Around The Trail And To Homes On The Range
The Antietam Highlands Wine Trail features eight vintners, all worth a trip around the horn.
By Matt Makowski Photos by Turner Photography Studio
While it’s not your traditional wine trail, as it’s just over 66 miles to get from the first to the last vendor of vino, the quality and varying styles of wine at each stop on the list warrants a proper visit for a tasting in its own right. Even with a proper designated driver and a full day that begins before breakfast, this is not a trail to be tamed in a single day. This is a road map for spontaneous satisfaction, strategic schemes of seasonal swigs, or a year-long to-do list for those who may enjoy a tipple or two from the area’s tip-top vintages.
If you’re anything like me, dismissing local wine has been a casual hobby for some time. I had a penchant for categorizing my enjoyment of assorted wines based on their origin. California has long been the paradigm for U.S. pours, while France and Italy rounded out my shortsighted view on the international scale — with an occasional dabbling into South Africa and Chile’s offerings. But care of my wanderings around the Antietam Highlands Wine Trail, I am a changed man. No matter the preference of your palate, a quality glass of wine is easy to find if you follow along this path. When you decide to tackle the task at hand for yourself, be sure to plan a little in advance though, as hours of operation vary by season.
Red Heifer Winery
24606 Raven Rock Road
Smithsburg, Md. 21783
Up in bluegrass country, and perched on the side of a mountain are 20 acres of sloping hillsides with picnic-friendly views neatly lined with grape vines, which make up the grounds of Kevin and Yvonne Ford’s winery. The cozy tasting room replete with a classic wooden bar situated on wine barrels and high-top tables and stools is great when the weather turns for the worse, but the patio and adjacent grounds are there to be enjoyed — perfect for a picnic, and whittling away a day with friends while indulging in any of Red Heifer’s 10 offerings. Ranging from a sweet white — like the brand new Niagara — to the dry red Chambourcin, with nearly everything in between, the only hard part is picking a place to start.
Orchid Cellar Meadery and Winery
8546 Pete Wiles Road
Middletown, Md. 21769
Marzanna and Andrzej Wilk opened Orchid Cellar in 2010, and quickly shot up through the ranks of meaderies in the U.S. by following primeval monastic recipes developed in Poland. For the uninitiated, mead is fermented honey and water with added spices, fruits, or grains depending on the recipe. During a tour of the Wilks’ tasting room, I was treated to flavor profiles I didn’t even know existed. And despite the honey base, levels of sweetness can vary quite a bit. They even fold peppers into some of their batches, which I can attest, live up to the spicy hype. And while mead is their specialty, they also happen to turn out some dazzling red and white wines, some of which are combined with mead for what may be the most unique indulgence you can find locally.
8333 Myersville Road
Middletown, Md. 21769
Come for the views, and stay for the wine. Some vistas — for instance, the Grand Canyon — just can’t be fully appreciated through photography, and I’d add Mazzaroth’s tasting area to that list. This boutique winery with just over an acre of vineyards that yielded about 200 cases of wine last year has a laser focus on quality. While divulging that wine making isn’t terribly difficult, Mazzaroth co-owner Garry Cohen shares, “It’s all about the grapes — put the yeast in, and get out of the way.” And that’s why Garry has been so particular about the grapes he’s chosen to grow. Spanish Albarino, and French vidal blanc, tannat, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon are what visitors will find growing from the grass-lined (to regulate the soil temperature) vineyard. While the Cohens’ are open to visits on Sundays from April–October, scheduling your trip by appointment is definitely recommended.
Willow Oaks Craft Cider & Wine
6219 Harley Rd
Middletown, Md. 21769
While Willow Oaks may be the newest kid on the block in terms of offerings, (the tasting room is scheduled to open April 15) co-owner Eric Rice planted the first apple trees for what would eventually be used for craft cider some 30 years ago. Co-owner Lori Rice offered a tour of what will soon be the tasting room, and showed off the French oak barrels aging their hard cider before cracking open a couple fresh ones from their recent hand-bottled, 900 gallon batch, which are in a word, fantastic. Pairing is a ginger-heavy take on pear cider with a touch of honey to balance the bite, and left quite an impression on the palate. But that’s not to dismiss any of their six other ciders, which varied quite a bit in terms of flavor, and from what I am accustomed to assigning the label of cider. Eric notes that he approaches cider like he’s making wine, and the complexity of all seven varieties reflect the intricacies of this approach.
Big Cork Vineyards
4236 Main St.
Rohrersville, Md. 21779
Stepping into the tasting room at Big Cork is like being whisked 2,700 miles west to Sonoma wine country, and that’s no accident. But it’s definitely not pretending to be something it’s not. The focus on wine and the experimentation thereof while producing California levels of grape ripeness is a source of pride, says Jed Gray, Big Cork’s general manager. And while the wines have earned awards across the country, there is still a focus on accessibility. “Wine is pretentious enough. We try to make it a very down to earth experience,” Jed says, as he pours a glass of cabernet franc, which earned gold at the Maryland Comptroller’s Cup. The vines were just planted in 2011 — so they’re not even mature yet — and that bodes well for what’s to come at Big Cork.
Cool Ridge Vineyard
19638 Cool Hollow Road
Hagerstown, Md. 21740
Established way back in 2008, Gerhard and Suzanne Glocker have transformed what was once a humble hobby into a vineyard that sells two-thirds of its grapes, and uses the rest to produce 10 varietals totaling about 1,000 cases per year. Their cozy tasting room, which can accommodate up to 30 people, is situated on the bottom floor of their home, and is the perfect place to let Gerhard lead you through a tasting. The viognier, which earned silver at the 2016 Governor’s Cup competition was a mind-blower, but it was when Gerhard started creating impromptu Bordeaux blends that the maestro really started to flex his creative muscle and show off his mastery of the craft. Though he shares that a vintner should let the grape make the vintage, being able to watch someone who understands the nuance of every grape he grows and how best to combine them was a display more than worth the price of admission.
Blue Mountain Wine Crafters
117 E. Baltimore St.
Funkstown, Md. 21734
This boutique winery and supply store has just about every base covered. Guests are welcome to sample their way through six single-ounce offerings (for just $8), as an introduction to their white, red, blush, and fruit wines. For aspiring vintners, brew masters, and cider creators, Blue Mountain offers classes with step-by-step instruction on how to create your adult beverage of choice. For winemakers, the whole process takes four–six weeks, in just three or four sessions (depending on your varietal of choice), and yields one–six gallons. The staff brewer guides beer makers through the process, and the beer ferments at the store with two additional classes to finish the product. Blue Mountain also has all the products necessary for home brewing and small batch wine making.
Knob Hall Winery
14108 St. Paul Road
Clear Spring, Md. 21722
If you make just the right trip through the scenic back roads of Clear Spring, you’ll come across a 200-year-old barn decked out in rustic glory that serves as Knob Hall’s tasting room. The wide-open floor plan, complete with eclectic decorations and exposed beams also serves as the winery’s event space and is home to live music on “Wine Down Fridays,” and various other events throughout the year. This mini getaway’s hip-yet-relaxing atmosphere is ideal for sampling Knob Hall’s vast array of 19 wines, which range from dry reds and whites to dessert wines and rosés. For fans of reds, Prestige, which earned best in show honors at the Maryland Winemaster’s Choice competition, and a gold medal at the 2014 Maryland Governor’s Cup is definitely worth enjoying the merits of.