Forget a village – it has taken a region to produce some of Maryland’s best wines.
In less than a decade, Port of Leonardtown has earned more than 150 awards. Gold medals are becoming more commonplace than Marylander Michael Phelps’ Olympic haul. Fans regularly crowd the Leonardtown tasting room on weekends when live music fills the night.
Winemaker Lauren Zimmerman has turned grapes from 12 different vineyards throughout Southern Maryland into something special. But that proved especially true in 2018 when winning the Governor’s Cup’s Best in Show with its Barbera Reserve 2015.
“We were all ecstatic,” said POL communication director Rachel Norris. “That first month, it was a high. To be a small winery, [winning is] a challenge for us.”
But that wasn’t the end. The Barbera Reserve 2015 (red) along with Old Line Red 2015 (red blend) both won Best in Class. The winery also collected seven gold medals.
And then international wine expert James Suckling topped the year by rating the Old Line Red 2015 with a 90-plus to earn Outstanding honors. Suckling and his staff rated only 19 of 880 wines with top honors as part of its “American Wine Revolution.”
“This last year has been phenomenal for awards,” Zimmerman said. “People are ordering online. Sales are booming.”
A native Canadian whose 14 years in the wine industry includes New Zealand before coming to Leonardtown in 2015, Zimmerman works with 25 different grapes to create blends. The tasting room typically offers 16 to 21 wines, depending on the time of year. The winery sells more than 4,000 cases annually with plans to expand production to meet growing demand.
“The reason we’re so successful with red blends is because we have 25 varieties where many wineries have five or six,” Zimmerman said. “I have so many variations to blend and re-blend to find the perfect blend. It’s a recipe for success when having so many options.
“Finding the right grape varieties is essential. We learned the hard way which varieties work and have found some real winners. The Albarino, Cabernet Franc, Barbera and Chambourcin grow very well here.”
But there’s a lot of teamwork involved as Zimmerman visits each vineyard and regularly talks with their staffs to produce a peak harvest.
“I rely on communication with them,” she said. “They’ll bring me grape samples. We work together to decide what to harvest. All of our grapes are from St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert counties.”
Sometimes, Zimmerman flashes a little gambling amidst her science. Last year’s record rain could have been disastrous by diluting the grapes. There have also been annual hurricane warnings over the past several years that could destroy a year’s work.
“People say I have the best job in the world,” Zimmerman said, “but sometimes it’s hard when Mother Nature throws a hurricane and lots of rain. The last few years we’ve had hurricane warnings every September. You’re forced to make a decision to harvest early before the grapes are ready or take the risk. We waited. We were able to make some premium wines.”
Zimmerman was surprised by the growing Maryland industry when arriving.
“I learned all about Virginia and didn’t hear much about Maryland,” she said, “but I was blown away. There are 100 wineries in Maryland. The future is bright in Southern Maryland. We’re catching up to Virginia.”
Norris echoed Zimmerman’s growing expectations of Maryland’s emerging status nationwide.
“Maryland wine is in general is in its infancy,” she said. “A rising tide floats all boats. We are very interested in creating our own wine trail. We are currently on the Patuxent Wine Trail, but we are the only winery in St. Mary’s county that is a part of it. It’s quite a drive to visit us when you are touring Calvert County. The more wineries in St. Mary’s the merrier the trail will be!
Zimmerman is often visited by restaurant owners from Washington looking for options. She encourages city residents to visit Amish country that is only slightly more than one hour from the nation’s capital.
“We need more wineries,” she said. “There’s power in numbers. People want to do wine tours. If we had a wine trail in St. Mary’s, people love to visit multiple wineries in one trip.”
Meanwhile, Port of Leonardtown stays busy with plenty of parties alongside its musical acts that will include six new groups this year. Whether it’s birthday parties, bridal showers and even the winery’s first wedding this fall, the large tasting room is often busy.
Port of Leonardtown’s wines are sold throughout Southern Maryland. Norris, who also works as the tasting room manager, often educates customers that Maryland has more to offer than sweet wines. Indeed, the reds and dry wines are quite popular.
Still, try the Vidalacalo, a chilled white wine whose multiple flavors are overwhelmingly good. There are also two dessert wines in Autumn Frost and Port of Leonardtown.
Meanwhile, Zimmerman has plans to increase production. Seems 4,000 cases annually aren’t enough to meet demand. She looks around the building with its wooden barrels and stainless steel vats with pride, knowing everything says quality around her.
“The magic happens here,” she says with a smile.