Tara Chiu and her husband were always amateur winemakers. When they got married in 2004, they made the wine for their wedding and later began distributing it among family and friends as gifts.
Then something odd happened, said Chiu, a graphic designer with the Howard County Public School System: Their friends started giving other friends bottles of the wine as gifts.
"We thought everyone was being polite," Chiu said. "But then people started asking our friends, 'Where can we get more?' So we kept making it, and after about three years, we figured, we could probably do this professionally."
In 2008, Chiu and her husband, Tien-Seng, began Far Eastern Shore Winery, based out of their home in Easton. The business, Tien said, was the result of "a hobby gone awry."
Now, they showcase their wines at about two dozen festivals a year and sell it in about 100 stores in the region. That's pretty much the whole of their business, Chiu said, since they run the winery out of their home, which is not zoned for wine sales.
The couple sells six kinds of wines, all flavored with fruit; Chiu's favorite is a strawberry merlot, and her husband's favorite is a cranberry pinot gris. The winery also sells a chocolate raspberry port.
Tien's work in wines was born of a long-held interest in meads, he said, and making wine is pretty straightforward. Chiu said, with a qualification.
"It's like baking a cake, in six weeks," Chiu said.
Chiu's husband was an engineer before taking on the winery as a full-time job, and the two of them like to joke: If you put together an artist and an engineer, you get a winery.
Chiu's work as a graphic designer lends itself to her wine business, but with the winery work, she said, she can be more free and creative.
Chiu designed all of the labeling herself: an image of two swans — one black and one white — inspired by an Eastern painting.
"They're black and white, yin and yang, male and female," Chiu said. "I wanted a nod to the Eastern Shore (the company name), and to pay homage to Tien's (Chinese) ancestry, and representing the Eastern Shore in a more elegant way. I thought this design was beautiful and casual at the same time."
Their first year in business, Chiu said she hand-corked about 9,000 bottles. Now, she and her husband have equipment to do that, but much of the work remains manual labor. They sell upward of 2,000 cases of wine a year, and-filling the bottles and packaging them constitutes what Chiu and her husband call "the winery workout."
"At wine festivals you're unloading cases from the truck, and it's good upper-body work," Chiu said. "The hand-corking, that was a good ab workout."
Making wine is her passion, Chiu said — she calls it her baby — but her first priority remains her work for Howard schools. So much so, she said, she tried to keep the wine-making quiet. That worked for about three years, Chiu said. As her co-workers found out, they were surprised, but supportive and enthusiastic.
"The best thing people say is, 'I don't even like wine, but I like your wine,' " Chiu said. "Or, 'Your wine tastes like what I imagined wine should taste like, before I ever even tasted wine.' It's like the idealized wine."