Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Winery to Watch: Maryland's Old Westminster

In recent years, Virginia wine has been getting the recognition it deserves from more and more wine consumers and critics. But what about its neighbor to north, Maryland? After all, the climate and soils of the Virginia and Maryland Piedmont are quite similar, and wine producers in Maryland have been taking viticulture and winemaking seriously for decades. (The state's winemaking history goes back to the late 1600s.)

Checking out the Home Vineyard - Old Westminster Winery.
I lived in Maryland for a few years and tasked myself with touring and tasting as much as possible. I worked some harvests, pressed some grapes, volunteered at local wine events, worked tasting tables at the Maryland Wine Festival, and covered Maryland wine for a local newspaper. In the mid- and late-2000s, I found a lot of wines that were less than exciting. I'm talking about lots of (non-grape) fruit wines, off-dry, off-balance or thin wines. I did find some good juice from producers like Elk Run, Suguarloaf Mountain, Boordy, Cygnus and others. But, for wine exploring trips, I started heading to Virginia.

Maryland wine has changed. Shit is getting real.

Old Westminster Winery is taking the lead and making some of Maryland's most exciting wines. Along with producers like Serpent Ridge and Black Ankle, Old Westminster aims to prove Maryland wines are legit. For me, the evidence is clear. If you're skeptical (understandable), I invite you to seek out these wines with an open mind.

Old Westminster is a family affair, dating back to 2008, when Jay and Virginia Baker (no relation) decided the rocky soils of their Carroll County farm could be a vineyard. Eight years later, they produce a wide range of whites, reds and sparkling wines that will smash any negative preconceptions you have about Maryland vino.

Lisa, Drew & Ashli - Credit: Old Westminster Winery
The Baker children (all younger than me, damnit) have accomplished an impressive amount in a relatively brief period of time. Lisa crafts the wines, Drew manages the vineyard and Ashli heads up the tasting room and event planning. Together, they're pushing the limits of Maryland wine's potential, and turning quite a few heads (including mine) in the process.

After tasting through a few of their wines this summer, I had to visit. On a hot summer Sunday, I drove through the hills of Central Maryland with my 14-month-old girl to see what was going on.

Growing high quality wine grapes in such a warm and humid climate isn't easy, and as I drove to the winery, I was reminded of how difficult viticulture can be in this region. Do you remember those videos of massive flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland? That same storm had dumped 7 inches of rain overnight on the hills around Old Westminster. Gravel washouts, overflowing creeks, sopping earth —these ain't drought-stricken California vines.

Storms like this happen in the mid-Atlantic, and it's one of the crazy/awesome things about living here. So, given the frequent storms, it makes sense why the Bakers chose to plant Albariño, a white variety historically grown in the Rias Baixas region of Northern Spain. In Rias Baixas, they get plenty of sun, but it's also the rainiest region of Spain. The vineyards are heavily influenced by the Atlantic Ocean and the heavy storms it sends inland. Maryland, sound familiar?

This grape handles wet weather like a champ, and Albariño has the added benefit of making absolutely delicious wines. Old Westminster is making a strong argument with their Albariño: this grape should be planted widely in the Mid-Atlantic. Old Westminster makes a still and a sparkling Albariño (via the Petillant Naturel method) from their Home vineyard. Both are fascinating and tasty iterations of this grape.

So, I met up with Drew Baker at the winery. This place has an impressive tasting room with a lot of indoor and outdoor space. One could throw some seriously hopping wine parties at this winery, which opened last year. Drew poured a bunch of his wines for me to taste and we chatted about what his family is up to. And it struck me: each member of this family has put in a ton of effort in order to pull this off. And after some recent recognition from some food and wine publications, people (myself included) are starting to realize: we are seeing the future of Maryland wine unfold before us.

Old Westminster tends to pick grapes a bit early, which keeps the acidity higher. It also helps the grapes avoid mid-September storms, which can be intense, drench vineyards across the mid-Atlantic, and cause rot problems. The team at Old Westminster are churning out a bunch of different bottles, but the wines share a common thread: freshness, vibrant fruit, subtle complexities, judicious use of oak. The Home Vineyard is producing some stellar juice, but OW also sources grapes from some really interesting sites in Western Maryland. (I hear rumors of limestone soils and higher elevation vineyards. And... maybe... Riesling? More research required.)

I've introduced this project enough. You get it. I'm a fan. So I'll get to the wines. (Note: I sipped these wines and jotted these notes in a strange state of mind: at the winery, with Drew, while entertaining my 14-month-old, who was running around the tasting room shrieking with joy. Not exactly a formal tasting, but a really fun one.)

2014 Old Westminster Winery Chardonnay Home Vineyard - Maryland, Central Piedmont, Linganore
Really solid aromatics. Bright acidity keeps this wine very lively, but there's a relatively creamy mouthfeel with nuanced hints of vanilla to accent the green and yellow apple fruit. Crisp and bright but full of flavor.

2014 Old Westminster Winery Sauvignon Blanc - Maryland, Central Piedmont, Linganore
Salt and floral on the nose and palate with brisk acidity and a lean approach. Hints of white pepper and spice accent the sliced green apple and lime fruit. Bright, clean, nuanced, very impressive stuff for a grape that can be hard to pull off in Maryland.

2014 Old Westminster Winery Trio - Maryland, Central Piedmont, Linganore
This blend changes every year, but this vintage is Chardonnay, Sauv Blanc and Viognier. It's creamy and fleshy with ripe fruit but tart acidity. Hints of sweetness (from an off-dry fermentation of Chardonnay) but it's woven in really well. Nice little floral/spice/honey kick.

2015 Old Westminster Winery Viognier Cool Ridge Vineyard - Maryland, Central Piedmont, Linganore
This is a far more refreshing and vibrant style than most any mid-Atlantic Viognier I've tasted. Picked a bit earlier, the wine shows brisk acidity and, while fruity, is stays away from that extracted tropical style. Bright floral aromas. Crisp on the palate but the peach and melon fruit also has some honey notes. I love this style.

N.V. Old Westminster Winery Revelry First Edition - Maryland, Central Piedmont, Linganore
This kitchen sink blend is a fresh, vibrant and light red wine with lip-smacking acid and bright red fruits. Hints of pepper and earth as well. Delicious, fun stuff.

N.V. Old Westminster Winery Tapestry Second Edition - Maryland, Central Piedmont, Linganore
A multi-vintage blend that includes Syrah and some Bordeaux varieties. Juicy and vibrant with lots of fruit and a surprising dose of structure. Some earthy, pepper notes add complexity.

2013 Old Westminster Winery Channery Hill - Maryland, North Central Piedmont
Wow, this is really impressive juice. Dark, rich fruit on the nose with some leather and spice. Chewy texture, dusty tannins, medium acidity, lots of vibrant but dark berry fruit mixed with some smoke and earth. Downright delicious, too. 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon.

2013 Old Westminster Winery Cabernet Franc Home Vineyard - Maryland, Central Piedmont, Linganore
A bit dense upon first being open, but this is obviously serious juice. Dark, saucy berries mix with cinnamon, clove and pepper. The mouthfeel is rich but velvety smooth. Serious structure for the cellar, but it's got the juicy fruit to make it immediately pleasurable. Lots of pepper, earth, charcoal and clove complexity. Wow, I'd love to sit down with some friends and taste this over the course of an evening, or pop a bottle in five years.


  1. So you are the reason the Eric is maintaining the old Cellar Tracker interface? Might be time to learn the new version, eh? As for Old Westminster, I do not know the winery, but it sounds like you are a fan, which is more than enough for me. I have always contended that "regional wineries" such as OW and those that I visited in PA need to compete on both quality (which it seems OW does) and price. You did not include prices here, but their website reveals that their wines are in the $30-40 range. While admitting that most of the wines are listed as "Sold Out" on the site (good for them!), there is no indication of quantity. Is this a model that they can sustain? In other words, no matter how good their Albaniño might be, can it compete with wines from Rìas Biaxas that are a fraction of the price?

    1. Ha ha - I know the new version, but for some reason, I like the old one. May have to ditch it eventually, though! You bring up a great point, though, about competing with old world regions and price. It's something that comes up a lot in discussions about wines from MD, VA, PA, etc. But I'm not sure the goal is to compete with Rias Biaxas. Places like OW aren't big enough to expand to the point where their wines would be sold all over the place. They sell their wine at the winery and online (as you noted), but it's a boutique operation, and the sale of their wines seems linked to their potential success as a regional draw/point of interest. I'm not so sure a Maryland Albarino and an Albarino from Rias Biaxas even need to compete.

  2. Love this site! Makes learning about wine fun. Thanks for sharing!