In the spirit of winemaking

Manchester business owner is self-taught but shares knowledge

April 23, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ray Brasfield vividly recalls when he first started making wine about 25 years ago in the basement of his 33rd Street home in Baltimore.

With only a small amount of equipment, including a small basket press, a wooden grape crusher and commercial garbage cans, Brasfield experimented with different varieties of grapes as he taught himself winemaking.

His procedure was simple: He purchased grapes from growers in Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, crushed them and then poured the juice into the garbage cans to allow it to ferment.

"My home winery wasn't much to look at, but I produced wines that people liked enough to want me to pop the corks," said Brasfield, 54.

John Cochran of Baltimore, an amateur winemaker, said the early winery fostered experimentation and character.

"It's a messy situation anytime someone makes wine, regardless of the location," said Cochran, 64, who met Brasfield about 20 years ago. "You don't always get all the juice into the vats, and it gets spilled. Ray's winery was messy at times, like they all are, but his was always interesting. It was full of tubes that made it look like a chemist's lab."

But despite humble beginnings, Brasfield managed to teach himself to make award-winning wines and realized his dream to open a winery and have his own label. Other winemakers said his journey helped make him a leader in the field.

"Ray is in the top 5 percent of all winemakers in the nation and the No. 1 winemaker in Maryland," Cochran said. "His wines are excellent. He'd be even better if he had better fruit to work with. He strives to make wines that taste like something people have tasted before, instead of something that only he would drink."

Before opening Cygnus Wine Cellars, Brasfield was an aerospace engineer for Elkton-based Thiokol, a company that manufactured rocket boosters. He left Thiokol in 1992 to pursue his winemaking dream and spent years consulting and teaching winery owners.

Brasfield said it was a simple decision. But people who know Brasfield were torn - some of them thought that his career move was peculiar, while others felt it made perfect sense.

"He applied the preciseness of an engineer to the winemaking process," said Al Copp, owner of Woodhall Vineyards and Wine Cellars in Parkton. "He then developed precise procedures that he continues to follow. And the result is some great wines."

Cochran agrees with Copp. "Winemaking is experimental, analytical and chemistry," Cochran said. "Knowledge is power, and he has plenty of knowledge."

Brasfield made several wines for Woodhall, three of which won the Maryland Governor's Cup Award, an accolade given to the best wine in Maryland. And, as the self-taught Brasfield learned more about winemaking, he shared his knowledge.

"He taught me tests I didn't know," Copp said. "He took our wines to the next level in quality."

But, Copp said, Brasfield wanted to produce wines under his own label.

He continued making wines from his home at the rate of about 30 cases a year, but he had outgrown his home winery. He had already expanded the business to the garage, and there was no place for him to grow but out.

When he told people he was thinking about opening a winery, some customers and friends offered to invest.

"He was committed, and he made good wines," said Cochran. "He was a great investment."

His goal was to open a small, regional winery that made wine from fruit grown in south-central Pennsylvania and Maryland. He began searching for a location and stumbled across a slaughterhouse in Manchester.

"It needed a lot of work, but the location was perfect," Brasfield said.

It was just what he was looking for, and in 1996 he moved his family to Manchester, where Cygnus Wine Cellars was born. "The 1995 grape season was a great one, and I didn't want to miss out on it," Brasfield said.

Brasfield, an avid astronomer, named his winery after a constellation known as The Swan or the Northern Cross.

He had his first crush in September 1996 and began with five wines, including red and sparkling.

"I think when he started, he knew he wanted to develop his sparkling wines," Cochran said. "And now he's known for them."

A decade later, Brasfield produces some specialty wines, including Cygnus red wine, a $9 bottle that is a blend of several grapes; a cabernet sauvignon; a chardonnay; and Manchester Hall, a semidry vidal blanc.

He has won runner-up for the Governor's Cup three times and has received several gold, silver and bronze medals. In 1998, he opened for retail business.

Throughout his career, he has continued to see growth each year. In 1996, he produced 800 gallons of wine; this past year, more than 2,500 gallons.

"I have been growing my winery every year," Brasfield said. "There are a lot of thriving young home-based winemakers out there. They make a little bit of wine and never become students of it. I chose to, and I enjoy it."

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