Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A stop at Maryland's Sugarloaf Mountain

It was in passing that someone I was chatting with mentioned Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, in Dickerson, as one new Maryland winery that was getting it right. Jim McKenna, one of the partners involved in the winery that’s located in the northwest corner of Montgomery County, said in an interview last night that it was a visit to Col. John Buehler Sr. out in Napa Valley after a wedding in 2002 that served as their inspiration. According to the Buehler Vineyards Web site, it was in 1971 that Buehler, a 1934 West Point graduate who served 20 years in the Army Corps of Engineers and another 20 years as a Bechtel Corporation executive, decided to entire retirement with his wife Helen by buying a remote Napa Valley hillside property that had been the site of a "ghost winery" before prohibition. Like everything else he touched, it wound up as a wildly successful venture. McKenna explained the connection by noting that his wife had gone to school with Buehler’s daughter. One tour of the vineyard was enough to sell McKenna and partner Mike McGarry on doing the same in Maryland.

They broke ground in 2002 and three years later were up and running. Already they are touting a number of awards, including a double gold for their 2005 Cabernet Franc, Maryland, given out at the 2007 International Eastern Wine Competition.

“I think we’ve done pretty much everything right so far,” McKenna said. “You never know. But we’re plugging away.” He said they have planted 19,000 vines over 10 acres, which sits at 600 feet above sea level and is blessed by what he calls a “little gift from God,” a breeze from Sugarloaf Mountain that he said blows constantly, largely deterring pests and disease alike. They do about 4,500 cases annually; with aspirations of increasing that as they grow the vineyard to 20 or 25 acres. Their recent tie-in with the
Kennedy Center Roof Terrace Restaurant, where they have become the first Maryland or local wineries to have their wines included on the wine list, should provide more momentum.

McKenna said that their Cab Franc, the double gold winner, has become their signature. “Ours is really unbelievably good,” he said, then sharing a story. “This is just small potatoes. A guy came out and bought a bunch of the Franc at one point . . . he was a member of the wine club, and he had a blind wine tasting over the Christmas holidays. He had our Cab Franc, and also contained in that tasting was an Opus One. That’s pretty big cheese. Robert Mondavi started it with the Rothschilds in 1979. They wanted to make it the definitive red from California. Whether they made it or not is an open question, but they sell it for a heckuva lot of money, and our little ol’ Cabernet Franc in that one little tasting beat it out. So it’s one little anecdote; it’s not definitive of anything, but it certainly made me feel pretty good when the guy came back and told me about it.”

Among the winery’s other reds are Cab Sauvignon, Merlot, and a couple of blends, one called Circe that’s named after the sorcerer from Greek mythology, and Comus, named after … well … some old farmer who used to live down the road. It’s a road that’s named after that farmer, and has since been used on one of Sugarloaf Mountain’s red blends. “We started with five, six, maybe seven wines,” McKenna said. “I don’t think we exactly landed on a number. We know we wanted two whites, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Grigio, and we weren’t interested in . . . well, I suppose we would be interested in a Sauvignon Blanc, but it doesn’t grow very well here, and so we weren’t going to try and fight the elements. I think what happened is that the Cab franc is a little like, in a very miniature sort of a way, it’s a little bit like Malbec when Malbec was taken from France and plunked down in the ground in Argentina. It took off like wild fire. And, I mean, a lot of people think it’s an Argentinian wine by origin -- which it isn’t -- but there’s so much of it and it does so well coming from there that you hardly ever see Malbec from anyplace else but Argentina.

“And so a similar thing has happened with us and Cab Franc. I mean, it just adores it here,” he added. “I don’t know why, but it does, and so, that’s going to be our flagship. And the Pinot Grigio has been super. We sold out in the first year; we sold out in six weeks. We had really misunderstood what the market was going to bring. It was gone in a heartbeat. People would come back and say, ‘I really like that Grigio, can I have another bottle of it?’ And I’d say ‘No, it’s gone.’ And that was in no time at all. And the second year we made a lot more and that sold out in advance. So we’re going to make more this year; and the Chardonnay has been doing well and winning competitions. So we’ve been doing very well.”