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Behind the buzz about Black Ankle Vineyards

FOODWISE BALTIMORE: A visit to Maryland’s premier winery

Above: Their barrels are French Oak, their wine gets compared to Napa Valley and yet, Black Ankle Vineyards is, well, in Maryland. Could it be worth the price?

I have long been curious about the top-shelf reputation of Black Ankle Vineyards. They’re often described as not just the best among Maryland wineries, but comparable to European and California wines.

Not being a member of the 1%, though, I had to ask: could a Bordeaux-style blend made in Frederick County, Md., really be worth $45 or $50? That question compelled me to explore Black Ankle in more depth and put their rep to the test.

So I did two things this fall: 1.) drove an hour west of Baltimore to their winery in Mt. Airy and talked to co-owner Sarah O’Herron (today’s story) and 2.) set up a blind tasting in a Hampden restaurant, comparing Black Ankle’s products with similar types of wine from the U.S. and abroad. (Coming soon.)

I learned a lot from my visit.

Back in 2002, when O’Herron and her husband Ed Boyce bought the land for Black Ankle (named after the winding country road that takes you there), it was largely open farmland formerly planted with corn and alfalfa.

The green landscape at Black Ankle Vineyards earlier this year. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Grapes growing amid the greenery at Black Ankle Vineyards earlier this year. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

In their mind’s eye, the 146-acre parcel – with its forests and rolling hills, its fields and creek – became the sustainably run, world-class estate vineyard and winery of their dreams.

(“Estate” in this use means that the winery produces and sells only wine that comes from grapes that are grown in its own vineyard.)

Indeed, what they’ve achieved at Black Ankle is lovely, green and “green.” It’s almost surreal how little it feels like Maryland – it’s more like the setting for the movie “Sideways,” if Michael Pollan had been one of their consultants.

It’s the creation, as well, of two canny businesspeople. Both had worked as management consultants and so, in the interest of identifying “best practices,” they looked to see who was doing what, well. They read everything available on wine-making, visited vineyards here and abroad, and attended conferences and seminars from Napa to Bordeaux.

Finding the Formula

The business has been a bit of a juggling act for Boyce and O’Herron, who have kept their house in Silver Spring and, except at harvest time, alternate days at Black Ankle with working from home. (They have five children, one in college and four under the age of 10.)

“You have to have tasted a lot to know what you like, to know what you are looking for,” O’Herron said. “It is very subjective. And can only be learned by tasting.”

They also had to think through how they wanted to connect to the land.

The Black Ankle tasting room. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

The Black Ankle tasting room. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

“Our approach has been influenced by the growth of slow food movement and the concerns of bio-diversity,” O’Herron said, noting that sustainable methodology and bio-dynamic systems are incorporated into all aspects of their operation. Some prized Gloucester Old Spot Hogs (a key component in their upcoming “Wine and Swine” event), a few head of cattle and some chickens pecking around on the property underscore her point.

Their basic task, though, was to precisely profile Black Ankle’s growing environment – its climate and rainfall, etc. – and match the right grapes to their setting. They started selecting grapes that would grow well with no irrigation.

“The roots dig deep to find moisture and nutrients,” she said. “That process produces a rich and complex flavor.”

Getting the Juices Flowing

The first grapes were planted in 2003 and harvested in 2005. Then in 2008, the first wines were bottled and sold that fall. They’ve done two since then and will be doing another soon.

I asked O’Herron to walk me through the process.

Sarah O'Herron, co-owner and vintner, Black Ankle Vineyards. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Sarah O'Herron, co-owner and vintner, Black Ankle Vineyards. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

“When we are ready for the harvest, all hands pick the grapes, and they are washed and settled into the crusher. From the crusher they go to the tank, where they rest for four to six days.

“The juice starts to flow and the extraction begins. The juice is clear and flavorful, the skin adds color and additional flavor. After a while the wine is stored in French oak barrels to ferment.”

Sustainability is built into not just the wine-making but the architecture and design of the structures on site. The winery is built of regional wood, rocks and straw.

The roof is covered in sedum, a succulent used to help temperature control. The interior is “green” as well.

The tables are made locally from local wood and the bar top is composed of grapevines and grape pomace (the skin, stems, seeds, and pulp of grapes or olives) sealed in organic resin.

I asked O’Herron to talk about their Bordeaux-type blend, the 2008 Crumbling Rock, a two-time Maryland Governor’s Cup winner.

“It has a long aging process, which gives it a beautiful structure,” she said. It is 57% Cabernet Franc, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, and 1% each Malbec and Syrah. Each grape is fermented and barrel-aged individually and then blended.

 These grapes are just about ready for harvest. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

These grapes are just about ready for harvest. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

“We like it on its own with some bread and cheese,” she said. “With meals, it’s good with meat or mushroom dishes and will stand up to something spicy.”

Recipe for Bedlam

Their 2010 Bedlam is unusual, O’Herron said, in that it is the result of a co-fermentation process, not blended afterwards.

They press small lots of white and the result is: 36% Viogner, 23% Muscat, 17% Gruner Veltliner, 17% Albariño and 7% Chardonnay.

“We only produced 102 cases of this,” she said. “We take pleasure in using modern technology in a very old-fashioned process.”

At the end of the day, my flavorful visit to Black Ankle Vineyards finished with a note of uncertainty.

On the one hand, it is a storybook vineyard: picture-perfect, bio-diverse, transparent in its practices, and to my taste, a producer of excellent wine. And yet I had to wonder, was I just swept away by the magical setting?

How would Black Ankle stack up to similar kinds of wine – with lower and higher price-points – if I made the comparison back in less-than-magical Baltimore?

That’s what you’ll find out in Part Two of this story.

 The tasting room at Black Ankle, young vines in the background. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

The tasting room at Black Ankle, young vines in the background. (Photo by Francine Halvorsen)

Black Ankle Vineyards
14463 Black Ankle Road
Mt. Airy, MD 21771
Tel: 301 829 3338

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