Wineries in Maryland have been around since Colonial times. The Colonial governors started growing grapes for winemaking in the 1600s, with European varietals being planted along the St. Mary’s River in southern Maryland. The indigenous American grapes were unsuitable to use as they made fairly bitter wines. It took years to find European grapes that would thrive and produce good wines in the mid-Atlantic, a struggle that continues to this day.
As the locals tried, often in vain, to keep pinot grigio alive through our winters and to get cabernet sauvignon to ripen fully, Marylanders tended to plant hybrids, grapes crossbred to be more suited to our fickle climate. Chambourcin, a red grape, and vidal blanc are the hybrids that now dominate the plantings in Maryland. Wines from these grapes are abundant, as are non-grape fruit wines and sweet dessert versions made with berries and the hybrid grapes.
Additionally, many wineries sourced grapes from as far away as California in order to produce wines with known varietals in commercially viable quantities. Over time, winemakers sought out and found microclimates and terroirs suited to the more familiar grapes, and now local wineries produce cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, chenin blanc and some outstanding cab francs and petit verdots.
The 2010 Maryland Winery Modernization Act allowed wineries to sell on- and off-premises, changed production standards and enabled sales with a Maryland state license, leading to a fourfold increase in the number of wineries in the state, from 25 in 1999 to more than 100 today. Most of the wineries you can visit today came into being after the law was passed; more wineries opened after another law was passed in 2013 allowing tastings and bottle sales at farmers markets. Wineries that predate the laws have added tasting rooms to their existing operations, and newer wineries have been built from the ground up with tasting rooms and banquet facilities. These range from a small, yet charming, converted room in a dairy barn to a modern cork-themed facility on a hilltop that would feel at home in the Napa Valley.
Here are eight wineries within an hour’s drive of Bethesda that are worth visiting.
Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard
Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Dickerson has figured out which grapes work best in this region. The hybrids the winemakers still plant are blended smartly, and they have moved on from the sweet wines that are so prevalent at Maryland wineries. If they would only refurbish and upgrade their small, dated tasting room, it would make for a first-class visiting experience.
The first vines at Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard were planted in 2004 and wines were first produced two years later. I remember those early vintages as thin and green, with the best wines the product of purchased California fruit. The rich soil at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain is a wonderful site for grapes, and the wines have grown up. They are not going to fool you into believing you are sipping a first-growth Bordeaux, but these are quality wines and represent a good value overall.
Owner Emily Yang studied wine at the University of Adelaide in Australia and took over at Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in 2014. Manolo Gomez has been head winemaker since 2012.
Highlights: The oaked and unoaked chardonnays are true to what chardonnay should be—bright and full-bodied without a ton of malolactic fermentation, which saps the bright, tart flavors. We also drank a reserve bottling of the vineyard’s 2013 chardonnay, which showed that these wines can age nicely; it’s bursting with fruit and has a soft mouthfeel. The whites, Penelope and Siren, showed the best uses for the hybrid grapes. Blended with several grapes to complement any one grape’s features and help mask weaknesses, they are lovely offerings. Sugarloaf doesn’t offer a multitude of wines, and only three reds—a cab franc and two Bordeaux-style blends; this allows a focus on making quality wines as the vineyard dictates. The cab franc was as good as any around, with big peppery flavors and just enough tannins to provide a firm backbone, and the EVOE! is a clear winner, a full-bodied cab and petit verdot blend with nice oak and soft tannins.
Prices: Tastings are $10; bottles range from $19.95 to $42.95.
Food: Cheese and crackers are available, and food trucks are present on weekends starting in May.
Extras: Live music on Saturdays and Sundays, April through October.
18125 Comus Road, Dickerson; 301-605-0130; smvwinery.com
Black Ankle Vineyards
AGPS workout is in store for those heading to Black Ankle Vineyards, but the benefits of the journey are many. After you follow a winding road between New Market and Mount Airy, the winery unfolds as a sprawling collection of buildings surrounded by rolling vineyards. It is as beautiful as it is serene. Black Ankle first planted in 2003, and then showed great patience by waiting until 2006 to make wine for the market. The tasting room opened in 2008. The winery has all the trappings of newer wineries, with green practices such as solar panels on the tasting room roof, organic fertilizing and herbicide-free vineyards. With 100 percent of the grapes grown on the estate, Black Ankle produces some of the best wines in Maryland.
Cobbled together from clay, straw, vines and sticks, the trippy tasting room feels a bit like a Hobbit’s glen. But it is well equipped to handle an influx of guests on a nice evening or weekend, with many tables and multiple tasting bars. There is live music and a meadow out front to occupy the kids if you choose to make this a family outing.
Highlights: The $15 flight includes four wines. The gruner veltliner is bright with pear and apple flavors, and finished with a light spice note. It was followed by a chardonnay with nice, bold citrus fruit and a judicious use of oak that lends a subtle creaminess. The Passeggiata XI is a blend of 11 different grapes that delivers one clear flavor and is approachably light on the palate without being thin. The Feldspar III is a Bordeaux-style blend with powerful fruit flavors, firm body and soft tannins, yielding a smooth, long finish.
Prices: Tasting are $15; bottles range from $34 to $125.
Food: Local cheeses, salamis, crackers and breads are available.
Extras: Live music on Friday evenings; special member tastings.
14463 Black Ankle Road, Mount Airy; 301-829-3338; blackankle.com
Rocklands Farm Winery
Rocklands Farm Winery in Poolesville bears visiting over and over. What started as hobby winemaking in 2005 has grown into a symbiotic farm, vineyard and production facility. It is great to see so many family members and friends focusing on their “Feed. Nourish. Engage.” mantra and producing excellent products across the board.
Dr. Greg Glenn Sr. purchased the 34-acre farm in 2003 to escape the urban sprawl of Bethesda, and soon planted his first grapes. In 2010, Greg Glenn Jr. took over with fellow Virginia Tech graduate Shawn Eubank and started to evolve Rocklands Farm Winery into the enterprise it is today. Vegetable crops gave way to animals and more grape vines when winemaker TJ Fleming came on board.
The tasting room, in the basement of a converted barn, is rustic and appointed with the same bare wood that dominates many tasting rooms. Director of Operations Sara Siegel, the guide for our tasting, knows everything about the farm and the players. Rocklands Farm Winery still relies heavily on the ubiquitous American appellation, meaning it sources its grapes from assorted areas of the U.S. I would hope its commitment to local will lead it to segue into more Maryland and even more Montgomery County appellations.
Highlights: The whites are crisp and clean, with a lovely Monocacy featuring a seyval blanc-valvin muscat blend that’s juicy and ripe without being overly sweet. The skillfully blended White Oak is a bright wine, with the chardonnay, gruner veltliner and chardonel combining to offer scents of fresh orange blossom on the nose. And the Honey Blossom vidal blanc bursts with fresh fruit and is delightful on the palate. Reds were consistently good, as well; the ever popular chambourcin is clean and light without the mustiness that is so common elsewhere. The Montevideo blend is constructed with tasty cherry notes and a touch of pepper at the end.
Prices: Tastings are $14; bottles range from $22 to $45.
Food: Local charcuterie and cheese and crackers are available; food trucks are on-site on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Extras: Live music on Friday evenings; special dinners on occasion in the winery.
14531 Montevideo Road, Poolesville; 301-825-8075; rocklandsfarmmd.com
New Market Plains Vineyards
New Market Plains is an up-and-comer on the Maryland winery scene. The vineyards are located at the former estate of Nicholas Hall Sr., the co-founder of the town of New Market. The farm has remained in the family since the 1760s. The current owners, Howard and Susan Wilson, make wines primarily from European vinifera grapes, which are more difficult to grow in our climate than the hybrids so common in Maryland. Howard has dabbled in grape growing on the farm since 1995 and is a former president of the Maryland Grape Growers Association. He planted commercially for the first time in 2012 and has been making wines since 2014.
The old farm buildings have been repurposed for winery use and are quite rustic. A party of six would take up the entire tasting room.
Highlights: The wines here are clearly from young vines and are not yet able to produce fruit that’s as full-flavored as more established plants. But the quality of the juice in these wines is high. I especially liked the Rich Forest chardonnay with its judicious use of oak to round it out nicely. The winery offers one red, Hogshead, a delightful Bordeaux-style blend that’s light now but should develop nicely in future vintages. For dessert, Trop Elyts is a “muscat blanc orange port-style wine” that is simultaneously a slightly thick port style and a refreshing orange muscat—and worth a taste.
Prices: Tastings are $10; bottles are $25 to $47.50.
Food: Cheese and crackers are available.
Extras: Picnic areas and live music on Fridays from spring into the fall.
11111 W. Baldwin Road, New Market; 240-674-2859; newmarketplains.com
Bill Loew started planting in 1982, and the first bottle at Loew Vineyards was sold in 1986. Most of the grapes here are hardy cold-weather hybrids from the 1980s plantings. You can find chancellor, Marechal Foch, reliance and vidal blanc, all of which were popular in the early days of Maryland winemaking. There are also a few wines with local honey, strawberry, blackberry and other fruits blended in semisweet and sweet styles. The tasting room is old school, barely a shed cut into the hillside. We visited early on a cold day and we may have surprised Bill’s granddaughter, Rachel Lipman, who came down from the main house to fire up the space heater. We drank our first tastes in gloves as Lipman told stories about making her own blends of wine and growing up at the winery.
Highlights: Two Consenting Grapes features vidal blanc and reliance grapes in a simple, juicy-tasting summer sipper. Chancellor and Marechal Foch come together pleasantly in Classic Red to create a peppery, medium-bodied wine without any of the “foxy” wild animallike notes often found in red hybrid varietals. The chancellor shows up blended with cabernet franc in Harvest Red Reserve, a big round blend that can stand up to a cold-weather meal. Among the fruit-based wines, the Honey & Grape is a properly balanced sweet wine we are told is a long family tradition, and the blackberry flavored Country Classic would be refreshing lightly chilled as the weather warms up.
Loew Vineyards is a family business with Maryland staples from yesteryear. Lipman says she has a few surprises up her sleeve on the wine front that she will introduce after she perfects her clandestine blends and earns her grandfather’s approval.
Prices: Tastings are $8; bottles range from $15 to $26.
Food: Cheese and crackers are available.
Extras: Some local crafts are on sale.
14001 Liberty Road, Mount Airy; 301-831-5464; loewvineyards.net
Big Cork Vineyards
Big Cork is the class of the field. The facilities are new and first-rate, the brand already established and the wines delicious. The drive is the longest from Bethesda—almost to West Virginia, but worth it.
The winery is large and modern, situated on a remote hilltop. Parking is ample, and the building is striking from its wide-open interior and witty cork furnishings to its welcoming views and its cork wall art depicting the winemaker. There is a cigar lounge on one side and space for the kids on the other. The tasting bar is spacious, and many groups take their selections (poured into Riedel tumblers) to their own tables.
The site was first planted by Dave Collins in 2011, and the first wines were produced in 2013. That first vintage of 2013 petit verdot won the Maryland Governor’s Cup Best in Show in 2015. Big Cork has kept up the pace ever since.
Highlights: The 2017 chardonnay has sweet pear flavors and a crisp finish, while the viognier has honey citrus and subtle floral notes. The reds I tried were a malbec with its inky color and ripe fruit, and a barbera that tasted like a pinot noir with amped-up dark plum flavors.
Prices: Tastings are $10; bottles range from $21 to $56.
Food: Assorted local cheeses and charcuterie are available.
Extras: Music on weekends; a bed and breakfast is on-site.
4236 Main St., Rohrersville; 301-302-8032; bigcorkvineyards.com
Hidden Hills Farm and Vineyard
Hidden Hills planted its first grapes six years ago, after the owners decided to forego farming hay for their horse farm and boarding enterprise. They have been planting 2 acres of grapes a year, with a goal to have 20 acres under vine. They have decided not to rush their young vines into production, so for now you’ll be drinking mostly California wines. Unlike other new local wineries, which usually use local grapes only, Hidden Hill sources most of its grapes from the Golden State.
Regardless of the source, the wines are delightful and well made.
All tastings are done by reservation. The lane to the winery winds through a few small vineyards and ends at a lovely hilltop home, where small signs direct you to the lower level entrance by the pool. You enter what feels more like a handsome basement of a private home than a winery tasting room. Classic movie posters cover the walls, and the furniture, including the six stools at the tasting bar, is sumptuous.
Highlights: There are two wines made with Hidden Hills fruit: The rosé is Provençal in style, both crisp and fresh, and the chambourcin has great body for the grape and isn’t harmed by the off-flavors that are often encountered in it. The vidal blanc, made from grapes grown in Cumberland, Maryland, offers fresh pear flavors, is juicy on the palate and has a creamy finish. Hidden Hills doesn’t have its own facility yet, so all of the wine is produced at Maryland Winecellars in Westminster. Of the wines made from California fruit, the cabernet franc is bold and peppery, complementing food nicely rather than overpowering it.
Prices: Tastings are $10; bottles range from $25 to $36.
Food: Charcuterie and local cheeses are for sale and presented in ample portions.
Extras: There are occasional special events, such as March Madness parties.
7550 Green Valley Road, Frederick; 301-660-8735; hiddenhillsfarmandvineyard.com
Linganore Winecellars is a happening place. The tasting room is spacious, the facilities are modern, and tastings are inexpensive and comprehensive. Linganore has even added a craft brewery, Red Shedman, adjacent to the winery.
Linganore may make more fruit-based wines than anyone in the state. The winery encompasses more than 200 acres in Frederick County, grows all the grapes it uses, and obtains all its fruit from local vendors. Of the 34 wines offered, more than 20 are designated as sweet or fruit wines.
Highlights: The Aperture chambourcin was a nice version of the varietal, and the petit verdot was fruit forward albeit a bit thin on the midpalate. The chambourcin blend of its Retriever Red was slightly sweet, heavy and showed some of the ubiquitous foxy flavors of the grape, finishing with scents of fresh cheese.
Prices: Tastings are $8 or $10; bottles range from $15 to $50.
Food: Cheese and cracker plates, and blocks of cheese are available.
Extras: Live music every Thursday to Sunday, from April to mid-October. There are often food trucks, and there’s an extensive list of special events, such as wine release parties and special dinners.
13601 Glissans Mill Road, Mount Airy; 301-831-5889; linganorewines.com
Jeff Heineman was the chef-owner of Grapeseed restaurant in Bethesda for 17 years. He helps build restaurants as a project manager for Wallace Consulting & Construction in Highland, Maryland.