The foil band thwaps around the bottle’s neck, a split second later heat tightened under a miniature dryer bonnet. The bottles, standing up like a progression of toy soldiers, circle the bend on the narrow conveyer belt of this miniature bottling plant inside the truck that pulled up to the Dodon farm just hours ago.
Each bottle gets a cork, a foil seal and labels, front and back, which tell the story of what’s inside: Dungannon wine, vintage 2014, grapes a blend of mostly Merlot and Cabernet Franc, from vines planted years before. What the label may not reveal is how those vines have been watered, worried over, trimmed back, have had some insects shooed away while others were allowed to hover nearby. Once harvested, the fruit is destemmed and sorted; it ferments and then ages in a barrel made from French oak (Each of the barrel’s 27 staves is hewn from a different tree; the coopers are artisans who create these vessels to add flavor to the wine). Today, each bottle is dressed to go out into the world. But these soldiers won’t be heading to battle.
“We don’t do wine competitions,” says Tom Croghan, who owns the Anne Arundel County winery with his wife, Polly Pittman. In a wine competitions, wines are tasted in succession, he says, “so it’s clear that the wine you had before, or the hors d’oeuvre, or the olive, will change the way you taste the next wine.” In other words, “to show well you need to make an intense wine.”
And this isn’t the style of wine the couple wants to make. “We make wines that we want to drink at home and finish the bottle,” Pittman says.
The inspiration to make wine evolved from family events, many of which involved meals prepared with food from their farm, and Croghan reasoned the food should be served with wine they had made as well. Between the two of them, the couple has five adult children and Polly’s siblings and their mother live nearby on the 550-acre farm. The winery, says Pittman, “became another child — or two or three — that we produced as a couple.”
Pittman and Croghan started in 2007 by planting a handful of grapes to assess the feasibility of the soil and weather. “We planted what we enjoy drinking,” Pittman says. That was 13 varietals including northern Italian and Bordeaux grapes. “We didn’t plant any hybrids,” grapes like Vidal Blanc and Chambourcin engineered for hardiness and consistency of flavor, she says. “We’re not interested in drinking hybrids.”
The farm, southwest of Annapolis, sits on a rare swath of deep earth with a blend of plant material and minerals that creates ideal conditions for a vineyard. The soil was designated Dodon Series Soils in 2003 by the U.S. National Cooperative Soil Survey, years before the winery was envisioned. “They hit the jackpot with that soil,” says Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association.
Since 2014, The Vineyards at Dodon has produced about 1,200 cases of wine annually, with approximately 2,500 cases projected for 2017, from grapes grown exclusively on the farm, or “estate-grown,” in wine lingo. Among Maryland’s 90 or so wineries, only a handful (“Maybe 15,” according to Atticks) claim to grow all their fruit on site. “If you look around the world of wine, you tend to see that the best wines come from small estate wineries,” Atticks says.
Estate grown grapes are subject to unpredictable weather and require lots of attention “to a point where you don’t have the volume to commit to an elaborate wholesale program,” he explains. Estate wineries like Dodon tend to market their products to wine clubs, boutique distributors and restaurant sommeliers. Dodon’s 400 wine club members purchase about 70 percent of the yearly haul, says Regina Mc Carthy, director of client services. The rest go to restaurants including Grand Cru, Woodberry Kitchen, Wit & Wisdom, La Cuchara and Magdalena in Baltimore; Fox’s Den and the Severn Inn in Annapolis; and Bourbon Steak and the Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C. Shops like Ellicott City’s Wine Bin, Dean & Deluca in D.C. and The Wishing Well in Easton also stock limited quantities of Dodon wines.
These days Croghan, a retired internist who continues to serve as an adviser for Medicare programs, devotes most of his time to the winery. Pittman, a professor in health policy at George Washington University, pitches in when she can, notably on planting, harvest and bottling days.
The farm has been in Pittman’s family since 1725, when her ancestor, George Humes Steuart bought a 5,000-acre tobacco plantation. He continued to farm Oronoco tobacco, and also imported horses, including Dungannon, a Scottish thoroughbred who raced against the Carroll family farm in 1743 and won a silver cup that is now in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s collection. One of Dodon’s “Collector’s Series” wines is named for the horse whose victory was “family legend,” Pittman says. Dungannon wine sells on the Dodon website for about $58. (Prices are lower if you’re a member of the vineyard’s wine club.)
The champion steed’s legacy also endures down the road, where Polly’s brother Steuart, who once competed in three-day events, operates a nonprofit to retrain retired racehorses for dressage and other equestrian shows. “He believes the horses have great heart, intelligence and athletic abilities and shouldn’t be put out to pasture,” Polly explains.
In the late 1880s, two sisters gifted the farm to the Catholic church. Pittman reasons that the church elders had a financial motive for acquiring the property as a planned railroad to connect Baltimore to Drum Point ran right through the farm, dramatically increasing the value of the land. The railroad never materialized, and 40 years later, Pittman’s great grandmother, at the time a Baltimore real estate agent who still had fond memories of childhood visits to Dodon, purchased the now 550-acre parcel back for $15,000. The farm’s brief digression is commemorated in Drum Point, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay that sells for $36. Its legacy as a tobacco farm (which includes the horrific fact of slavery, Pittman says), is bottled as Oronoco, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot ($66 per bottle).
On a late summer evening, I visit the winery with my oenophile friends. We’re here for “Dodon ’til Dusk”— a picnic supper that is a regular event for wine club members. Mc Carthy has reserved a table for us on the grass, overlooking rows of grape vines spreading across the pasture, their broad leaves catching the lingering rays of sun. Behind us is a sloping hill where the red varietals used in Dodon’s South Slope blend ($28.45) are grown.
“We could be in Napa,” exclaims my friend, Christy, who, along with her husband, John, travels frequently to the West Coast, visiting estate wineries in California and Oregon. Members of many a West Coast wine club, my friends are Dodon’s target market and their enchantment with the setting is exactly what the owners count on. We’ve preordered a cheese and charcuterie platter and salmon tacos from Real Food, the Galesville company that caters these events, and we order a bottle of the crisp white Drum Point.
We also decide to splurge on the Oronoco and take a sip. It’s a deep and complex red with a hint of tobacco and a smooth texture that speaks of both the history – and the future – of this Maryland farm.