It is hard to believe that it has been a year since the Drink Local Wine conference was in Denver, but it has. Last week, the fifth annual conference found itself in Baltimore to celebrate Maryland wine. Who'd have thought Baltimore would be considered "wine country!" Yet, I'm hear to say that Maryland, and the whole Drink Local Wine movement, definitely have something of which to be proud. As part of the organization team that brought the conference to Colorado last year, I have to admit that Maryland might have put on a better show.
The events started with a media bus tour that I was not able to attend. From what I heard from those that did make it, the wines were good and their may have been a little lamb served at lunch. I joined the group at Waterfront Kitchen in the Fells Point neighborhood. It was here that I was first introduced to Maryland wine. The restaurant was chosen because of its support of the local food and wine industries, but I didn't have time to peruse a physical wine list (more on this on Monday). Things got started with a blanc de blancs from Bordeleau Winery that was decent, but overall uninspiring. The first course was black bass and a spring pea risotto paired with Knob Hill Winery's 2011 Rosé. Made from a saignée of chambourcin, cabernet franc and merlot, the pink wine was probably my second favorite of the evening.
The wine that I thought showed the best at dinner was the 2010 Port of Leonardtown Winery Chambourcin Reserve. Though the wine was labeled as a varietal wine, it actually was an interesting blend of 80% chambourcin, 10% cabernet franc, 9% merlot and 1% norton. The wine was dark and dense with flavors of plum, chocolate, meat, tobacco and spice. Though I've had, and enjoyed, chambourcin before, this was the first that I thought of as a serious wine. It also paired nicely with the gallentine of chicken, pork sausage and chard.
I was not much of a fan of the Basignani Winery 2005 Lorenzino Reserve or the Serpent Ridge NV Slither that were paired with the roasted lamb rack and dessert, respectively.
Just as with previous conferences, the organizers hosted a hospitality suite for guests to socialize in during the evenings. All attendees were asked to bring wine from their home states. There was a plethora of wines from Virginia, New York, California, Massachusetts, Michigan and, of course, Colorado. Two rieslings stood out to me as head and shoulders above the others. The 2010 Hermann J. Wiemer Reserve, from the Finger Lakes in New York, and the 2011 Chateau Grand Traverse "Whole Cluster," from the Old Mission Peninsula in Michigan, were absolutely stunning examples of what riesling should be. If you have a chance to purchase these wines, do not hesitate. The Boulder Creek Winery Consensus and Guy Drew Vineyards 2010 Riesling that I brought, along with the Creekside Cellars 2010 Cabernet Franc that either Frank Morgan or Dezel Quillen (I can't remember) brought, were also favorites of others.
The meat and potatoes of the conference was four seminars and a the Twitter taste-off on Saturday. The seminars focused on common themes amongst emerging American wine regions. The sessions focused on Maryland's wine identity, the struggle of getting local wines to be a part of the local food movement and quality standards for regional wine. Getting to know the Maryland wine personalities was perhaps the most interesting part of the morning sessions because all the arguments were, quite frankly, preaching to the choir.
In the afternoon, Dr. Joe Fiola, from the University of Maryland, presented some experimental Maryland wines. His goal was to introduce unique blends and unique varieties to the industry. Overall, I think he made a very convincing argument. He presented a unique white blend of albariño, verdejo, colombard and marsanne that easily could have passed for a very nice Côtes du Rhône blanc. An exciting blend of three Russian hybrid varieties (their names of the varieties are just a series of numbers) produce a respectable aromatic white that many figured to be a ringer for gewürztraminer from Alsace. The barbera he shared was one of the better wines I tasted, but the teroldego was reminscent of prune juice. The two dessert wines, a late-harvest hybrid (the variety was actually unknown) and an apple ice wine could perhaps be cash cows for wineries that sell a lot of sweet wine, but I was not overly impressed with either.
The main event of the conference came in the afternoon after Dr. Fiola's seminar. Everyone was shuttled over to the Warehouse at Camden Yards (yes, the Orioles' stadium) for the Twitter Taste-Off. Over three dozen wineries poured samples to all the conference attendees and 400 local consumers. Though I did here more than a handful of consumers ask only for sweet wine, I also found some truly excellent wine to be found in Maryland that I wouldn't be ashamed of sharing a table with world-class wines from anywhere in the world.
One of the more unique offerings was from Millstone Cellars. Father and son team, Curt and Kyle Sherrer, impressed the crowd with their two ciders and an experimental hopped mead. Their Ciderberry, a delightful concoction of local raspberries blended with oak-aged apple cider, earned the title of best alternative wine at the Taste-Off for its delicious fruitiness, yet firm cider structure. Plus, for only $16 you can't beat the value.
Perhaps one of the more impressive wineries was one that was actually making its public debut at the Drink Local conference. The Baker family, led by siblings Drew, Lisa and Ashli, introduced Old Westminster Winery to the world for the first time. They poured their lovely, steely 2012 Chardonnay that was reminiscent of Chablis and a ripe, fruit-forward cabernet franc that was almost as impressive. But the amazing thing about Old Westminster was the fact the that these were the first wines released by this trio of twenty-somethings. The future is bright at Old Westminster.
Another newcomer, Big Cork Vineyards, poured outstanding barrel samples of their 2012 Cabernet Franc and 2012 Meritage. Both wines were extremely young, tight and tannic, but beneath the rough edges they had dense fruity and earth cores that yearned for a few years in the bottle to come together. Though Big Cork is a new winery, it does have some established history as winemaker and co-owner Dave Collins spent thirteen years at Breaux Vineyards in Virginia. I look forward to checking back in on these wines in a few years.
Unfortunately, competing on the world's stage with ubiquitous varieties, like chardonnay and cabernet-based blends, is going to be difficult for emerging wine regions. Wineries in places like Maryland and Colorado are going to have to think outside the box if they are ever going to convince consumers, on a large scale, to buy their wines. Slack Winery is doing just that. They poured a very respectable méthode champenoise sparkling Chardonnel and a tasty Barbera. The 2009 White Shoals is made, not from the traditional chardonnay, but a hybrid of chardonnay and seyval, but you'd be hard pressed to distinguish it from a decent cava or a sparkling California blanc de blancs. And judging from what Dr. Fiola poured the day before and Slack's effort, barbera might have a future in Maryland.
Notwithstanding the prevalence of decent hybrid varieties, across the board, the cabernet franc and red blends seemed to be the wines that spoke the most to me at the Taste-Off. Boordy Vineyards' were no exception. Their 2010 Landmark Cabernet Franc and 2010 Landmark Reserve were two of my favorite wines I tried. Both were well-made Bordeaux-style wines. The cabernet franc was very smooth with nice raspberry, chocolate and tobacco flavors framed with subtle tannins. The reserve was bigger, darker and slight riper than the cabernet franc and with a much denser tannic structure. It would easily fit in a flight of more expensive Bordeaux or California red blends. I voted for the Landmark Reserve as the best red wine in the Taste-Off.
Last, but certainly not least, Black Ankle Vineyards was without a doubt my favorite winery at the tasting and from what I gathered from other writers at the conference, Black Ankle is the winery of most renown in Maryland. The two wines they poured were truly world-class wines. The stoney and fruity 2010 Albariño was my vote for best white and apparently enough other people thought the same way as it was named winner of that category. As good as any Rías Baixas I've had, it is definitely worth the $32 tariff. In a word, it is delicious. The 2010 Crumbling Rock was equally as good. The unreleased red blend was still tight and tannic and needs more than a few years in the bottle, but was dense with dark fruit and cocoa flavors. It actually would have fit in with many of the wines I tried at Premiere Napa Valley a few months earlier and even at $48 it offers value for the quality it delivers. To me, Black Ankle is the standard-bearer for Maryland wine.
My hat's off to Maryland and Drink Local Wine for a truly enjoyable and eye-opening weekend. Check back Monday for part two of my Drink Local Wine coverage.