Wine on the way? Two men look to open wineries in Howard County

The Howard County winery tour of the future could conceivably start at Riggs Meadow Drive, then continue south on Route 97, heading down the two-lane road that turns from suburban to rural as you approach Jennings Chapel Road, where you could stop for another taste or two.

Someday — maybe.

Under the county law enacted last year to allow wineries, one permit has been issued to a man who has been running a winery out of his home in Silver Spring, and the county is considering an application from the co-owner of a popular Columbia restaurant.

Jan Luigard, who runs the Penn Oaks winery in Montgomery County, holds the first permit to be issued since Howard changed the zoning rules to allow wineries. According to the Maryland Wineries Association website, Penn Oaks has been family-owned and -operated since 1997, specializing in "European style wines," particularly German whites and "two delightful reds."

Luigard said he was not ready to talk about his plans and declined to comment.

He lives in Silver Spring, but his permit lists an address in the Riggs Meadows subdivision — a cluster of homes off Route 97 in Cooksville. The mailbox of the prospective winery site stands next to a smooth driveway that quickly turns rough. A long, broken paved drive with weeds poking up along the way ends at a wood-framed house wrapped in a porch, standing next to a small, cultivated field. From a distance, it appears that grapes are growing there.

In fact, Luigard has been raising grapes in Howard for years, said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association.

According to the Maryland Grape Growers Association's 2010 survey, all of 7.4 acres in Howard were being used to grow grapes — five being used by a winery, the balance for noncommercial use. That puts the county in the low range among Maryland grape-growers, with Frederick County at the top with 117 acres out of a state total of 601.

Luigard was quick to pursue the permit, applying at the end of May 2011, a few weeks after the County Council adopted the law but more than a month before the new rules took effect. He received his permit from the Department of Planning and Zoning in July.

Things were quiet for nearly a year. Then Donald R. Reuwer Jr. of Brookeville jumped in early this month.

Reuwer is a co-owner of the Iron Bridge Wine Company, a restaurant with an expansive wine list and locations in Columbia and Warrenton, Va. He said he could not provide much detail about the winery project, except to say he is working with his restaurant partners and plans to establish the operation at his 303-acre horse farm on Jennings Chapel Road.

Next week, he said, he and his partners are to meet to make winery plans.

Dave Zuchero, owner of Tin Lizzie Wineworks, a wine-making school in Clarksville and one of the supporters of the new law, said he knows both men and knew they were interested in wine-making even before the law was changed. He said he was a bit disappointed by the tepid response from prospective wine-makers.

"I would like to have seen more" applicants, Zuchero said. "It would have been nice to have seen some names I didn't recognize."

Kathleen Sloan-Beard, a county spokeswoman, said it's hard to say how long it could take for Reuwer's application to be approved. She said Planning and Zoning has already sent it back to him for more information.

The county permit is just the beginning, because a commercial winery also has to be licensed by the state and federal governments, Atticks said. Each of those steps could take an additional six months — so there's still some time before Howard joins the club of 20 Maryland jurisdictions with at least one of the 52 wineries open in the state.

Only Howard, Allegany, Caroline and Charles counties do not have at least one licensed winery. Even Baltimore City has one: Aliceanna, described on the Maryland Wineries site as a "micro-winery" making small quantities of three varietals.

County Executive Ken Ulman introduced the legislation to put Howard on the state's wine map in the spring of 2010. That unleashed more than a year of argument and deliberation.

Some opponents said they did not object to wineries themselves but argued that they often turn into entertainment spots that draw large and potentially unruly crowds.

According to Baltimore Sun accounts, Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican who represents the rural western district where wineries are allowed, said he was uneasy about putting them in residential areas where they could cause traffic jams. There was discussion of whether to limit the number of visitors at one time, and how such limits could be tied to the winery size.

Ultimately, the law set many restrictions, including a five-acre lot minimum, a cap of 50 visitors at one time, limits on business hours, proximity to roads, and environmental safeguards.

Atticks, who was involved in the effort to get the Howard law changed, said from the beginning of the state and federal license application process to the first bottle produced could take two years. Refining the production can take much longer, especially growing grapes, a touchy fruit that can be sensitive to subtle changes in soil, sun exposure, wind, moisture and topography.

"It can take many years to determine if you've found a good location or not," Atticks said. He advises new wine-makers to keep a low profile until they have something to sell, and he warns them that it's a tough market.

"We know when a winery opens in Maryland, they are not competing with Maryland wine, they are competing with the world of wine," he said. "It has to taste good, and it has to look good. It has to have a good story — why you're opening a winery in Maryland," and why the local consumer should buy a local product. "We call it the 'farmers' market pitch.'"

The appeal of a wine bought just down Route 97 where it was made, for instance, in a winery tour yet to come.

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