Historic St. Mary’s vineyard now looking to become future winery

News Wineries

There’s plenty of history across a sloping 240-acre farm in Mechanicsville.

A slave cemetery atop the hill near the farm house has been dated to 1764-1838. St. Mary’s College experts say both free and enslaved African Americans were buried there in the days when the land was considered Prince George’s County rather than St. Mary’s County currently. Nearby, a large hearth is buried deep in the woods where it once served the entire community during feasts in the 1840s.

But the past is not the only exciting part of Long Looked For Come At Last Farm. The future is pretty exciting, too.

Six acres of vines have been producing 17 different types of grapes, including those used for Albarino, Barbera, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Vidal Blanc and Viognier that are turned into wine by the Port of Leonardtown. Another six acres are being planted as the next expansion by the Byrne family, whose grandfather Charles Conrad bought the land in 1944.

A production facility and tasting room are planned for 2020 under the label of Courteau Vineyards, the name coming from the Peter Byrne’s great, great, great grandfather who immigrated to the U.S. from Quebec. Courteau means short in French, but there’s nothing small about the family’s hopes to finally turn the farm into the next cornerstone of Southern Maryland’s winemaking industry.

“We need to do something different,” said Peter Byrne, whose wife Lyrel and brother Gerald are among family members involved in the farm. “[Wine is] something that can help. It’s a way to keep the farm. The farm itself never made money even going back to my grandfather’s days.”

The days of animals grazing on both sides of Golden Beach Road and tobacco fields have long given way to a Christmas tree farm and 5,000 vines. Now the chance to start their own winery has the family in high gear despite Peter also working as a software executive in Seattle. The wine industry’s growth over the past decade has spurred on farm owners like Byrne to increase production.

“The faster we get up and going the faster we can be a gateway to St. Mary’s County,” he said. “It’s a lot of big work.”

With winemaker Brianna Lopez of Temecula, Calif., the farm figures on producing more than 2,500 cases annually. Indeed, a few barrels may be created this fall.

“Bourdeaux blends will be big. Barbera is a big one,” Byrne said. “Well-drained fields really help. Last year was tough [because of a rainy summer,] but the reds, Merlot and Barbera did well overall. We’re looking a lot better this year.”

When visitors eventually roam the vineyard, they’ll find trails in the woods and swamp to explore along with the vines. The farm dates back to colonial times when a road extended from Charlotte Hall to Benedict. School boys from the Charlotte Hall school marched along it through the swamp to harass British troops during the War of 1812 before the latter burned Washington.

For more than a century, buggies and ox carts used the dirt road. Some headed to two grist mills while many traveled to the Charlotte Hall springs where pure water was known to cure skin problems.

“The old road is lost in the woods,” said lifelong resident Henry Fowler, Jr. “A whole road used to be there. The creek banks had 75-, 100-year-old trees.”

A 2014 anthropological survey led by professor Steve Lenik of St. Mary’s College plotted the cemetery that still sits under large shady trees. The study found 75 human remains, though Byrne said the number has since been increased to 111 with more believed nearby. Broken black stones denote some of the graves, though none have names.

The Burroughs family owned the farm from the late 17th century through 1884 with 1849 records showing 35 slaves. An 1866 tax record showed seven freed African Americans on the property.

There’s also one contemporary grave nearby of Julia Conrad Byrne, second of three generations on the farm and Peter’s mother. It seems the land is family blood now both past and present.

And soon, the public will enjoy its bounty and beauty.

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