Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Daily Freeman: Great Wine in Pennsylvania, Maryland

A toast to the winemakers of Pennsylvania, Maryland
The Daily Freeman
Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Special To The Washington Post

When tasting wine, connoisseurs hold their glasses up to the light to look at the wine's color and clarity. I don't always know what I'm supposed to see, but at Naylor Wine Cellars in Pennsylvania, I held up my white wine and it was crystal . . . No. I have to say that it was most definitely cloudy. Very clearly cloudy.

During a tank-side chat about the steps in the winemaking process, assistant winemaker Ben McIntyre quickly clarified that I wasn't imagining things. It was all part of the Tour de Tanks event held at 26 Pennsylvania and Maryland wineries in March, during which guests are invited into cellars and backrooms to learn about those various winemaking steps. It's a follow-up to the Wine Just Off the Vine event held in November. Last fall, visitors sampled these wines just days after they were put into barrels. We sipped those same wines-in-progress, aged by five months.

Using York, Pa., as our home base, my tasting companion and I made plans to spend two days visiting six wineries along the Mason-Dixon Wine Trail that surrounds the city. The wineries don't open until noon, so we spent the morning browsing through the shops in downtown York and downing a hearty breakfast at the newly renovated Central Market.

Then we set off on the trail, where interesting wine facts poured from winemakers' mouths: why some use barrels instead of steel tanks; why the region makes so many fruity and sweet wines; and how snacks ranging from brownies to beef jerky to ancho-chili chocolate are paired with Chambourcins, Traminettes and other wines. As one winery worker put it, you don't just buy a ticket to taste. You pay for an education.

At each winery, we presented our Tour de Tanks ticket -- a frequent-drinking card of sorts listing each participating winery -- for stamping. We picked up our free wine glass at the first stop and took it with us everywhere, as directed. That meant making frequent use of "rinse stations" that consisted of everything from painted ceramic pitchers to big orange plastic buckets with spigots.

Used to simple tastings of a handful of bottled wines, I found it much more intriguing to step into dark cellars and brightly lit tank rooms to learn the backstories of the vineyards and vintners, and to taste both finished and unfinished wines.

The wineries varied from a country home to a former barn to the basement of someone's house just off the interstate, and friendly winemakers answered questions about the grapes and the soil as well as about their businesses and themselves.

And really now, how could someone whose great-grandfathers were a cooper and a beer brewer not wind up in the business, as is the case with Jim Miller, the owner and winemaker at Moon Dancer Vineyards and Winery in Wrightsville, Pa.?

Moon Dancer was our first stop after setting out from our base in York, on roads that wound past stately houses and trailer homes, rising at one point for a view of one of the widest stretches of the Susquehanna River.

At the top of a gravel road, we reached a French country chateau framed by vineyards. After sampling from five bottles in a tasting room, the last one a warmed spice wine, we headed downstairs. "It's the first sobriety test of the day," said my friend Sid at the top of a steep staircase.

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