It would be oversimplifying to say that Sarah O'Herron and Edward Boyce, co-owners of Black Ankle Vineyards in Mount Airy, left their business consulting careers because they liked to drink, but there's a seed of truth in that.
They loved wine, particularly dry Bordeaux- and Burgundy-style wines, and they knew the consultant's perspective on running a business.
The couple bought the Frederick County farm in 2002, started selling their first bottles in 2008, and quickly made their mark in the Maryland wine world. Their red blend, Crumbling Rock, won Best in Show at the Governor's Cup in 2008, and their wines have won that award three more times since.
They raise 12 grape varieties on about 40 acres, producing about 3,500 cases a year solely from their own fruit. Black Ankle stands in the middle in terms of size among Maryland's 59 wineries, but some wine lovers say it's some of the state's best stuff.
Sarah O'Herron recently agreed to answer five questions from The Baltimore Sun.
You spent about a year looking for a farm within a reasonable drive of your home in Silver Spring. Why did you choose this spot?
We want good hillsides. We've got big rolling hills here, and that helps a lot with air drainage. … We want lousy, rocky soils. If you try to dig a hole out here, you'll see 75 to 80 percent rocks, just rocks everywhere. And that helps with water drainage. There's just not much fertility in the soil because there's just not much dirt there. There's not much for the plants to eat. And that's good for a grape vine. We want the vines to be … we say we want them a little bit nervous. We don't want them super-stressed, so stressed that they collapse, because if you really don't give the vine anything to work with it, can't survive. But if the plant is in a very rich and lush environment, it's just going to grow beautiful leaves and a big, fat huge vine. That doesn't do us any good. We want this current generation of plant to be just a little worried about its survival, so it puts all of its energy into the next generation. … So we're always trying to keep that balance on the vine, to keep it, with enough resources that it can make a fabulous grape, but just nervous enough that it will. And that's really what we were looking for in this place. And that's what we've been happy with.
Many people who know Maryland wine say that Black Ankle raised the expectations for quality here. Why do you think that is?
We just came at it from a whole new perspective. We didn't have a background in wine. We didn't have a background in Maryland agriculture. Quite early on, we found that there was a sense of low expectations in the industry — a sense that Maryland could only do so well. We could only make wines that were so good. No matter how hard you work, if you have that sense, it's just really hard to overcome it. We, because we came from the outside, we just didn't see what the problem was. … We were just too dumb to know the barrier was there; that's how we like to think of it. … Not that people weren't making good wine here, but you couldn't do it all the time. And that's what people said. Oh, the weather's so tough, and it's consistency.
What are the key challenges making wine in Maryland?
One of the big problems I think that Maryland has had is California. And I only say that half-joking. Through a lot of accidents of history, the wine industry in the United States really developed out West. It's a desert climate, it's a very different growing climate. But all of the trade magazines, a lot of the research, a lot of the knowledge of how to grow grapes that's printed in English is written by Australians, or people from New Zealand, or Californians. And they're all growing in the desert. We say all the time if they spoke French in California and they spoke English in France, the East Coast wine industry would have been miles ahead of where it was. The research is there. It rains in Bordeaux, it rains in Burgundy. They have humidity, they have winter. They have all the issues we have. They just don't write about it in English for us. So through dumb luck I happen to speak French and have studied in France and have a love for France. So we kind of took that research and looked at: What is our climate like, what are our soils like, who else in the world is like that? OK, well, we have to go ask the French people how to do it. And so, they didn't have a sense of limitations for this area 'cause they were kind of working in the same situation over there. … We work with a winemaking consultant from Bordeaux. He comes over a couple times a year and helps us out.
What is the next challenge for you?
There are a few more acres on this farm that I think we could plant. We could rearrange a few fences and do a few things and maybe put in another 4 or 5 acres here. And then after that, we'll have to see. We kick around ideas of trying to find a new property, or expand one way or the other. Either just add on to what we're doing now, or take on a whole new idea. Plant a whole bunch of one variety and try to make a less expensive but tasty [wine], plant 50 acres of one thing and make kind of a more universal wine. No real plans, but those are some thoughts.
Maryland wines aside, what are your favorites and recommendations?
I have a soft spot for anything with bubbles. Champagne is great, but I love cava and prosecco. … I'm a big Chateauneuf-du-Pape fan. I can't say I recommend it because it's a pricey addiction, but I do love it when I can get hold of one — you feel like you can never go wrong. In terms of where to look, I think the best bet for people who want to buy wine is just go to a wine store and find a good person in the store to help you. I do that all the time. We go to a couple stores we shop in a lot, and say, "OK, here's what I'm looking for …" Because there's so much to know. So much to figure out. If you really get into it and it's your hobby and you want to spend all your time reading about it, that can be great. But otherwise, let somebody else do that. And they'll steer you in some great directions.