dusky cocoa. $12.
755 Millington Road, Sudlersville, Md., 443-480-5021, http://www.tilmonswine.com Hours: Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Tasting fee: None
>Little Ashby Vineyards
As you cruise down Ashby Drive to Little Ashby Vineyards, you’re greeted first by healthy rows of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and then by two enthusiastic canines, Chester and Lola, whose portraits appear on all of the winery’s labels. Warren Rich, a lean, ruddy-skinned man who radiates intensity, comes last, ambling out of his winery with a seriousness of purpose.
“I think this is one of the prettiest vineyards near the water,” he says as the Miles River sparkles behind a collection of mature oaks, pines and magnolias. Rich and his wife, Lynne, live on the property, and it’s Lynne who will often serve wine at the picnic tables set up next to the vineyard and at intervals close to the river’s banks.
In addition to being a winemaker, Warren Rich is also an environmental lawyer; yet he manages to produce around 400 cases of wine a year from the fruit produced by two vineyards he owns and from another vineyard owned by a friend. His wines are classic in style— his Super Talbot is a nod to wines known as Super Tuscans, high-quality blends of grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Rich also has shown his taste for a challenge in growing Pinot Noir, a notoriously fickle and difficult varietal to grow because of its thin skin and susceptibility to rot. His 2007 Pinot Noir is light, he admits, but it’s also fragrant and filled with the delicate spiciness and fresh cherry fruit that characterizes classic Pinot Noir— evidence that Rich is more than up to the challenge of winemaking.
Recommended sips: 2007 Pinot Noir (see above). $33. 2006 Super Talbot, a rich blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon that’s beefy yet elegant. $30.
27549 Ashby Drive, Easton, Md., 410-819-8850, http://www.littleashbyvineyards.com Hours: By appointment only. Tasting fee: None.
>St. Michaels Winery
St. Michaels Winery is hopping. Even on a Monday afternoon, the tasting room is filled with couples (including a pair from Annapolis on a makeshift honeymoon) sipping wine at round tables made from wine barrels or at the winery’s handsome copper-topped bar. Bookshelves boast titles from local authors, a framed flour sack recalls the building’s past life as a mill, and sails from locally made historic log canoes hang from the ceiling. And there are lots of wines to choose from.
The winery made six wines in 2006, its inaugural year. Today it makes 19 different varieties (some from local grapes; others from grapes flown in from California) to produce a total of 10,000 cases per year. The winery’s tasting flights reflect this diversity, as well as acknowledging the preferences of different wine drinkers for dry and sweet wines. (Each flight offers between six and seven 1-ounce tastes of wine, plus a souvenir glass; for our favorites, see below.) All of this keeps owner and winemaker Mark Emon busy— and not just making wine. “A lot of people have this romantic idea of what a winery is,” he says with a laugh. “I just finished using a forklift [to move boxes around].”
Still, Emon understands the connection between wine and pleasure. Each year he ages portions of Merlot in a variety of oak barrels that yield different flavors, and when the wine is ready, he invites friends to try the different batches in an event he calls “A Barrel of Fun.” No forklifting required.
Recommended sips: 2007 Long Splice White, a juicy blend of Chardonnay and Seyval from a local 25-year-old Wye Mills vineyard. $14. 2007 Martha Chambourcin, named after the skipjack that delivered these Havre de Grace-grown grapes to the winery. It’s bright and lively with fresh flavors of pie cherries. $34.50.
605 S. Talbot St., St. Michaels, Md., 410-745-0808, http://www.st-michaels-winery.com Hours: Monday-Friday noon to 6 p.m.; Saturday noon to 7 p.m.; Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Open every day year-round. Tasting fee: $6 for six 1-ounce pours, including souvenir glass; crackers and locally made Chapel’s Creamery cheese available.
In his past life in New York City, Robert Giardina remodeled kitchens and baths, played in rock bands, and fermented homemade wine made from grapes bought at the Brooklyn Terminal Market. Today, making wine is all Giardina has time for. But now the Casablanca native is on the northern end of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and the grapes he uses are all the fruit of his own labor and vineyards.
Of course, wine is the main attraction at Bloxom, but it’s hard to find a prettier place to be drinking it than the winery’s tasting room and outdoor covered patio (both built by Giardina himself). Trailing trumpet vines and hanging pots of geraniums decorate the patio, which also features Giardina’s handmade picnic tables and a wood-burning oven where his wife, Francesca, a pastry chef, bakes her homemade ciabatta bread. (She also makes homemade truffles, available for sale in the tasting room.)
Inside, burnt-orange-colored walls and a warm, wood-planked floor and ceiling invite lingering over a sweet blush or a lightly oaked Chardonnay. If you feel like you’ve been transported to a Mediterranean villa, well, that’s exactly what Giardina hopes for.
Recommended sips: Bloxom’s biggest seller, the 2007 Red Kiss, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, offers what Giardina characterizes as “a little kiss of sweetness.” Yes, it’s sweet, but not cloying, and served chilled, as Giardina recommends, it’s quite refreshing on a warm day. $13.
26130 Mason Rd., Bloxom, Va., 757-665-5670, http://www.bloxomwinery.com Hours: June-December, Fri.-Sun. noon-5 p.m. Tasting fee: $1 for two samples; cheese, crackers, bread, and truffles available for purchase.
>Holly Grove Vineyards
Jonathan Bess may make only three wines, but already those wines have won a combined nine medals in state and national competitions. Not bad for a winery that’s been in business for two years.
Bess developed a love for wine while traveling the world as a naval officer. Now retired after 25 years of service, he’s devoted his time to growing grapes and making his own high-quality wine. Approximately 2,100 vines of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier and Petite Verdot grow on his property that abuts the lovely Holly Grove Cove leading out to the Bay. (Views from the cove adorn the wines’ labels.) Chardonnay and Merlot come from leased vineyards nearby.
Visitors can sample Bess’s wines in his brand new (and self-built) tasting room. Cedar planks line the small room’s walls, and the top of the bar is made from Brazilian hardwood leftover from Bess’s home on the property. Ever looking forward, Bess is planning a second-story sitting room that will overlook the vineyard.
“I don’t think of [winemaking] as an industry,” muses the lanky Bess, as he examines his vines, his Jack Russell terrier, Bullseye, at his heels. “I think of it as a super hobby.” Looking around his property, he’s all smiles and graciousness: “It’s our little piece of nature.”
Recommended sip: 2006 Chardonnay. Aged on the lees, this rich, barrel-fermented Chardonnay is bursting with baked-apple and ripe pear flavors. $17.
6404 Holly Bluff Dr., Franktown, Va., 757-442-2844, http://www.hollygrovevineyards.com Hours: By appointment. Tasting fee: None.
>Chatham Vineyards Anyone who thinks the making of fine wine is confined to the West Coast needs to try Jon Wehner’s wines at Chatham, the 17th-century estate and farm owned by his family in Machipongo, Va. Wehner has been making wine full time for 10 years but has been around winemaking all his life; his parents grew grapes and made wine in Fairfax County in 1970, when Wehner was born.
At Chatham, Wehner grows 32,000 vines on just-over 20 acres of sandy loam soil. Some of the grapes are sold to other winemakers, but approximately 35 tons are used at Chatham to make the 2,200 cases the winery produces per year. Visitors can sample Merlot, Cabernet Franc, two styles of Chardonnay and a dry rose at the small bar in the winery’s fermentation building or on the vineyard-facing patio. (Plans to move an old house on the property and connect it with the fermentation building are underway.)
Wehner wants his wines to be “expressive of the site” on which they’re grown, hoping wine lovers will taste “the pure flavors of the vineyard” in his wine. He “dry farms,” which means that he doesn’t irrigate and uses cover crops to lure insects away from the grapes rather than insecticides. And if he is forced to use fungicides, they are green ones that are not harmful to the environment. “You can be a good steward of the land,” says Wehner. “I think we are.”
Although Wehner takes winemaking very seriously, it’s clear that he also finds delight in the process. “Every year is different and Mother Nature rules,” he says, adding that ultimately, everything that goes into a bottle of wine happens in the vineyard. The proof is in the bottle.
Recommended sips: 2007 Church Creek Chardonnay, Steel. Clean and intense with crisp apple and a little orange rind. $15.
2005 Church Creek Merlot. Dark cherry fruit with good structure and soft finish. $17. 9232 Chatham Rd., Machipongo, Va. 757-678-5588, http://www.chathamvineyards.net. Hours: Thurs.-Mon. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m. Tasting fee: None.