Nature teaches us many lessons, and the Frederick Wine Trail has taught friends Hilary Saunders and Augusta Inniss one lesson: When touring the six Frederick County vineyards that make up the trail, it's wise to pace oneself.
Many of the shot-glassed tastings, after all, are complimentary.
"We used to try four wineries in a day. We learned very quickly not to try too many," says Saunders of Columbia. "It's like Vegas. We set a limit."
A roster of dry and semi-sweet wines before them, Saunders and Inniss stood at the tasting bar at Linganore Winecellars in Mount Airy - just one stop along the "trail," which is more of a geographic cluster than actual trail. For the past three years, the friends have been hitting area wineries at the first sign of spring. But now, they visit maybe two wineries during any one outing. At Linganore, they stayed loyal to their wine palates.
"I'm extra dry," Saunders says.
"I'm extra fruity," Inniss says.
True wine-trail connoisseurs.
The year-old Frederick Wine Trail includes more than 120 acres of vineyards, and its six member vineyards are responsible for more than half of Maryland's wine production. Four wineries - Linganore, Elk Run, Black Ankle Vineyards (opening this summer) and Loew Vineyards - are bunched in the Mount Airy area. Frederick Cellars is in downtown Frederick, and Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard is in Dickerson, at the edge of Montgomery County.
There's no line connecting the vineyards, but brochures and Web sites lead the way. There's no order to follow. Go where you want. Taste what you like. Some of the participating vineyards charge $2 to sample five wines; others charge nothing. At the vineyards, patios and picnic tables encourage unwinding and reward procrastination. Tours of the wineries are also available.
Driving to this select club of wineries is a revelation. If you need a reminder of how rural and rolling Maryland's landscape can be, the trail's byways lead you through yonder mountain and valley.
Taking to heart the Vegas advice, I visited three wineries. My first stop was Elk Run in Mount Airy, a family-owned vineyard featuring whites, reds and dessert wines, a cozy patio overlooking the small vineyard, and a cocker spaniel named Billy, who rolls over at the pat of his back.
The owners' daughter, Katherine Wilson (immortalized by their "Sweet Katherine" wine), tended the tasting bar and offered sips of their Cold Friday and Liberty Tavern chardonnays, a fruity "Zin," a deep-black Malbec, and their Gypsy Rose Pinot Noir.
For the wine journeyman, wine descriptions are almost meals enough - "rich vanilla with a long complex," "soft tannins with bold fruit" or "lightly-oaked crisp with delicate notes of apple and pear." The five wines tasted just fine, complexes and all.
At Elk Run, as at the other vineyards, the grapes will be on the vine come fall. But in the spring, the vines are flowering, which is reason enough to visit. Billy, too, went outside, as if to also enjoy the fragrance.
"I love how it smells the day after it rains when it's misting. It smells so ... fresh," Wilson says. She rings up a bottle of the pinot noir for the trail rider from Baltimore.
Next stop was Frederick County's oldest winery, Linganore Winecellars, housed up the road in a 19th-century peg barn. Creeks, blind turns, trading posts, church signs ("Welcome One Nation Under God") and abandoned pickup trucks doubling as arboretums lead the way to Linganore on Glissans Mill Road.
"We thought you were following us!" Saunders said, jokingly.
She and Inniss had also been at Elk Run, and they now were standing among the wine racks and black walnut timbers in Linganore's Chambourcin tasting room. They joined five others who were taste-testing shots of the vineyard's dry dinner wines, semi-sweet dessert wines and pure fruit wines. Bites of chocolate were also part of complimentary drill.
Wine tasting is not something to be rushed or interrupted; so, people were staying awhile, having some crackers or chocolate and sipping the White Raven Pinot Grigio (good with crab cakes) or the Terrapin White, an "off-dry, full-bodied" wine. The Fox Hunt Blush wine and a Riesling (good with strawberries) were also in the trail mix.
With every tasting, the crowd at the bar appeared less concerned and stressed about the world outside. There was definite giggling.
"You guys must not have had lunch yet," says server Lisa Trout. No worries, as they say in Napa - and Frederick Valley.
Trout rings up four bottles of wine for the trail rider from Baltimore.