Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard
Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard is nestled at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain, a popular destination for hiking, rock climbing and picnicking. It is an area of quiet pastoral beauty, steeped in history and filled with artisans. But don’t let the rural setting fool you; the sophisticated wines made at this vineyard are being served at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Dan and Polly O'Donoghue purchased the farm in Montgomery County in 1962. Dubbed the “Windmill Farm,” the 92-acre farm operated as a beef farm until it was inherited by their four children – the McGarry, McKenna and two O’Donoghue families.
The transformation from traditional farm to vineyard began in 2004, with the planting of one-year-old vines purchased from Caldwell Nurseries in the Russian River area of California. A wine team was formed and by 2005, the team was making its first vintages. Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard opened for business on May 10, 2006.
The double-bank red barn, (built around the turn of the century), silo and windmill are signature features of the farm turned vineyard. The vineyard is located in a Maryland Agricultural Heritage District, which restricts the number and types of events they can have at the tasting room, but also provides some tax benefits. They are the only vineyard/winery in Montgomery County.
The mountain microclimate and soils that are equal parts clay, shale and sand combine for a unique terroir. Maryland has three appellations, but most of the vineyards use the state designation, as does Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard.
A team of experts was assembled to ensure that the winery would produce high-quality wines. The vineyard manager and winemaker, Carl DiManno, attended the University of California at Davis where he obtained a degree in winemaking. They worked with renowned vineyard consultant, Lucie Morton, who obtained a degree in viticulture in Bordeaux, France. John Caldwell of Caldwell Nurseries in California nurtured the grafted vines to ensure they were well prepared for planting.
Vineyard management includes the use of irrigation, a trellis system and cover crops. In the of fall of 2008, the vineyard included 3.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 2.5 acres of Pinot Grigio, 2 acres of Chardonnay, 1.5 acres of Merlot, 2 acres of Cabernet Franc, 0.5 acre of Petit Verdot and 0.25 acre of Malbec grape vines.
Once the vineyard was established, a building was built specifically to house state-of-the-art wine-making equipment designed by the acclaimed Washington, D.C., architectural firm Cunningham & Quill. While renovations were being made to the red barn to create a permanent tasting room, a temporary one was located in a cozy tent that extended to a limestone patio area. The new tasting room in the barn opened in October 2008.
SMV has already begun to collect awards for their wines, including two “Best of Class” Awards. Their 2007 Pinot Grigio captured the Best White award in the 2008 Maryland Governor’s Cup, and their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon won for Best Dry Red in the 2008 Maryland Winemasters’ Choice Awards. They have won recognition in regional, state and international competitions.
Their varieties include five Bordeaux reds:
- Cabernet Franc (their signature wine)
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Petite Verdot
And two whites:
All grapes are hand-picked, reds are then cold-soaked, varietals are cold-fermented and all are aged in French oak barrels except for the Pinot Grigio, which is aged in a special stainless-steel tank.
SMV is a co-owner of a bottling truck. There are 7 co-owners who develop a schedule for the truck. At each stop, the truck hooks up and bottles the wine. This is a Limited Liability Corporation, established as a separate company in 2006. By being part of this LLC, it eliminated the need for the space and expertise to bottle. It was not set up to make money, but it does generate some profit because other vineyards find it convenient, also. Members of the LLC are charged 0.65/case, which covers their expenses. Non-members can use it at a slightly higher price. The bottling company vints and bottles 54,000 cases per year currently and projects 62,000 cases next year.
Winemaker and Vineyard Manager
Carl DiManno, the resident wine master, has been with SMV since 2004. He left the oil and chemical industry to go to University of California in Davis to learn wine making. Upon finishing the course, he looked to the newly established vineyards on the east coast for opportunity. He and his wife were both originally from the east coast, so settling in Maryland was like coming home for both of them.
His goal for the winery is to be recognized as having outstanding wines, beyond the “Maryland” label. He wants his wines to stand up to wines anywhere in the world. He would like to raise the level of expectation that people have when tasting “local” wines. His motto is “If you think you can make an outstanding wine, make it.”
His goal is to use 100 percent of the Sugarloaf Mountain grown grapes, to more fully capture the mountain terrior. For now, he would be willing to buy other Maryland grapes if they were available. His experience is that most Maryland winegrape growers are already in relationships with other wineries, so few are available. He uses about 30 percent grapes from California, from the same Russian River Valley area that provided the vines.
DiManno concedes that it is harder to grow grapes in Maryland than in California. Marketing is also a challenge, with consumers that have an attitude of “Why buy a $25 bottle of Maryland wine when I can get a cheap one from Australia?”
He does see the new interest in “local” as a big opportunity. Last summer, the Kennedy Center was looking for a local wine that fit their consumer tastes and their criteria. They were thrilled to find SMV’s high-quality wines. The Kennedy Center currently serves the Pinot Grigio and the Comus red at high-profile events. That venue generates very good press for SMV and introduces their dry wines to a specific consumer group that has a sophisticated palate. SMV is the only Maryland vineyard with an all “dry” wine line, although they have recently introduced a sweeter “party” wine.
Even the names of the wines denote their unique character and are derived from local lore. In Greek mythology, Comus is the son of Circe (who transforms humans with herbs and drink) and Bacchus (the god of fertility, wine and growth). Comus is the god of drink and festivity. Since SMV is located on Comus Road, just a few miles from the locally popular Comus Inn, they have integrated these names into their wine selection.
A well-designed sign and very visible location on the road to Sugarloaf Mountain invites travelers to Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard. The vineyard has been featured in several magazines, and they have seen an increase of traffic to the tasting room as a result of those articles. Their logo is a simple, effective design that incorporates the barn and the mountain. They collect customer’s e-mail addresses and announce events and news electronically and utilize a well-laid out, up-to-date website. Over 2,000 customers have signed up to receive their monthly e-mails, and 450 customers belong to the case club.
SMV is taking advantage of a big change in Maryland law that now allows self-distribution of alcoholic beverages to wine and beer stores. Until 2007, the law was much more restrictive. Currently, 20 percent of their business volume is wholesale, 15 percent is sales at wine festivals, and 65 percent is direct sales from the tasting room. They received a USDA Value-Added Producer Grant in 2007 that included funds to hire a marketing professional to increase their wholesale sales. Three wholesale staff were hired and trained, resulting in more than doubling the number of retail establishments that carry SMV wines, up from 40 in 2007 to 85 in December 2008. SMV provides shelf talkers and banners to the retail wine beer stores. Great service is one thing a small vineyard like SMV can offer. They deliver mostly on Tuesday and Thursdays but will make special trips to accommodate the retailer.
In 2007 SMV offered 9 wines that ranged in price from $24 to $16 (retail) with an average price of $20 per bottle. In 2008 they again offered 9 wines, which now range in price from $28 to $16 with an average price of $23 per bottle.
Another part of marketing is special events, both on-site and off-site. They do tastings at restaurants, both for the staff and the customers. The popular local restaurant Comus Inn is just down the road, and the winery does wine education and tastings along with four-course meals for groups there. (They feature a wine with each course). Other special events include 10 wine festivals in 2008. Volunteers help to staff these events and are critical to their success. SMV is also part of the Fredrick Wine Trail, which promotes wineries and vineyards in the area. They share information and resources with the other wineries, especially Black Ankle Vineyard, who also focuses on premium dry wine.
The Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard tasting room has been a central part of their business plan. Because of county permitting issues, the completion of the barn tasting room and patio was delayed nine months, opening October 2008. Prior to this opening, wine was sold out of a tent that was heated in the winter but had no air conditioning. Due to heat and cold, along with many rainy weekends in May and June of 2008, sales through the tasting room did not meet their goals in the first half of the year. However, the beautiful new tasting room, which features original chestnut wood from the old barn, is now operating and has resulted in an increase of 37.3 percent in onsite sales.
There have been many challenges along the way, including state of Maryland and Montgomery County regulations. In the course of building, they encountered issues pertaining to waste water, building permits and fire suppression as the farm transitioned to being a rural business. In marketing, they came up against the regulations that prohibited them from wholesaling their wine. They still cannot sell their wine over the Internet to other states or deliver to individuals in state. Grape growing in Maryland is its own challenge, keeping Mike McGarry, part owner and vineyard manager, constantly implementing state-of-the-art vineyard practices in order to produce first quality grapes in an environmentally sustainable manner.
Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard’s owners recognize that with the changing economy, a little more time, effort, creativity and money will be needed to reach their goals. And they now have experience, a number of awards and successes, trained and dedicated employees and a growing customer base on their side. With the opening of their new tasting room, they are well on their way to becoming a profitable producer of premier wines while preserving their rural agricultural heritage.
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agricultural producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)