Boordy Vineyards, Maryland's oldest and one of its largest wineries, has started over.
Transforming the northern Baltimore County winery meant ripping up its grape-growing and winemaking operations literally root and branch, and rebuilding them at a cost of more than $3.3 million.
"What we're doing is making a big investment in the future of making wine in Maryland," said Rob Deford, Boordy's president and co-owner, whose family will host a reception this week opening the new winemaking operation.
Boordy dug up and replanted its vineyards along Long Green Pike and in Frederick County. A new $2.7 million building houses a computerized wine-making operation with 32 of Boordy's 48 fermentation tanks. The nearly four-story structure blends into the winery property with the same pale yellow walls, local stone, green roof and cupola as the 19th century farm buildings on the 240-acre grounds
Boordy's new operation will expand its annual capacity by a third to about 160,000 gallons, or 807,520 bottles. The makeover, though, represents a shift from quantity to quality, Deford said.
Deford had what he calls his "Road to Damascus" moment in 2005, when a Virginia-based expert on grape-growing introduced him to Virginia and Pennsylvania wines he had not tried before. This was another level of quality, and he knew Boordy wines weren't there.
"By 2005 we had started to bump our heads on a glass ceiling in quality," Deford conceded.
Lucie Morton, a viticulturist from Charlottesville, Va., convinced Deford that his vineyards — 45 acres in Baltimore and Frederick counties – had to be torn up and replanted. The roots and vines grafted onto them were the wrong types — better suited to dry California soils and for producing bigger, but often less flavorful, fruit — and they were planted too far apart.
Separately, winemaking expert John Levenberg found Boordy's operation — from grape-crushing to fermentation to bottling — to be short on quality control. Temperature control during fermentation, for instance, was done by winemaker Tom Burns running up and back to make sure each tank was at its ideal fermenting temperature: 52 degrees for whites, 90 for reds.
The new system will allow Burns to read the temperature of each tank on a computer screen. If a tank goes out of ideal range, the system triggers an alert to Burns' smartphone.
Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, said he has not seen a winery in the state conduct this sort of makeover before.
"It's remarkable to see a winery of this size retool," Atticks said. The project represents "a substantial advancement for the ongoing showcasing of Maryland wine."
Established in 1945 under different owners, Boordy is the oldest of the state's 62 wineries. The operation, which employs 23 people full time and 77 part time, currently makes about 120,000 gallons a year. That's about a third of Maryland's overall wine production — roughly 345,000 gallons in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available. The state's wineries sold an estimated $24.4 million of wine that year, the association reported.
Boordy financed the expansion with a mix of cash reserves, loans and two grants — $60,000 in state economic development money and $239,000 from U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The harvest of the first grapes to be processed in the completed new winemaking facility started last weekend. The whites won't be ready until spring 2014, the reds in fall 2015.
"It's not a game for the impatient," said Deford.
Still, even with the full operation yet to begin, early results show an impact in the wines made primarily with Boordy grapes.
Boordy's 2010 Cabernet Franc Reserve, the first wine made entirely from the fruit of replanted vineyards in Burkittsville, this summer won Best in Show at the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association's annual competition, featuring 588 wines from 12 East Coast states.
"Right out of the gate, he's making terrific wine," said Dave McIntyre, The Washington Post's wine critic and one of the judges at the Atlantic Seaboard competition.
In summer 2011, McIntyre said, he tasted a few of the Boordy reds that would make up this and other award-winning wines from the barrel, before they were blended and bottled.
"I was amazed at how good they were," he said. "What impressed me was the intensity of fruit, something that can be hard to get here" on the East Coast in general and in Maryland in particular, where the humid climate has long been thought to put wineries at a steep disadvantage vis-a-vis West Coast winemakers.
Deford said such accolades affirm what Boordy is trying to achieve.
"I'm quite sure we could not have achieved that if we had not undergone this program," he said.
Once the new vineyards are up to full strength, they'll produce about 15 percent of Boordy's total production, but 75 percent or more of the wine in the premium Landmark series, and up to that amount for certain wines in the Icon series, the middle price range of Boordy's three product lines.
Boordy also buys fruit from other growers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington state and California.
At least two local wine merchants say Maryland wine in general, and Boordy in particular, continues to build a following.
"We've seen a tremendous growth in Boordy business, as in the rest of Maryland wineries," said Michael Hyatt, managing partner at Wells Discount Liquors. He figures Boordy sales are up 20 percent to 30 percent in the last two years.
Carey Williams, a manager at the Wine Source, couldn't put a number on it but said Boordy and other Maryland wines make up a growing portion of their sales, particularly when there's a local wine festival or competition, and for holidays.
"I think it's driven by the increase in quality," Williams said.