Ranks of grapes march up the slope from King’s Mill and more are slated to arrive soon. There are Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc vines, Merlot, Vidal, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Chardonel and Chambourcin in full glory despite drought and hungry deer.
Some, close to harvest and rife with ripe fruit, wear net veils as though prepared for a wedding. The veils serve as protection from flocks of voracious birds.
Metal tubes are all that remain of the former 7-foot tall deer fence now, thanks to the hunting and howling skills of Brix (a Labrador who showed up the first day of last spring and never left) and his hound consort, Riesling.
The birds also had a lot less impact this year than last, when bluebirds and cardinals consumed 15% of the Merlot crop in a hideous four-day reprise of Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds.” The carnage was incessant while nets were special ordered and delivered.
This summer, not only were the nets already on hand for use as needed, the Meenans had learned from local farmers that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. “Birds sent out scouts. Scare the scouts and the flocks go elsewhere,” they were informed.
It worked. Four days of firing shotguns into the air convinced the scouts that their quiet-loving friends weren’t going to have a fine feast uncontested. Feeling unwelcome and distinctly harassed, they went elsewhere.
The Meenans had studied well to find a place with great drainage; Vault Field’s ravines and sandy slopes (three feet of sandy loam over pure sand) are ideal for grapes.
However, they were assured falsely that they wouldn’t need irrigation in Eastern Virginia.
“All we’ve been doing for three years is moving hoses,” Keith groaned.
Drought intensifies the brix (sugar concentration in ripe grapes’ juice) but this year really was too much. A data logger registering temperature, humidity and windspeed showed 10 days over 110 degrees this year!
The Meenans got into wine making because they enjoyed a glass of good wine when eating out.
“Then, one day we walked into a K-Mart and saw little boxes with grapevines for sale.”
They started with a half dozen, and went on the internet for wine making kits and for plans to build a grape arbor.
Two years later, the Meenans had 65 vines in their backyard in Calvert County, Md. and a garage full of wine making equipment.
They still buy a few grapes from others, but mostly process their own fruit nowadays. There are two other vineyards nearby, Buena Vista at Hague and one operated by General Phillips just up the road.
They have traveled to California and elsewhere to observe winery operations and have attended seminars at Virginia Tech, Penn State and elsewhere.
They utilize mostly French oak barrels, but others are provided by Keystone Cooperage of Pennsylvania.
Dan favors the estate-bottled Reserve Red.
“I can honestly say I have never had a bad wine!” notes Keith, the proprietor of an insurance agency in Prince Frederick and California, Md.
Background in boy scouting, combined with insurance savvy, has contributed to their success.
Not only do they have back-up equipment from their hobby wine making which comes in handy when the computer fails on a fancy French bladder press or a state-of-the-art filtration network, the ranks of equipment all have different plugs which fit only one receptacle — so they can’t be plugged in wrong and fried.
Considering repairmen have to come from several states away — or even from across the Atlantic — this is a wise precaution.
They’ve gleaned lots of tips from others in the wine business, a trade noted for its generosity in such matters.
When applying the insecticides and fungicides required to harvest a crop, they utilize a tractor with a covered cab that filters the air. They also wear multiple protective garments, hoods, and a breathing apparatus.
A detailed chart shows the length of time required for the chemicals to wear off before harvest.
They keep the sulfites required for preservation at a minimal level. These oxygen scavengers are necessary, as oxygen turns wine to vinegar, but the fewer the better.
When my husband and I toured the winery on Saturday, Sept. 22, we observed a rich brew of Chambourcin grapes fermenting beneath the shelter of a lily of the valley bed sheet. This protective topper was there to exclude as many fruitflies as possible.
Picked on Thursday and carefully sorted to remove stems and other detritus, they were inoculated with yeast on Friday and will be punched down two times a day for maximal color extraction from the skins. During their whole berry fermentation process, the grapes eventually expand and explode, blowing off carbon dioxide.
While red wine is unfiltered, white grapes are crushed and sent through a 30-plate sterile filter.
Fermentation is controlled by a complex system of glycol cooling which keeps the grapes at 55 degrees as would have been done in underground caves in the old days; this increases the flavor.
The cold stabilization process crystallizes the tartrates to glittering diamonds that fall to the bottom, stick to the sides and create an inch of ice on top of the bins. After three weeks, the tartrates are filtered off, and an electric conductivity test is administered to determine whether they’ve been sufficiently leached out.
The process requires careful monitoring and a great deal of mathematical calculation, which is Dan’s particular strength.
“It’s technologically challenging” the Meenans admit. “But it’s fun.”
Keeping rigorous excise tax records is even more formidable, requiring daily forms and summary forms in triplicate at the end of each month. At 40 cents per liter for the bottler and 5 cents sales tax to the buyer, Virginia has the highest excise tax on wine in the nation.
The Meenans’ wines are competitively priced and offer both rich aroma and complex flavors.
The family also has a talent for naming. My favorite is Conundrum. This vintage’s riddle reference is based on a deliberately mysterious blend of several white wines.