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Heard through the grapevine: More wine growth ahead in Washington County

May 14, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com
  • Juana Sanchez, left, and Anna Lasso, right, load vines into the laser-guided planter starting a row of newly planted Chardonnay vines at Big Cork Vineyards located in Rohrersville, Md.
By Yvette May, Staff Photographer

ROHRERSVILLE — Plants are in the ground for Washington County's next vineyard.

J. Randall Thompson, president and CEO of ThompsonGas, has started a vineyard and wine-making business called Big Cork at his family farm in Rohrersville in southern Washington County.

Thompson, who's known as Randy, and his wife, Jennifer, are partners in the budding business with Dave Collins, who joined them after about 25 years producing wine in Virginia.

Thompson said it will take three growing seasons before their first grapes are ready, but the company plans to buy some Maryland grapes before then to get started on making wine.

Next summer, the Thompsons and Collins plan to build a production facility, then, about a year later, open a tasting room.

They also are considering hosting events at the site.

Randy Thompson said the first white wines from their grapes should be ready in 2014, followed by reds in 2015.

"You have to have a vision that's several years out," he said.

Thompson figured that the grape planting and the production facility combined will cost about $1 million.

The vineyard is projected to produce 5,000 cases of wine a year and employ 20 to 30 people full and part time, the company said in a news release.

Big Cork would be Washington County's second winery, after Knob Hall in the Clear Spring area — and more might be on the way soon.

Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, said two more wineries are in the planning stages in Washington County. News about them probably will come out next year, he said.

Atticks said former state Sen. Donald F. Munson, a staunch wine supporter during his time in Annapolis, deserves a great deal of credit for helping the industry grow locally.

Dick and Mary Beth Seibert started planting at Knob Hall Winery in 2007.

It has become one of the largest commercial vineyards in Maryland. The Seiberts are now at about 30 acres of grapes, with plans to expand to about 60 acres.

Knob Hall is making about 10 types of wine now. At least two new ones are planned for this fall, Dick Seibert said.

Three of Knob Hall's wines won gold medals last year in the Maryland Governor's Cup.

Atticks said Knob Hall's success is inspiring others to jump into the business, too.

"A lot of people wanted to see, in fact, that it could be done and done well," Seibert said.

This year, the state government has given a boost to the industry: Maryland passed a law allowing direct shipping from wineries, starting July 1.

In a news release about Big Cork, Atticks said, "The law change encourages wineries to start wine clubs ... an ability that is known to add 15 percent to winery revenue in our peer states."

The news release says Maryland wineries' sales rose 11.3 percent from 2009 to 2010 and the number of wineries in the state grew from 12 to 50 in the last decade.

Thompson said he leased his Rohrersville land for many years to tenant farmers who planted corn, soybeans and hay, earning him modest revenue.

He and his wife wondered if there were a better use of the property. They agreed on grapes.

Collins said he left Breaux Vineyard in wine-rich Virginia's Loudoun County and came to Maryland after talking to Thompson and sensing an opportunity.

He's bullish on southern Washington County for its well-drained soils and scenic view.

This month, Collins helped Ken Whitty of Ontario, Canada, plant about 28,000 vines on about 22 acres on the Thompsons' property.

Whitty — from Benchmark Custom Vineyard Planting, based in New York's Finger Lakes region — drove a tractor guided by a laser system, keeping the rows arrow straight.

On one of the final planting days, after finishing a section of Vidal grapes, they made rows of Chardonnay.

Big Cork will start with 13 varieties of grapes — seven reds (Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Barbera and Syrah) and six whites (Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Orange, Muscat Canelli, Chardonnay and Vidal).

The company hopes to protect and nourish those vines through natural methods.

Cover crops will be planted between each row to help limit weeds and the need for herbicides.

Raptors and owls will be invited to roost — and eat moles, mice and groundhogs.

The company also plans to grow and sell vegetables and fruits free of herbicides and pesticides, giving employees a chance for steadier year-round work.

"We'll be very mindful of land stewardship," Collins said.

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