Ripe for discovery Tour: Like the Napa Valley before them, Maryland's vineyards are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. Meanwhile, the wine is fine, and getting there's quicker.

June 14, 1998|By Les Picker | Les Picker,Special to The Sun

In last Sunday's Travel section, an incorrect phone number was given for Loew Vineyards in Mount Airy, Md. The correct number is 301-831-5464.

The Sun regrets the error.

Sitting on the veranda of Fiore Winery in Harford County, one could easily mistake it for a winery from a few decades ago, when Napa Valley was struggling to become a world center of fine wine production. A refreshing breeze wafts across the picturesque vineyards, and you can smell the sweet grapes just emerging on the vine. As you sip a glass of deep, dry Chambourcin and savor its cherry and pepper undertones, your eyes take in the gently rolling hills of rural Graceton Valley.

But then Rose and Mike Fiore come out to join you for conversation as rich as their red wines, and any similarity to Napa Valley quickly disappears. Suddenly, you're with family.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

One of the true joys of touring Maryland's up-and-coming wineries is the opportunity to talk directly with the winemakers, to share their passion for their craft. Unlike tours in Napa or Sonoma or even Washington state's Willamette Valley, visits here will most probably be guided by the winemaker himself, a member of the immediate family.

An eclectic mix of winemakers practice their craft at Maryland's nine wineries, which produced 59,000 gallons of wine in 1996. Among them are an aerospace engineer, a retired federal bureaucrat, a Holocaust survivor and a retired chemist.

Mike Fiore, who manages to hold down a full-time job with BGE, is a passionate winemaker with 300 years of family winemaking heritage behind him. Fiore earned the prestigious cellar master designation in his native Calabria, Italy, at age 17 and then went on to study viniculture and enology at the University of Florence. Between wine tastings, visitors listen to Mike and his wife Rose's winemaking tales, which are nothing short of enchanting.

With the exception of Catoctin Winery in Brookeville, Maryland's wineries are clustered in two major groups, each of which makes a wonderful day or weekend trip. (But be careful about attending too many tastings, then driving from winery to winery.)

My first tour began in Baltimore and continued due west on Interstate 70, where I visited three wineries: Linganore Winecellars, Loew Vineyards and Elk Run Vineyards. We tend to forget how close to Baltimore lie the rolling hills and quiet serenity of Western Maryland. In an hour, I was approaching Linganore along winding Glissans Mill Road, a pretty, rural byway with eye-catching views of dairy and wheat farms.

Maryland winery tours and tastings are delightfully informal affairs. Forget the snobbery of Napa Valley, where crowds of visitors dutifully nod their heads in agreement with the tour guide's perceptions, even though she may be younger than your youngest daughter. When I reached Linganore, there was no crowd, and Lucille Greco-Aellen, the personable co-owner of the winery, was my guide. She provided me with a taste card listing the wines in the order I would taste them. As she poured a small sample into the glass, we discussed the characteristics of the wine and my reactions. Another couple entered the tasting room, and we bantered back and forth, with Greco-Aellen smoothly switching between server and social host.

Typical of my winery visits, five minutes after I met Greco-Aellen, she treated me to a family "secret," now shared by several area chefs. Freeze individual red seedless grapes and drop them into a glass of chilled dessert wine for a long-lasting summertime treat.

Linganore's popular dessert wines reflect the family's winemaking philosophy. "We have no 'best wine,' " Greco-Aellen says. "We think what you like best is our best wine." Aellen's 38-year-old son, Anthony, is now the family winemaker. He led our tour, enthusiastically explaining how wine is turned from nutritious but otherwise uninspired and unmotivated grapes to its higher purpose in life, fine wine. Anthony is charged with expanding the winery from its current 55,000 gallons a year to a projected 180,000 gallons to satisfy Marylanders' appetite for the lighter, fruitier wines for which Linganore is known.

Only 10 minutes from Linganore is Loew Vineyards, owned by Lois Loew and her husband, winemaker William. Established in 1982, the Loews grow nine different varietal grapes on their 5 acres. William is restoring his family's Austrian winemaking tradition, tragically interrupted by the Nazi Holocaust. "A lot of winemaking is intuitive," William says, reflecting a typical Maryland-winemaker viewpoint. "I've been working wine for 30 years and I keep on experimenting with different wines." As Lois and I strolled the vineyards, I sipped a small glass of their sweet and refreshing honey wine, an Austrian winemaking tradition.

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