Sunday, July 27, 2008

No easy route to opening for Legends' Everharts

Some photos from Legends Vineyard, courtesy of the winery, including one of owners Greg O'Hare and Ashby and Carrie Everhart.

Ashby Everhart says he tells friends that this vineyard taking root by his house in Harford County, Md., is a hobby that has gotten out of control. As it turns out, so is the process for officially putting Legends Vineyard on Maryland’s winery map.

Originally they thought they’d be pouring wine when the 25th annual
Maryland Wine Festival takes places in mid-September at the Carroll County Wine Museum in Westminster. Now it seems certain they’ll be watching rather than participating. An August opening date has been pushed back to the end of spring 2009. He expects the first bottling to finally occur in September.

So what’s nipped all these plans in the bud? Primarily satisfying Harford County’s requirements.

“You talk about hurdles, our biggest hurdle has actually been locally,” he says by phone Sunday afternoon. “Going thru the federal permit process [there’s] a lot of paperwork, a lot of repetition, but you know once you go through and jump through those hoops.[you’re finished with it]. Locally,” adds Ashby, who grew up in the Cub Hill area north of Baltimore, “there’s a lot of repeat of what you do with the feds, but some of the issues we’re having is just county support in what we want to do and the regulations and everything they put on it. Granted we’re in a different position than a lot of guys because my wife and I purchased the property [we were told] that ‘You buy that piece of property, we know it’s only seven acres. Don’t worry about it. You’ll get your tasting room, you’ll get all that.”

Blind faith, Ashby calls it, then adds, “Never a good thing to do. We did that, and then quickly found out through zoning and permits that we’re not going to be able to do the things we want to do there because their requirement was a 20-acre minimum. And they basically, said, here’s where we are. There was only one other winery in Harford County at the time when we were talking to them, and they said, ‘We really don’t have any regulations written regarding requirements involving a winery or a vineyard, you know. What are the capabilities? Where are we going to put you as far as zoning? So initially they put us in the industrial category, and they wanted us to meet all those things. And after meeting with zoning, they said, ‘Well, you know what, you’re right. It takes more equipment to process milk from a cow than it does to make wine.

“So we’ll allow you to have a winery, we’ll consider that building agricultural, but the second building is going to be considered commercial because you want to do retail sales from that building, so we set up our September date when we were going to be open, and I think that was the glass-half-full mentality, because we spent most of the summer .playing the political game through anyone involved -- council, zoning, through the permit department. So we’re getting to where we need to be, but I think we’re looking [at opening] more like March.

He expected the obvious red tape with the feds and state, he continues, but not from his own county. “[We figured our] local government will support you because it’s agri-tourism and my wife and I purchased the farm, we’re only five miles from 95. And as you know, millions of people are on 95 every day. And we figured that would be one more opportunity for someone from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware what have you, would stop off, take a break, come into the winery, support a local business . . . [Instead],
it was really our county, our jurisdiction where we were having the most issues.”

The couple has planted 2,100 vines so far – including merlot, viognier, pinot gris and Chardonnay – and plan to put another 1,500 into the soil next year. Over time, he says, they’d like to plant two more acres a year for the next five years. “Eventually we’d like to be in that 16 to 18 acres planted that we own,” he says, “and go about the venture that way.”

While they seem to taking the long way around to get to their opening, they found a shortcut to a bottomless pool of support. And it turned out to be their future competitors.

“We wouldn’t be half as far down the road without someone like Mike Fiori, of
Fiori Winery. He’s been incredible,” says Ashby. “He’s taken us under his wing, and helped us a long with the entire process. Any aspect of the business from dirt to bottle to you name it, he’s been there supporting us. He’s allowed us to buy into some of his larger quantities, like if he was going to buy barrels, he’d attach our orders to his, because we’re so much smaller and we’re able to get his pricing. There couldn’t have been a bigger supporter from an industry standpoint for us than Mike Fiori . . . And [Maryland Wine Association director] Kevin Atticks, I wasn’t familiar with anyone in the association before … but he has been just a huge supporter of ours.” Indeed, that willingness to help the couple has come from other wineries and from Dr. Joseph Fiola, a University of Maryland viticulturist. “I’ve even packaged up leaves and sent them down, and he’ll look at them and just say, ‘You know what, you guys are overbabying them, relax.’

“From an industry,” continues Everhart, “because I came from the circuit board industry, and I still am with the day job, it’s amazing to me. I viewed competition totally different until I got into the Maryland Wine Association, where this is a group that has come together to realize that we are bigger as one than as independents and that we can also make a success with the wine trails and everything that Kevin has put together. To be together with all of these issues, it has just been a huge awakening for me, and I love to see that in industry where I can go over and see Rob Deford at
Boordy Vineyards and say, ‘Taste this wine, something is not right with this,’ and get his opinion. And he would pass it off to his winemaker or take it up to Mike Fiori. The cooperation. The industry as a whole has been awesome.”

He talks about the interaction with Bill Boniface, of horse racing and
Bonita Farm
fame, who has planted grapes and taken an interest in what the Everharts are doing. And the invitation from St. Michaels (Md.) Winery to use their bottling line. “And they’ll not only lease it to you, but Mark, one of the owners, said, ‘I’m going to be there to help you bottle the first day or two.’ Support in the industry has just been incredible. It’s incredible to me, realizing my product is going to the same place as theirs, yet they are willing to help, and the reason they are is they feel if I sell six bottles, they’ll sell three more because another Maryland winery is on board.”

Everhart says the whole idea started with a make-it-at-home wine kit “which was awful, but once we got that we got the bug then. We’d go to the brewery shop and talk to them.” Since then he says, they’ve produced small batches “for five or six years; 50 bottles here, 50 bottles there. Much bigger batches await. “It literally is,” he says, “we went from a beach house to where a beach house is planted in the side yard.”