Mike McGarry pointed at one of the 35,000 vines at Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Dickerson, his scissors following the scaly bark.
“You don’t want a stagnant microclimate,” he said, snipping bunches of grapes off the vine as he explained how more sunlight and breezes make for healthier, hardier grapes.
McGarry and a handful of workers were in the middle of the season’s final harvest, part of the legacy of a tightknit family with Maryland roots that has worked the 92-acre farm for half a century.
McGarry is one the four co-owners of the vineyard and winery, the only one in Montgomery County open to the public. When it began production, Sugarloaf was one of about 12 wineries in Maryland, according to Maryland Wineries Executive Director Kevin Atticks. Maryland’s wine industry has exploded since then, he said, to 60 wineries today.
“There was still a perception in general in the wine community — that it was hard to make good wine in Maryland,” when Sugarloaf began breaking ground 10 years ago, Atticks said.
Sugarloaf leases its fields from Windmill Farm, jointly owned by McGarry’s wife, Carol, and her three siblings, the children of Dan and Polly O’Donoghue, who bought the land in 1962. Dan O’Donoghue was a trust and estates lawyer in his mid-50s when he and his wife began spending their weekends there. They raised Black Angus cattle and winter wheat.
Their four children — Dan, Phil, Carol and Lois — visited as teenagers and adults, while on college break or with their spouses and young children.
They began transforming the former cattle and wheat farm into an award-winning vineyard in 2002, just before their father died in 2003. Polly had died a few years earlier, in 1999, son Dan O’Donoghue said.
Everybody chips in to help run the vineyard, McGarry said. Carol, for instance, worked as an accountant for many years, so she does the vineyard’s tax filings. Other siblings or their spouses help in sales, or by doing the vineyard’s legal work.
Building a vineyard from scratch was challenging, too, Carol McGarry said, but “we’re still enjoying each other.”
“The weather is the biggest challenge for everybody,” she said. “It surprises us people still come out on rainy days.”
The vineyard and its owners have come a long way since they first conceived the idea 10 years ago.
When they started, “We knew nothing,” Mike McGarry said.
They hired a viticulturist — an expert in the cultivation of grapes — selected vines, tested the farm’s soil, planted their grapes and set to work making wine.
The vineyard grows the five Bordeaux grapes (cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and petit verdot), along with three whites (chardonnay, pinot grigio and Viognier). The French vines were grafted onto American stems, which resist vine-killing pests, Mike McGarry said.
They harvested 5 tons of grapes their first year; this year it was about 50 tons, he said. A volatile spring killed off some of the vineyard’s more delicate grapes, lowering yields from 4 tons per acre to about 2.5 tons per acre.
“The rest of the summer was great, so we had big yields for our reds,” he added. “This was a very good year, probably a vintage year.”
The vineyard can produce up to 6,600 cases of wine per year, or about 73,000 bottles, though they have been bottling about 5,000 cases (60,000 bottles). A majority of the wine is sold at the vineyard, which holds tastings year-round.
The four couples, who live in Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Washington, D.C., still gather every year at the farm to celebrate Thanksgiving with their relatives, about 40 people in all.
“We didn’t want to sell the land,” said Jim McKenna, who married Dan and Polly’s daughter Lois. “We really didn’t want to see green space go away.”
The whole adventure has required a can-do attitude, hard work and faith, sprinkled with a dose of luck.
“My father would have been nervous when we were starting out,” Dan O’Donoghue said. “But my mother would really have been pleased — she was the one who insisted the family be together, to live in the same town. She would have been ecstatic — she treasured family.”
The best part of the venture has been “learning the high quality wine we can make; we weren’t sure at first,” Carol McGarry said. “The first year we won the double gold — we went, ‘Wow! ... We can make good wine!’”
When they started, the family had to pay a “huge initial outlay,” Mike McGarry said, preparing the land and planting the vineyard’s thousands of vines, and didn’t expect to make any wine until their third year. But the grapes grew better than they expected, and they harvested their first batch of grapes after just two years. The first wine produced — a cabernet franc — won a double gold award in an international competition in New York state in 2007.
The youngest wines — some of the white wines and a red or two — sit for roughly nine months before the vineyard offers it to the public, while the more seasoned reds age for up to two years before becoming available to the public, McGarry said.
“It says a whole lot about Sugarloaf and their careful planning — they knew enough to know they had to do it right from the start,” said Atticks, the Maryland Wineries executive director.