As far as those involved with Southern Maryland’s Port of Leonardtown Winery are aware, they have the only co-op of its kind in the United States. The winery, located in Leonardtown, Maryland, in St. Mary’s County, makes wine from grapes grown by the Southern Maryland Wine Growers Cooperative (SMWGC), a group of independent vineyard owners. The cooperative formed in 2007, and it’s grown bigger than the members could have ever envisioned.
Out With Tobacco, In With Grapes
A group of local growers, then known as Southern Maryland Grape Growers, formed the cooperative, explains David Wood, president of the SMWGC board of directors. The region had been tobacco country until the state chose to remove tobacco production from its agriculture program in the late 1990s.
Maryland offered tobacco growers a buyout, using funds from its share of the 1998 national tobacco settlement with cigarette manufacturers. Farmers who accepted the buyout had conditions to follow.
“You could never grow tobacco again in your lifetime, and there was a perpetuity restriction on land you owned,” says Wood. Those who accepted the buyout had to keep their property as farmland. Some rented their acreage out for rotation crops such as corn, wheat, and beans, but only those with large farms could do that.
“Most tobacco farms were very small,” he says. “Five, ten, twenty acres was a good size tobacco farm. That isn’t big enough to turn into a corn, wheat, and bean rotation.”
Grapes became an alternative crop for smaller-sized farms.
“It was fairly new to the region,” Wood says. “There were some growers who had been doing it for years, but they were growing for personal use.”
In the mid-2000s, St. Mary’s County created a grant to help foster the wine industry, making it possible for the co-op to form and become a commercial effort.
The SMWGC formed from what was the Southern Maryland Grape Growers. The co-op partnered with Port of Leonardtown, and the county’s grant money helped get the building set up with tanks and other equipment.
“We went into the building in 2009 with our first crush and opened doors for sales in 2010,” says Wood.
A Winery for the Town
For a nominal fee, the town leases SMWGC the building where Port of Leonardtown Winery’s production and tasting facility resides. Housed in a repurposed historic commercial building that’s in a public park, its location means it’s highly accessible to Leonardtown residents and visitors.
“It’s a beautiful spot,” says winemaker Lauren Zimmerman, who will be making her 10th vintage for the winery this year. “We’re essentially an urban winery because we don’t have vineyard acreage at our production site. It’s really close to downtown. We have amazing restaurants, history, museums, and art galleries.”
It’s an excellent location, but there’s one downside.
“We’re not able to expand,” explains Zimmerman. “Every year our production has increased, but we are just maxed out. We are crammed in there. Every barrel. Every tank. Not a lot of wiggle room, but we’ve recently leased another storage building where we have an overflow of barrels and case goods.”
The winemaker praises the town of Leonardtown for being the winery’s number one fan, and the winery—open seven days a week—is a huge tourist draw for the town. They offer live music and food trucks on the weekend, charcuterie and cheese platters for sale daily at the winery, a park right outside their door, and, of course, local wine.
Zimmerman grew up in Canada watching her mom make wine in the basement, and it was her mom who persuaded her to enroll in the enology program at Niagara College Canada. After graduation she went into the wine industry, doing crushes in New Zealand, working in a lab at a mass production facility, and finally purchasing a vineyard in Canada that she eventually sold her share in.
She moved to Maryland when she met her husband, ultimately landing the job with Port of Leonardtown Winery in 2014. Now she makes 100% Maryland wine from grapes sourced from co-op members, supplemented from other vineyards in the state.
“I get different terroirs, different grape varieties,” says Zimmerman. “I work with close to 25 different grapes, and Cabernet Franc from Vineyard A is completely different from Cabernet Franc from Vineyard B.”
Zimmerman sees the complexity of having so many options as part of the reason the wines come out as well as they do.
“When we come to the blending trials, it’s really a recipe for success,” she says. “There are so many options, and that’s a big reason why our red blends are so successful. I have all these spices in the spice rack, so to speak, and all these options to play with to find the best super blend to make the best wine possible.”
Her wines do well in the Maryland Governor’s Cup competition. In 2022, the 2019 Old Line Red won Best in Class in the red blend category, and the 2020 Cabernet Franc earned a Double Gold. In 2021, the 2019 Chambourcin Reserve took home the big prize, the Governor’s Cup.
“We convert a lot of people that are anti-hybrid with the Chambourcin,” says Zimmerman. “A lot of them can’t believe that it’s not vinifera. I credit the climate in Southern Maryland.”
She calls the region “tropical Maryland” because they get the longer, higher heat days that ripen the fruit.
“The reds get these jammy, intense fruit flavors,” she says, “It’s a unique taste compared to Chambourcin grown in New York, that’s lighter, higher acid, and has more of that cranberry flavor. Ours is a different style, with the rich, jammy characteristics we get here in Southern Maryland.”
The winery offers something for all palates, from their Governor’s Cup-winning reds to refreshing whites to a piquette-style wine that caters to Gen Z and lovers of wine slushies. They also make an apple wine from local apples, which was their biggest seller when the winer started. This year, Port of Leonardtown released its first sparkling wine made from Cayuga, and it flew off the shelves in three months. Zimmerman is always looking for new ways to produce and best express her diversity of varieties.
The Benefits to Members
The grape growers that produce the “spice rack” that Zimmerman gets to choose from all operate independently.
“The vineyards bring their grapes to Leonardtown and the winery buys them at a fair market price,” says Wood. “Every year we review our prices, and we have a price structure for each variety of grape. We structure the price based on a certain target, mostly for brix.”
If the sugars come in high, growers get a better price. If they come in low, the price is reduced a bit. The finished wine is bottled under one label—Port of Leonardtown Winery. The individual member vineyard’s names are not on the bottles.
“The following year after the wine is made and sold, the winery does a patronage distribution back to the membership of some portion of the profit,” Wood says. It’s divided up according to the percentage of grapes each vineyard brought in for that year.
There are benefits to the community, too. The cheese on the winery’s cheese plates comes from a local Amish dairy, Clover Hill. Restaurants in town get a bump in business from people looking to dine after a day at the winery. Port of Leonardtown invites various local artists to display their work on consignment.
It’s a model that’s working for everyone.
Any vineyard in Southern Maryland can be a part of SMWGC. There is room for more members, as evidenced by the need to source grapes from other parts of the state to meet demand.
Wood estimates that in 2022, the winery made just under 4,000 cases of wine. In 2023, he expects the production to be closer to 5,000 cases.
“The winery is growing, the customer base is growing, and the product mix is growing,” says Wood. “It’s been a nice surprise to see we’re doing it well. Not only are we growing, we really don’t advertise.”
“We’re selling out of everything,” adds Zimmerman.