Traveling through Central Maryland’s wine country is a study in contrasts. Fragmented but tall forests surround fields of corn and other crops. As you approach Unionville Road on the way to Black Ankle Vineyards, a tunnel of trees engulfs the narrow country lane. Once you emerge, it’s as if you have been beamed down from space into a European-like vineyard scene. You have arrived in another world.
I used to doubt Maryland wines were any good, but in just one afternoon, my mind changed instantly at the 2017 Comptroller’s Cup Wine Competition. The awards presentation held at Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen July 28, 2017, exposed me to the best wines in Maryland. The award-winning wines were darn good, and the variety was impressive. Winemakers from the Eastern Shore to the Blue Ridge Mountains and in between are making excellent wines.
As I started the exploring of some of Maryland’s 80 wineries, none impressed me more than Black Ankle Vineyards near Mt Airy. Husband and wife team, Ed Boyce and Sarah O’Herron, have refreshed a tired old feeder farm and turned it into wine paradise. The setting between two hills provides a perfect micro-climate for grapes. The tasting room is nestled in the low point of the hills providing wide views of the classic farm scene and vineyards.
This secluded setting seems more like a private park than a vineyard. Happy customers linger on the lawn, in the tasting room, or on the patios enjoying being on the farm. But this farm is serious about making great wines and proving it can be done sustainably. On their website, the owners say,
“We spend a great deal of time doing what we think of as farming the soil – making sure that the microbial life in the soil has a good mix of air, water and nutrients so it can create a healthy environment for our vines.
If you don’t take care of the soil, you don’t get great produce. At Black Ankle, they don’t use artificial fertilizers or herbicides, and fungicides are used sparingly. After losing 60% of their crop to Black Rot from trying to go organic, the owners decided fungicides were necessary. They also have used a pesticide against Japanese Beetles after trying dozens of non-pesticide methods with little success.
Other sustainable features include: solar power, passive solar, electric car charging stations, and geothermal; all incorporated in reshaping the farm after Ed and Sarah purchased it. Their recycling program includes recycling food scraps for the farm’s pigs, and they have reduced cardboard consumption by 80% by packing bottles on re-usable trays.
When I asked Ed why they wanted to make Black Ankle Vineyards eco-friendly he said, “Why would we want to treat the farm poorly? I think leaving a small footprint on the Earth should be the default position of everybody, not a statement of differentiation.”
It was easy for me to agree with his answer.
Ed and Sarah built the tasting room mostly from materials found on the farm. To that end, they used straw bale construction from straw grown onsite. Around 90% of the building materials were sourced on the farm. One of the most striking examples of using materials on the farm is the bar top. This unique feature is made from vine trimmings pressed under very high pressure and finished to a shiny surface revealing the vine clippings as if under glass. Notice the stone fireplace and chimney in the tasting room as you enter. This stone was all sourced from the farm.
The level of sustainability is all well and good, but what about the quality of the wine? It’s no fluke that Black Ankle wines are considered by many to be the best in Maryland. Ed and Sarah went to great strides to attain this level of perfection. They traveled Spain, Italy, and France extensively researching great wine making. They both speak Spanish, and Sarah also speaks French. They learned all they could from these European vineyard visits and brought this knowledge home to Maryland.
It took about a year of driving Maryland’s back roads before the best winery site was found in May of 2002. The first grapevines were planted in 2003, and the tasting room opened in 2008 when the first bottles were ready to sell. Slowly, the word got out there was some seriously good wine at Black Ankle.
Open Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and some holidays, visitors can taste five wines for around $16 per person. There is also a wine flight offered for $30 with some of the wines being special vintages from the past. This wine flight is approximately two glasses total, instead of just an ounce each pour. Local cheeses are sold onsite, and visitors ring the bell for a hot baguette from the kitchen to accompany wine tastings.
My favorite wine was the Slate 3, a premium red blend consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. This rich Bordeaux blend is a full-bodied wine that would go great with everything from tacos to prime rib. At $54 per bottle, some would choose tacos to pair with it! My favorite white wine was a blend named Bedlam, a delicious wine to pair with seafood, chicken, or maybe just a bowl of cheddar popcorn for football game snacks.
Friday nights bring live music to accompany your picnic dinner and Black Ankle wine. In warm weather, this is one of the best Friday night entertainment options in Maryland. Pull up a chair on the patio and enjoy the beauty of this old farm, excellent wine, friends, and family. Located under an hour from Baltimore it’s an easy drive to this vineyard.
In Maryland, you will find several wine shops and restaurants carrying Black Ankle wines. For those of you living out of state, Black Ankle has an option to buy online. Perhaps the only downside to Black Ankle wines is the price. Their current lineup runs from $30 to $54 making these a special occasion wine for some customers.
If you are looking to start your own vineyard, Black Ankle is a good place to seek knowledge. Or if you’re just looking for a great vineyard escape, this little slice of Maryland heaven would be hard to beat.
Photos by Atsuko Okabe
Kurt Jacobson has been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. For this and other recipes using garden greens, and more fresh veggies check out his food blog. For tasty travel ideas check out Kurt's travel blog, TasteofTravel2.com. Read all of Kurt's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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