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Planting Vines at Tin Lizzie Wineworks

May 6, 2010
Sangiovese vines

A row of brand-new Sangiovese vines

There isn’t a single winery in Howard County, Maryland – not yet anyways. Tin Lizzie Wine Works in Clarksville, MD is hoping that will change if the county council passes key changes to zoning regulation laws. In the meantime, owners Dave and Rob, who currently run a winemaking school – you choose the grapes, they show you the rest – recently put in a test plot with the hope of someday expanding their business to include a full winery. For now, though, it’s our own local version of what CrushPad started out in California, offering just about anyone the chance to see the wine-making process all the way from fresh fruit to filling bottles.

I was on hand to help plant some of the first vines, including Sangiovese in the photos. If you’ve ever been curious as to what goes into planting a grape vine that will one day produce delicious local wine, read on!

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Drink Local Wine Conference 2010

May 4, 2010

A view from the back of the room at #DLW10

Ah, spring. A time for buds to break, vines to grow, and trading reds for whites. With the local wine festival season beginning to come into focus too, what better time for the Drink Local Wine conference? The Drink Local Wine team is dedicated to advancing the cause of wine that’s grown near you – wherever you may be! Fortunately for me, there’s a booming wine industry right across the Potomac river in Virginia that’s getting all the right sort of attention to reel in the second annual gathering for local wine makers and enthusiasts. Don’t worry: Maryland got in on the action too, with positive buzz from the floor around up-and-coming Black Ankle Vineyards and Serpent Ridge Vineyards.

If you haven’t heard of drinklocalwine.com, hit the link and get educated! Then read on about their conference and all the ways they’re helping to connect local communities with their local wines.

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Robert Ehrlich to fundraise at Solomons Island Winery

April 22, 2010

Former Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich (Republican) will hold a fundraiser at the winery on June 19th for his re-election campaign. If that’s your thing, go for it; personally, I’m still a little bitter about the 20% tuition increase he approved for the state university while I was in school. And that was in a good economy.

Monticello Wine Trail Favorites

April 21, 2010
The Virginia Governor's Cup

The Virginia Governor's Cup - on display at King Family Vineyards

In honor of spring break, a couple weeks ago we ventured down I-95 to taste some wine in the Charlottesville, VA area. The wine-growing region around Charlottesville is known as the Monticello AVA, named for the site of Thomas Jefferson’s nearby plantation where the third president first attempted to cultivate European vines.

While I think we sampled more than 100 vintages over the two days about a dozen wineries, here are some of the highlights of the trip:

  • Cardinal Point winery: west of town and up in the hills with a spectacular view of the Blue Ridge mountains, this newer winery nonetheless produces some great wines; in particular, I remember the Cabernet Franc. Although the region is famous for that variety – I believe we tasted one at every stop – this one stood out for me.
  • King Family Vineyard: head winemaker Mattieu Finot was on hand to pour our tasting and at every turn made it clear that his approach to winemaking involved a careful consideration of acidity levels throughout fermentation. Must be paying off: Mattieu’s Meritage blend won the 2010 Virginia Governor’s Cup for reds. The freshly engraved cup actually arrived during our visit!
  • Barboursville Winery: one of Virginia’s oldest established vineyards, they produce an especially exceptional set of red wines. Unlike many wines grown in the US, they bottle some reds that are particularly well suited to aging. Among these is their famous Octagon blend that the Washington Post selected to run in blind taste tests against top vintages from California and France to illustrate the evolution of the Virginia wine industry.

I’m hoping to see all of these wineries and many more at the upcoming Drink Local Wine conference (hosted by the good folks from drinklocalwine.com), which will take place this year in Loudon County, Virginia (near DC) on April 25.

Do you have any favorite wines from Virginia that you’d recommend for our next visit?

A Different Sort of Establishment

April 16, 2010
Pure Wine Cafe

Pure Wine Care

PJ Strain is not your typical restauranteur, and Pure Wine Cafe, located in historic Ellicott City, MD, is not your average wine bar. Owner PJ and Sommelier/General Manager Mark Bowman, both in their mid-20s, opened for business on May 24, 2009. “Being young doesn’t make us anything other than at a disadvantage when trying to deal with folks older than us,” Mark told me as we sat at the bar. He hopes to “take the pretentiousness out of wine” and help his guests learn a little about the diversity of wine while enjoying good company and a welcoming atmosphere.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mark and PJ to learn more about their unique venue, the story of how it all started for them, and what the future holds as Pure Wine approaches it’s first anniversary.

400 square feet, 200 years of history

The first thing everyone notices about Pure Wine is the blend of old and new in space itself. Built in 1893 as the lobby for the Howard House hotel (now apartments), the location has at various times housed businesses as diverse as a restaurant, bank, butcher’s shop, and clothing store. Only the sum of such history would yield decor that includes a 19th-century decorated plaster ceiling, unfinished brick and granite walls, and a modern stainless steel bar top. Oh, and let’s not forget the so-called “wine wall”, an elegant solution that combines both storage and display elements.

What you might also notice is how “cozy” the space feels. Limited by the confines of historic architecture and adjoining tenants, Pure Wine comfortably seats only a few dozen guests at a time. Small is the wrong word, though – intimate works much better. Limiting the crowd size helps Mark and his staff create a very personal level of service that you just won’t find at a 400-seat restaurant.

Rising from the ashes

The historic building’s previous tenant offers another interesting twist to the story. Immediately prior to Pure Wine Cafe, Annabelle’s wine bar occupied the space . Despite a reasonable amount of success, however, a couple years in the owners decided to move on, much to the disappointment of one PJ Strain, a frequent patron. Unwilling to accept defeat, PJ worked with his family and friends to invest in new equipment and help him open Pure Wine to pick up where Annabelle’s left off.

From there, PJ recruited Mark from Charleston, SC’s S.N.O.B. (Slightly North of Broad) restaurant to run the front of the house as general manager and sommelier, and chef Kevin to serve as the back-of-house manager. There’s more to the story of how they all met and ended up in business together, but it all gets a bit long and complicated. I’ll let you sit down with Mark and a couple glasses of wine to hear all the details.

“Wine should be fun” – the Pure Wine philosophy

A closer look at the "wine wall"

A closer look at the "wine wall"

“Surprise people… but keep it simple” describes Pure Wine Cafe’s approach to the menu, the wine list, and even to the service itself. Although the average guest might only see the casual atmosphere, Mark’s training in the restaurant business gave him an attention to detail that patrons of fine restaurants around the world will appreciate, from the placement of silverware to the frequency of server interactions. “[We have] absolutely something for everyone,” Mark told me, in reference to my questions about the demographic they hope to reach. His unassuming approach to wine education attracts regulars who range from their mid-20s (like myself) to septuagenarians.

Looking to the future

I listened to Mark go on for a good while about the culture of relaxation in Europe, and what he calls “daylight business.” In an ideal world, he’d have a patio and tables outside that let people share a drink and a little sunshine. Unfortunately, the historical society doesn’t share his vision – no tables on the sidewalk. And since they can’t punch through a wall with tenants on all sides, Pure Wine is looking at a number of alternatives to grow the business in 2010. Part of that, to the benefit of customers, is a ridiculous happy hour special featuring $2 glasses of wine. Beyond that, however, they’re looking to expand into brunch hours; work with other Main Street restaurants on city-wide events that benefit the whole business community; and establish partnerships with local artists and DJs to connect with the nascent Howard County art scene.

In conclusion

There are so many more things I could talk about, from their Art Opening promotions that support local artists to the business connections they’re cultivating with other Ellicott City business owners and wineries (the menu will soon feature Black Ankle wines from Federick County!). I’m looking forward to seeing all that Pure Wine Cafe can accomplish in the months and years to come as one of the truly “unique establishments” in the Maryland wine industry!

For another opinion, please check out another review in the Maryland Food and Wine Blog (http://foodandwineblog.com/2010/04/15/pure-wine-cafe-ellicott-city/)  – published, by coincidence, on the same day as my post!

Puppies and wine ftw

March 19, 2010

For Ellicott City pet and wine lovers, the Wine Bin on Main Street in historic downtown invites you to taste some wine with your doggy at their “yappy hour” tonight from 6 to 9. Grab your leash and a glass!

I’m more of a cat person myself, but something tells me a big room full of kitties and wine wouldn’t go over quite as well.

“Wine for the Confused” featuring John Cleese

March 17, 2010

Now available via your Netflix instant queue, this short made-for-TV special starts from the very beginning. If you’re part of the enthusiast audience that reads wine blogs regularly, this won’t cover any new ground for you. However, your less-informed friends might enjoy the casual tone that doesn’t talk down to the viewer. Don’t expect the typical Cleese snark, though. This one sticks to script.