From basement, Baltimore's first winery crafts business plan

With zoning OK, guidance counselor, new father set to take hobby to 'next level'

May 23, 2011|By Yeganeh June Torbati, The Baltimore Sun

In a Canton basement lit by fluorescent lights, a dozen glass jugs of fermenting grape juice share space with a washer, dryer and furnace.

Standing before them, Erik Bandzak surveys his wines: two deep reds made from a Rougeon grape and an Isabella blackberry blend, which every few minutes emit tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide through their glass air locks.

A glass hydrometer, an instrument that gauges a wine's sugar content, measures his Rougeon at about 0.99.

"That's what I want it at," Bandzak says. "You get it below one, it's a dry wine."

A traditional winery, this is not. There are no lush vineyards anywhere near this dense residential neighborhood. Nor is there wine aging in 60-gallon oak barrels, or tourists lining up for weekend tastings.

Nonetheless, Bandzak, 30, has launched what amounts to Baltimore's first winery, according to records kept by state regulators. If all goes as planned, in two months the wines of Aliceanna Winery — what Bandzak has christened his fledgling enterprise — will be served to the happy-hour patrons of a nearby restaurant, the latest entry in Maryland's burgeoning wine scene.

After months of applications, rejections from city and federal authorities, and health and safety inspections, Bandzak now holds the licenses and permits necessary to sell his wine, making his business Maryland's 50th winery and one of just a handful in urban areas.

"It was a hobby, but it's become more," Bandzak said of winemaking, which he has done in one form or another since he was 18. "People always say get into something that you like to do. It's something I enjoy doing."

His ancestors made wine in oak barrels in the basement of their home in Italy, a practice Bandzak's grandfather, now 91, continued in Pennsylvania and eventually taught to Bandzak and his brother. "I just wanted to take it to the next level," Bandzak said.

At a Christmas party in 2008, a friend tasted some homemade winee Bandzak had brought. "He said, 'You should make this,'" Bandzak said.

At first, he shrugged off the suggestion, but his friend persisted, and Bandzak began experimenting at a rented storage space on Aliceanna Street. Three grapes — the Rougeon (which produces a dry red wine), Isabella blackberry blend (a red, fruitier wine) and a Riesling (a white, sweet wine) — seemed to consistently result in the best-tasting batches, and they will be the first three wines offered by Aliceanna Winery.

Perfecting his method was hard enough, but in the past three years, Bandzak has also gotten a crash course in navigating a tangle of local, state and federal regulations on the production and sale of alcohol. By day a guidance counselor at Curtis Bay Elementary School and now father of a baby boy, Bandzak had no previous experience owning a business.

"It's been a headache," Bandzak said in a Canton coffee shop on a late winter afternoon, a thick stack of paperwork set before him. "You got work, you got the baby, trying to start this, trying to get permits."

Much of the challenge came from proposing to base a winery in a residential area. Though he wants to eventually expand into a commercial space, Bandzak believes starting small will help him build credibility and get a loan, allowing him to avoid mortgaging his home for the business.

Micro-wineries operating in urban areas were virtually unheard of when Bandzak first approached the Baltimore City Municipal Zoning and Appeals Board last fall.

"You can have breweries," said David C. Tanner, executive director of the zoning board. "But a winery or vineyard is something that's not even listed. As the code developed, it just wasn't on anybody's radar screen."

Transitioning from home winemaking to commercial production is rare, and for good reason, said Kevin Atticks, director of the Maryland Wineries Association. A recipe that can taste phenomenal in a five-gallon batch can be difficult to replicate on a larger scale, he said.

"In Baltimore, there's a very large community in Little Italy that makes wine at home," said Atticks, who has advised Bandzak throughout his application process. "From that pool all across the nation, we find some of them wanting to make the leap to becoming commercial. It can take 10 years of practice for some folks."

The zoning board approved Bandzak's request to make and bottle wine — but with some restrictions. He can make only 100 gallons a year — about 500 bottles — and cannot sell wine on the premises, advertise his business at the site or use oak barrels, to prevent the wine from leaking into the ground, panel members said.

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