For Denise and John Wilkerson, owning a vineyard had always been a shared dream, but not one they thought would ever be realized. Wandering through the French regions of Dijon and Bordeaux on their honeymoon, the two sampled myriad wines and mustards, refining their palates and developing an appreciation for wine-dipped mustard sandwiches. Back in the states, the two tried their hand at cattle farming before making a dramatic decision: they'd sell the cattle, work on beautifying their 20 acres of land, and find a sunny patch of earth to plant those first few rows of wine grapes.
Today, the two curate tastings of their award-winning wines in a renovated barn, where barrels have been re-purposed into tables, and grapes have been re-purposed as alcohol. Through open doors, the rustic tasting room looks out over the Wilkersons' 20 acres, which are populated by rows of grapes and the lush undergrowth of native plants.
Perched on a hill overlooking northern Baltimore County's scenic valleys, Royal Rabbit Vineyards typically provides guests pleasing views throughout the year. It isn't until late spring and summer, however, that the landscape begins to change: heavy green and purple orbs crop up along 4 acres of climbing grapevines. By fall, the heavy, ripened grapes are ready for harvest—later on they’ll be turned into the winery’s award-winning wines or used as low-impact marbles. The small winery lies along the Piedmont Wine Trail and Mason-Dixie Wine Trail, which connects more than 20 small, family-owned wineries in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
In keeping with the Royal Rabbit Vineyards motto—"Treat yourself royally"—many of the wines have royal titles, including a cabernet franc blend dubbed “the duke.” Wine labels display a kingly rabbit holding a golden chalice.
Established in 1986, Basignani Winery cultivates and bottles hand-crafted red and white wines using a traditional cellar method and techniques perfected over several years. Owners Bert and Lynne Basignani have named some of their favorite wines after their four children, such as the dry Elena, a white seyval blend aged in oak, or the Lorenzino Reserve, a rich blend of cabernet sauvignon and franc melded with fruity merlot. Wednesday–Sunday, the winery holds half-hour tastings of its creations and encourages—weather and Dionysus’s mood permitting— self guided tours of the vineyard. A 20-minute drive north of Baltimore, the winery boasts rows of plump green and burgundy grapes hanging off vines as the winery’s resident border collies run and play in the fields. In spring, vibrant fuchsia petals burst from branches and delicate blush blooms droop low to the ground to provide cover for a romantic meal or microfiche exchange among visitors.
When you think of mead, you might immediately conjure images of Tyrion Lannister or the dwarves of Middle Earth tossing back horns of the stuff. Cool enough, sure, but James Boicourt is out to reinvent the perception of it. At Charm City Meadworks, the owner and mead-maker has developed modern spins on the spirit—instead of the viscous, sugar-sweet recipes of yore, his meads finish more like a crisp wine or cider, depending on the varietal. Using honey sourced from Dutch Gold in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as well as some from the meadery's own hives, Boicourt might offset its sweetness with something herbal (rosemary), bitter (elderberry), spicy (cinnamon), or floral (wildflower). Some are carbonated and some are not, but all can be sampled in the facility's brand-new tasting room. There, guests can hang on a patio with cornhole boards and feast on whatever snacks or picnic they choose to bring along.
Though many vintners refer to their winemaking techniques as "old country," those of the Loews are older than most. The family's first forays into the drinkable craft began in the 19th century, in an area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire known as Galicia, now part of Ukraine. There, they brewed honey wines and distributed them throughout Europe. The Loews continued in the business well into the 20th century, but their enterprise was disrupted by the outbreak of World War II. The Loew name wouldn't appear on another bottle until nearly a half-century later, in a vineyard an ocean away.
The modern iteration of Loew Vineyards was established in 1982, and today stretches across 37 lush acres in Frederick County. Here, the gravelly soil nourishes flavorful grapes ideal for both red and white wines. The Loews tend to the vines throughout the year, harvesting the grapes in the fall and pruning them and fitting leaves with tiny mittens in the winter. Their crops are transformed into more than a dozen varieties of wine, ranging from the citrus-y, semi-sweet Serendipity to a balanced hearty red wine. The family even bottles honey wine (Mead) in a nod to their European past.
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"There are a lot of technically correct wines that can be stylistically boring," says Ray Brasfield, owner and winemaker at Cygnus Wine Cellars. "Stylistically boring" isn't an accusation that could be leveled at him or his establishment, though. He pours artistry into every bottle of wine he makes, whether he's making a dry table wine to pair with cheese or coaxing sparkling champagne from locally grown grapes.
Even his venue, a one-time abandoned slaughterhouse, has a bit of character and edge. Plenty of elements of the 1939 architecture show through under the upgraded decor of the tasting room. The press room and other operational areas still look remarkably similar. Like Ray's wines, each space blends a bit of art and science.