Friday, October 2, 2009

A year in, Black Ankle owner reflects

Sarah O'Herron and Ed Boyce tonight invited friends and family and case club members to a party. It has been a good year, a very good year for Black Ankle Vineyards in Mt. Airy, Md., which it's fair to say has risen in prominence far faster than any other winery in the Mid-Atlantic. It won a Maryland Governor's Cup for its 2006 Bordeaux blend called Crumbling Rock last September, even before the winery opened. Last month the winery made it two straight with its 2007 vintage of Crumbling Rock. That highlights but doesn't list all the awards that this winery has won in its first year, setting the bar very high for other wineries that follow.

They've made the investment in time and money and it has showed, from the quality of their wines to the quality of their Web site. Even the
page with simple facts about the couple, their five children and the vineyard is smartly written.

Feeling sort of squeezed with the late hour and a busy weekend ahead, I don't want to give the 10-minute interview on Wednesday with Boyce short shrift, but I don't want the post to linger into Monday, as can sometimes happen. So with the answers transcribed, let me put the rest into a Q&A format. Let me also mention that the party will continue at the winery all weekend, with music and hors d'oeuvres and wine being served up from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m Sunday. Maybe they'll even blow out one candle on a birthday cake, who knows? But it's well worth the visit, along with a reminder than several other wineries are located close by if you're looking to spend one of the two afternoons navigating the Frederick County countryside.

Q: So was this first year beyond expectations?

A: "I mean, you know, to win the Governor's Cup once is great, to go 2 for 2 . . . that's been great. And we’ve had just a tremendous response to what we’re trying to do. What I didn't realize, I guess, out of the gate before we even started this was how the world of . . sommeliers, distributors, reps, the people whose life revolve around wine, have sort of adopted us. You know, those people wanting to discover [a winery] close to home was a huge pent-up demand, I guess, and that’s really helped us. Even more so than the consumers, those people are out there, the high-end store owners [he laughs] . . . I know you don't have high-end wine stores in Pennsylvania, but we do have a few in Maryland. They’re out there touting our product, they're sending people to our vineyard. We keep hostng restaurant and wine store staff days. Often it’s a Monday they’ll take the whole staff to do something; it might be white-water rafting or whatever, and we must have done eight or 10 of these so far, where they'll come out to the vineyard. It’s interesting, so it's nice to have captured the imagination of people."

Q: Allow me to let you toot your own horn. You two did something right before you opened. What was it?

A: "I think we did a lot of things right, I think we did a lot of things wrong [laughing] I suspect we’ve done some things wrong, I don't know exactly which ones they are yet. The very first thing we did is, we spent a year, and I mean full time, a year looking for a site, and there aren’t even maybe three or four winery/vineyards on the East Coast that have done that. We looked it up. If you go to France, supposedly the best wine-growing plac in the world, of the farmland there, only 2 percent is wine, and wine is the most lucrative thing to grow. Everyone would grow it if they could, but . . . the other 98 percent of the land just grows lousy wine. And so grandma leaves you a farm in Pennsylvania or Maryland or wherever, at best you have a 1 in 50 chance of being something you can get into a bottle, never mind being good. So we took that knowledge to heart. We are going to find a place that we think looks good. I know by doing that we were able to find a low-fertility site and that allowed us to pack the vines in, you know, 2,000 vines per acre instead of the usual 600, 700, 800, 900. And then we’re growing at a lower yield than most, so we end up making one bottle of wine per vine . . . so that one big decision snowballed into all sort of things that we can do in the vineyard. And in a year like 2009 when it has rained while lot, I'm thinking, our whole vineyard is built for a year like this. It’s on low vigor soil, which drains really fast. So that was our idea. We said, out of 10 years, you know, you’re going to get a couple of lousy vintages, you’re going to get three or four mediocre vintages, a couple of good ones, and one or two great ones. If we can turn those lousy ones to decent ones, and we can turn those mediocre ones into good ones and those good ones into great ones, then we have the Bordeaux model. That's really what the French have done the last 20 years. That’s how they’ve raised their quality by doing exacvtly that. Other than that it’s a lot of hard work. This business is 10 percent thinking and 90 percent doing. You just have to stay on it and do it."

Q: You did a lot of visiting where you were planning this site. Now you're getting visited a lot, aren't you?

A: "Yes, constantly. And I'm now head of research and education [for] Maryland wineries, so I'm bringing in speakers and doing all kinds of things to see if we can really [raise] the quality of wine in Maryland."

Q: Are you planning to plant any more vines?

A: "We not going to plant next year. We still have to build our business a little bit, although it’s starting to really take off. The thing we wish we had planted the most of right now is Albarino. We sold out of our Albarino. We only make 60, 70 cases a year, but we sold out in probably four weeks this year. It’s gone. And we have a waiting list. It might be futures next year, and that's just with customers. There are stores and wine bars that would buy the entire thing because they love it. I think the grape’s well-adapted here, but the wine works for where we are. It's a beautiful summer wine, it goes great with seafood, it’s nice in hot weather, all those things that go with a muggy, humid mid-Atlantic where we love seafood. But we’ll see. We got to make sure we can get an economic yield out of it. It’s small grapes and small bunches [He said they have vines growing on 22 acres, the Albarino on a plot that's a little more than a half-acre, what he called a little experiment, 1200 vines in all].

"And we have to decide with our red program where we go next. It's interesting. We have the five Bordeaux reds planted and we've learned, for instance, that Malbec for us makes a nice fruity wine, but it’s never going to make the Crumbling Rock. It's going to go beautifully in the second wine. We do a declassification system where the Crumbling Rock is made out of our best barrels of the five Bordeaux grapes. So we just sort made the best wine we can, and then we take what's left and we make the best wine out of that, and then we take what's left and away it goes. We don't sell that. So like Malbec is something I don't think we’ll plant more of. But beyond that, all the other ones have done really well for us. So I think our formula on the Bordeaux side is working real well.

"On the Syrah side, we made a normal, a regular Syrah in '06, in '07 we made our first reserve Syrah and called it Leaftone Syrah. Unoffically it came in second in the Governor's Cup. I guess, unofficially, I would have reversed the two actually, I think. You ought to taste it. Personally I prefer the Syrah, it’s just a great wine. But Syrah is a conundrum. It likes a very particular type of weather, and this is a good test this year [because] it likes dry, warm Septembers. So we’ll have to see what we can get out of it this year. But that’s a really nice grape, so I don’t know whether we want to plant more of it or not.

"So it’s not even just demand-driven or money-driven, it's if we plant more, what would we plant? We’re just not sure yet."

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