Grapes, Grains, and More
Washington County’s wine, beer, and spirits scene keeps getting bigger and better
By Charles Jeffries
A decade ago, if you wanted a bottle of wine, a six-pack of beer, or smooth whiskey in Washington County, you headed to a liquor store and bought something from France, Milwaukee, or Scotland. Today, your options aren’t limited to mass-produced bottles or cans from far-away places. No matter where you live in Washington County, it’s only a short drive to great samplings of local wines, craft brews, or distilled spirits. Washington County is emerging as a player in Maryland’s expanding scene of grapes and grains.
Not long ago, Maryland was written off as a state where quality wine could be produced, but it is now roughly following the plan neighboring Virginia started 30 years ago en route to becoming one of the most respected wine producing states in the country. Rather than just growing the grapes that make good wine in other parts of the world, Washington County wine makers and viticulturists are looking closely at land, climate, and geography crucial to successfully growing vitis vinifera, the varietals of grapes that produce wine.
So instead of just growing popular varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc, there are some less-heard-of grapes that are producing quality wine in the county. Big Cork Vineyards grows Italian varietals Barbara and Nebbiolo, among others. Antietam Creek Vineyards grows an Austrian white grape called Gruner Veltliner and the hybrid white Vidal Blanc. Red Heifer Winery grows an obscure Hungarian grape called Blaufrankisch and a lesser-known French grape Petit Verdot.
Experienced wine makers are now working in Washington County and a pool of young up-and-comers is scattered throughout the county. Last year the Best in Show medal at the Maryland Governor’s Cup wine competition came from Washington County’s Big Cork Vineyards. Wines from Big Cork, Antietam, and Blue Mountain all won medals in the Governor’s Cup.
Washington County wine is being noticed beyond the county line. Wine critic James Suckling, one of the most respected wine reviews in the world, gave Cool Ridge Vineyard’s red blend called Cool Red a 91-point rating, calling its flavors “a swathe or rich plums, blueberries, cassis, and mulberries framed in attractively spicy oak.”
At least one new vineyard in Washington County is preparing to open. Vince and Tami Gesikie have been growing grapes for a few years on a 58-acre farm they bought in Clear Spring in 2018. They have planted 10,000 grape vines with the hope of one day making their own wine at their Three Sisters Vineyard.
Promotional events for wine and beer are becoming more prominent in Washington County. In August the Hip Hop 50th Anniversary and Wine Fest took place in downtown Hagerstown. The 2023 Quad State Beer Fest: Halloween Hysteria takes place October 7 at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center just south of Hagerstown. Then in November, the 2023 Fall Back Ciders, Spirits & Wine Fest takes place at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center just south of Hagerstown. This will be the eighth annual event and more than 125 varieties of libations will be represented by more than 25 wineries, cideries, distilleries, and breweries.
More Washington County craft alcohol producers are participating in state-wide promotional events like the Maryland Wine Festival, now approaching its fifth decade. The Maryland Wine Festival has grown into a day of showcasing exceptional wines, food, and entertainment at the Carroll County Farm Museum.
“The 2023 Maryland Wine Festival has been reimagined with our attendees and participating wineries in mind, ensuring a great blend of entertainment, relaxation, and discovery,” Kelly Dudeck, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, said in a story posted on the Maryland Wine website. “From the moment you step onto the Farm Museum’s grounds, you’ll be transported into a world where the best of Maryland’s wine, food, and art converge.”
The craft beer industry has expanded nationwide, and Washington County is not being left behind. Young brewers have jumped in, opening brewing companies and farm breweries and attracting beer enthusiasts tired of the same old beer from a can.
Farm breweries are different from breweries in that all the hops and agricultural products used in producing the beer are grown onsite. In Washington County, Upper Stem Brewery northeast of Hagerstown is a Maryland-designated farm brewery that produces ales, Belgians, IPAs, stouts, and more. At Upper Stem guests can taste their beers on a farm setting as opposed to the more urban setting of a typical brewery.
The craft brewery industry in Washington County can be traced back to 2012 when Antietam Brewery in Hagerstown opened as western Maryland’s first craft brewery. Its handcrafted small-batch ales have become a must-taste on the local brewery circuit.
Thick and Thin Brewing Company on Spark Drive in Hagerstown offers something a little different. Its app allows visitors to pick-and-pour their own brews. Guests pay by the ounce and can monitor their tabs and note favorites on the app.
Coming soon, the owners of Hub City Brewery hope to bridge the gap in local adult beverages by making both beer and distilled spirits in the old Hagerstown City Farmers Market building. A spring 2024 opening is planned.
The distillery side of local craft beverages is just getting started in Washington County. Cort and Chelsea Meinelschmidt took advantage of Maryland’s new Class 9 Limited Distillery License law and opened Meinelschmidt Distillery on Potomac Street in Hagerstown in 2020.
Washington County natives, the couple opened the distillery downtown hoping to be part of the revitalization of the city. Using locally sourced rye, winter wheat, corn, and honey, Meinelshcmidt offers several types of whiskies and a handcrafted vodka, which they call Pretty Girl. On New Year’s Eve this year the couple plans to introduce their first bourbon.