A Brief History of Chesapeake Bay Region Wine Making

Historic sites around the Chesapeake Bay make a big deal about Colonial vineyards around the Chesapeake Bay, but colonists really weren’t all that successful in making “good” wine of the type found in Europe.

Chesapeake Bay map
Map courtesy Historic London Town and Gardens, Annapolis

Colonialists first tried growing vineyards soon after they landed in the 1660s, but they were small, family ventures. In 1772, Maryland Governor Charles Calvert had vines shipped over from France to be planted on 200-300 acres on the east bank of St. Mary’s River. There are two stories about the results and neither of them has a happy ending.

Story One: Due to a mix-up, the vines weren’t unloaded when the boat first stopped at St. Mary’s, and by time they returned to St. Mary’s river, all the plants were dead; Story Two: the vines were all planted and then died. In either case, Gov. Calvert gave up on making European quality wine.

Photo courtesy Historic London Town & Gardens -- "An English Frigate and Other Shipping in the Solent off Calshot Castle," John Cleveley the younger, date unknown, Yale Center for British Art.
Photo courtesy Historic London Town & Gardens — “An English Frigate and Other Shipping in the Solent off Calshot Castle,” John Cleveley the younger, date unknown, Yale Center for British Art.

Others kept trying and there were reports from the 17th century that wines equal to France’s Burgundy were being made in Maryland. But Burgundy vines were a tough crop to keep growing in Maryland and it didn’t last.

More attempts were made at various times, but mainly winemaking stayed within families or colonies growing muscadine grapes You’ll find reference to it at several of the historic colonial homes around the Chesapeake Bay. But muscadine wine is bitter and needs lots of sugar to be close to what we drink today. In the colonial days, sugar had to imported. They often lived with bitter wine.

Photo courtesy Historic London Town & Gardens -- Image detail from "Old Darby and Joan," 1759, The Lewis Walpole Library.
Photo courtesy Historic London Town and Gardens, Annapolis — Image detail from “Old Darby and Joan,” 1759, The Lewis Walpole Library.

Virignia did better in making wine. Huguenots landed in Virginia and produced “a noble, strong-bodied claret.” By 1768, Virginians were exporting wine to Britain. But there were many attempts that failed due to the soil and climate. Thomas Jefferson planted 2,000 acres of various European varieties at his Virginia estate in 1773. They all failed.

Photo courtesy Historic London Town & Garden -- Detail from "The Sense of Taste," Philippe Mercier, 1744-1747, Yale Center for British Art.
Photo courtesy Historic London Town and Gardens, Annapolis — Detail from “The Sense of Taste,” Philippe Mercier, 1744-1747, Yale Center for British Art.

Jefferson encouraged Maryland’s John Adlum to experiment with native grapes and Mr. Adlum became the “Father of American Viticulture” based out of Havre de Grace, Maryland. He penned “Memoir on the Cultivation of the Vine in America, and the Best Mode of Making Wine.” And while he became an expert on how to grow vineyards, his efforts at drinkable wine weren’t successful.

After that it was hit and miss.

Photo courtesy Historic London Town & Gardens -- Detail from "The parson and the captain," c.1760, in the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection.
Photo courtesy Historic London Town and Gardens, Annapolis — Detail from “The parson and the captain,” c.1760, in the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection.

Then prohibition in 1919 killed off any attempt at commercial winemaking until the 1940s, when Philip Wagner, an editorial page editor at the Baltimore Sun, planted grapes in Riderwood, Maryland and, in 1945, opened Boordy Winery, Maryland’s first bonded winery. It took him 15 years of experimenting before he came up with a combination of French-American hybrids that grew well in Maryland. He then wrote a book about winemaking which became a classic.

In 1980, Boordy was sold to the Deford family which moved the winery to the current farm in Long Green Valley north of Baltimore. Broody is a major tourist and day-trip destination in the region.

Boordy Winery, Maryland
Boordy Winery, Maryland (photo courtesy Boordy Vineyards Facebook page)

The New York Times wrote in Mr. Wagner’s obituaryHe once described wine making as ”the perfect foil for the nervous and intellectual strains of newspaper work.’’

After that, wineries in Maryland and Virginia were considered quaint day-trip events, a nice afternoon in the country where you sipped wine that always leaned toward the sweet side. Wineries would bring out bands to create a festival atmosphere every weekend and sell by the bottle. That was great for tourism.

Several Chesapeake Bay wineries are now avoiding the tourism label and focusing on wine quality. They aren’t open daily to the public and exist off the news radar. However, they are starting to be noticed by wine speciality publications.


Some Maryland and Virginia vineyards are set on changing the region’s winemaking history,

They’re starting to break into categories once reserved for California vineyards.


 

Cynthia Reuter

Cynthia is a former radio reporter, turned TV producer, who started covering local politics in Missouri, then state politics, then national politics in Washington, DC. Writing about the Chesapeake Bay region is a breath of fresh-air.

cynthia-reuter has 13 posts and counting.See all posts by cynthia-reuter

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