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News Maryland Carroll County Westminster

'Carroll's going to be a leader in our wine industry'

The Baker Family thought the Old Westminster Winery could be a Carroll County hidden gem located on the gravel-covered Old Westminster Road when it opened for wine tastings June 8.

But things have gone far better than the family ever could have imagined.

"Right out of the gate, we were just swamped on Saturdays," Old Westminster co-founder Drew Baker said.

The Old Westminster Winery, operated by siblings Drew Baker, Lisa Baker and Ashli Johnson, has seating for about 40 guests, but weekend wine tastings have regularly drawn anywhere from 100 to 200 people.

The winery started with wine tastings on Saturdays only, but the crowds led them to offer Friday and Sunday events. The first Friday wine tasting on July 26 brought in about 200 guests, according to Baker.

"At the end of the day, I didn't think that we'd be getting a few hundred people out here every single weekend," Baker said.

Carroll County has five wineries on its wine trail with Old Westminster being the newest. After Cygnus Wine Cellars opened its doors in 1996, the county has seen four wineries open in the last 10 years.

According to Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, the county can expect to see more wineries because of the success of current vineyards, support from local businesses and government, and the agricultural environment.

"Carroll's going to be a leader in our wine industry," he said.

Two new wineries in Carroll are already forming, with one expected to begin making wine as soon as next fall, Atticks said.

He added that this is a trend seen in certain areas of the state. When one vineyard is successful, more people  jump into the market.

Joanne Weant, agricultural development specialist with the Carroll County Department of Economic Development, said the county is hoping more farmers open wineries or plant vineyards.

"It's a great attraction for the county and certainly our area lends itself to wine making and grape growing," Weant said.

Weant added that the economic development department has been in contact with a longtime grain farmer whose daughter began growing grapes about three years ago and they're in the process of deciding to start a winery or sell their grapes to other wineries.

Baker, who turns 26 on Sept. 2, is the oldest of the three siblings running the Old Westminster Winery and credits his parents for pitching the idea to him and his sisters. His parents also have financed starting the business.

He admits to being the biggest critic of the idea at first, but after doing some homework, Baker said he didn't realize how feasible winemaking was in Carroll County.

"The more we learned, the more suitable we realized that our farm really was for growing high quality," he said.

The family lives on 22 acres on Old Westminster Road with seven of those acres now occupied by the vineyard. The siblings wnt to make world-class wine and believe conditions in Carroll will allow them to do that.

Baker said some of the best grapes in the state are grown in Carroll because of the well drained soil and high elevation.

According to Bob Scott, who has been growing grapes just outside of Frizzleburg for 31 years, Carroll County soil conditions, its elevation above sea level, and hillsides providing good drainage for a vineyard make it a positive place for grape growing.

Scott owns a three-acre vineyard, selling his grapes to wineries in Southern Maryland and private winemakers.

While Carroll County has aspects conducive to grape growing, the disadvantages of being on the East Coast include a lot of wet weather, according to Scott.

"When you see corn growing like it is in Carroll County this year, that probably means it's not going to be a great grape year," he said.

But with the Maryland Legislature becoming more supportive of state wineries, Scott believes the future is bright.

"The future is quite promising, and I think it's great for the county," he said. "It's great for preserving farmland."

Old Westminster produces about 1,000 cases of wine, 12 bottles per case, a year. The winery has the capacity to do three times as much, but Baker said the family wanted to focus on the quality of its seven wine varieties, not the quantity.

"At the end of the day we're just quality first," he said.

The winery employs six people, Baker said, including himself and his sisters, but that does not include part-time weekend staff for wine tastings.

With the larger than expected crowds, Baker said he could see Old Westminster moving to appointment only wine tastings next year or the next step could be moving out and establishing a tasting room.

But at this time there are no plans to relocate.

"Ultimately, we're going to have to do that," Baker said of starting a tasting room.

For now, Baker said he and his sisters just need to keep doing what they're doing.

"It started off with skepticism, but its turned into a real passion," he said. "Now I can't see myself doing anything else."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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