Cassinelli Winery, winescapes
The dusty, faded bumper sticker on my high-mileage mama-mobile exclaims to anyone who reads it at a red light or in the car pool lane, “No Farms; No Food.” It is an idea our family believes in—support the farmer who makes your food, be in touch with the source of your eats. When my husband and I turned onto the gravel lane in pursuit of our first wine tasting experience a few weeks ago, this idea was redefined further—grapes are farmed; grapes make wine.
The site of our first tasting was Cassinelli Winery in Church Hill, MD, about 35 minutes from downtown Easton, somewhere between the small town of Centreville and the sleepy village that is Church Hill. We had seen the wine label before and passed the farm countless times on our way to visit family in Chestertown. Enjoying a rare kid-less evening, we stopped in. Grape vines are as beautiful a crop as any. The large leaves protecting the sinewy vine and mass of juicy ball-shaped grapes line the driveway of Cassinelli Winery and go on for about 13 acres. At the end of the rows there are rose bushes which our knowledgeable bar tender told us are used as indicator plants. “If the roses are dry in the middle of the summer, the grapes need water; if the leaf-eating bugs have eaten all the leaves on the rose bushes, we know the grape leaves are next.” And so goes the life of farming grapes on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Al Cassinelli and his wife Jennifer are still fairly new to the business of farming. Former corporate go-getters who once owned a row house on Capitol Hill, they spent years in the grind, commuting to Northern Virginia from DC and then from their waterfront home in Centreville before giving it all up for a more in-touch experience with their growing children. “We had our fill of the corporate life, and we also started to have our kids. We both traveled the bridge every day and started to think about raising the family on a farm,” said Al.
The Cassinellis bought the farm they grow grapes on today back in 2004, before knowing exactly what it was that they were going to grow. After attending a few seminars about grape-growing and realizing they didn’t have the space to farm grain, they settled on the flexibility of grapes. “We liked the thought of either selling the raw grapes or as a finished product--wine. To me wineries are the right type of business for the Eastern Shore. It expands on the farming roots of the counties, and it has people come to the Shore from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. They do the tastings at the winery, ask us about places to eat and what else they should see or do while on the Shore before taking the scenic route back home,” continues Al.
The Cassinellis' vineyard was planted in 2005, making it very young by wine-making standards. By 2007 they created their first wine, which was available the next year. It is their 2008 Merlot and Reisling wines that have won big awards in the state, quite a feat for a crop coming from an area mostly dotted with grain fields and cow farms. Al reflects on what awards such as these mean for them and other vineyards in the area: “These awards, especially the gold medal on a red wine, show that the Eastern Shore is very capable of growing high quality fruit and then turning it into a top of class wine. I know that Cascia Vineyards on Kent Island and Crow Vineyards in Kennedyville have also produced award-winning wines. This is significant because we are all working with young vines that will only get better as they mature.”
Our tasting involved sips of twelve wines at a neat and tidy bar that took up the corner of a roomy warehouse where thick, wooden barrels were being stretched in anticipation of aging a new batch of wine. Al gave us a quick tour of the warehouse of operations, showing us the garage-sized vat of wine awaiting its turn in the barrels and an adjacent tasting room, cozy with a wood fire and the gleaming stainless steel tanks of still more wine. A dog and cat skittered in and out of our tour and in the distance were other, larger animals peacefully roaming around. The Cassinellis keep donkeys to pet, buffalo for show, and a small herd of 20 registered Black Angus cattle as lawnmowers for the 32 acres of the farm that haven’t been planted with grapes yet.
Everything from the grape growing to the wine bottling happens on site. When a batch of wine is ready and has passed the test of professional tasters, a truck equipped for bottling arrives and the wine is sealed up that day, just steps away from where over 3,000 people have come through to taste wines and celebrate occasions like upcoming weddings, birthdays, or even just a night out in the country.
We head home with our purchase of the Cassenellis' dessert wine, Chocolate Kiss Merlot, something sure to be a hit at the next book club meeting. The Eastern Shore wine trail involves nine more vineyards, and we turn in the direction of St. Michaels to see how their wines compare with the bitter notes and fruity overtones we’ve just enjoyed.
Cassinelli wines are available at their vineyard in Church Hill as well as liquor stores in Kent and Queen Anne’s Counties. Stay tuned for next month's review of St. Michaels Winery.