ROHERSVILLE, Md. — Tucked away just off Maryland Route 67, Big Cork Vineyards has been a staple for local wine drinkers since the tasting room was opened in 2015.
Known for its extensive variety of grapes and crowd-drawing events, Big Cork is coming off one of its most challenging years as it, like most, faced its share of hardships throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with the help of a dedicated staff, the vineyard is also coming off one of its most successful years in terms of production in 2020 and is looking for more growth in the future.
Big Cork ended 2020 with double the grape yield of the previous year, allowing for more than 120,000 bottles of wine to be produced this year.
“We just did the best we could this year,” Big Cork general manager Matt Riley said. “There were so many challenges, but fortunately, COVID does affect farming operations too much. We were able to really pour a lot of resources into that part of the business and really try to make a difference there.
“It just kind of fell in place. It’s very weather-dependent, and we had a pretty good year weather-wise. Through the PPP loan, we were able to keep people employed to where we had enough staff to be able to maintain the vineyard the way we needed to. Everything kind of fell in line. It worked out good.”
In a year with so much uncertainty on so many fronts, there wasn’t necessarily a goal for production, the staff truly surprised when that many grapes were brought in, a much needed gift during the scary times.
“We were shocked,” Riley said. “You try to do crop estimates, and you kind of count how many clusters you see on a vine. We kept coming back, and it was way more than we thought. After a year like that, you try to find a bright spot that you can focus on. For us, that was a bright spot we tried to look at. There’s so much negative, unfortunately, out there that we were like, ‘We really need to try to focus on something positive.’”
Always looking to craft the next hit wine and finding thrills in the adventure of testing new grapes, Big Cork is riding the wave of momentum from 2020, planning to plant an additional four acres with two new varietals this year.
The new grapes include Tempranillo, which is typically grown in northern Spain and Portugal, and Vermentino, typically grown in northern Italy. With the addition of the two grapes, Big Cork will showcase the flavors of 18 types, the largest of any vineyard in Maryland.
“It’s pretty crazy. We actually work with Joe Fiola, and he works at the University of Maryland,” Riley said. “He’s an agricultural extension agent. He recommended that since there’s not that many wineries out here, that we plant multiple different grape varieties and give a them a run, see what happens, in addition to the usual Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, things like you’re used to hearing about. Try to do some experimental stuff and see what Western Maryland’s about.
“We do have two additional acres that are coming along with Syrah, and we planned about four more additional acres. You can get, depending on the year, three to seven tons off each one. You can get a fair amount, another 20 to 30 tons, if we’re lucky, of grapes, which is another 10-20% of production. We’re planning for growth in the future. I think once the vaccine comes out and customers feel comfortable again, we’re going to have a lot of wine on hand to sell to people.”
Big Cork is also adding its first sparkling wine to the production line, which will be available in the coming months.
“We’re actually working on that now,” Riley said. “We ordered some new equipment, and we’re going to start bottling sparkling wine. We picked Chardonnay grapes off the vine early this year, which is what you want to do for sparkling. We’ve been crafting it, and we’ve got it in a special tank. We’re going to hopefully bottle it in maybe February. Again, it’s COVID messing you up because the equipment we need comes from Italy. It’s been on a boat. Then it goes to New York. Then it sits in customs because there’s only like two people in the customs office now. It times like five times as long to get everything, but it’s coming.”
With so many options for knowledgeable wine aficionados or those new to wine, events and business coordinator Grant Taylor said there’s several go-tos that are favorites among the clientele.
“Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot is what we’re known for,” he said. “We love directing people in that area when it comes to reds, but when it comes to whites, I would have to say our top seller is a Russian Kiss. It’s an off dry, and people love it that are sweet wine drinkers and that are dry wine drinkers. It is a very good mix to obtain very good taste for all varieties.”
Set amid the mountains of Washington County, surrounded by nature’s beauty in all fashions, from nearby farms and woods to the Potomac River just a few miles away and the vineyard itself, Big Cork presents not just the perfect wines to go with any palate but the perfect location to relax and escape from reality. Like all businesses, Big Cork worked hard to craft ways to keep customers and staff safe without losing the beloved atmosphere.
With things looking toward a positive future with the approval of vaccines, Big Cork is hoping to pick up with a few more events this coming summer and continues to focus on providing a safe experience for customers.
“We’ve got some bands booked for the summer,” Riley said. “We have four concerts planned for the summertime. We were successful last year. The big grassy lawn off to the side, we sectioned it off in 20-by-20-foot sections with that construction spray paint. We have 10-foot walkways, so you could get your own spot and social distance and you didn’t have to be around anybody. We’ll probably do that again, assuming everything’s the way it is now, and sell tickets. You get your own little square, so you don’t have to sit in a sea of people during COVID. It worked well. We put deposits down on the bands, so we’re going to give a run.
“Everybody is trying to remain positive.”
The tasting room is open at half capacity by Gov. Larry Hogan’s orders, but inside, masks are worn and plenty of room for social distancing is provided. Staff goes through screenings daily, and sanitization is performed at the end of every sales day among frequent cleaning and hygiene practices.
Outdoor seating also remains an option through the colder months, allowing for additional distancing. With 17 propane heaters — including six new ones thanks to a grant from Washington County — and closed curtains, the outdoor setting makes the cozy area an additional option for customers.
“I always tell people they can catch a tan if you sit right under one (of the heaters),” Taylor laughed.
Tastings can be booked online, and Riley said the vineyard is working to provide special tastings to add to the fun. The tasting room is open Thursday-Monday, and to-go sales and curbside pickup is available Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Big Cork can also ship wines to anyone interested who would prefer not leaving their home but still enjoying the flavors found at the vineyard.
“In a year of uncertainties, my husband and I were able to enjoy wine pickups, crafting, fireworks and musical entertainment while observing safety guidelines,” said Robin Disque of Harpers Ferry, a Big Cork Club member. “Special thanks to the hard work of the Big Cork staff for keeping us safe.”
With 2020 over and the future looking bright, Big Cork is proud of how far its come since those initial vines were planted in 2011, obstacles overcome, delicious wines crafted and friends made along the way.
“I, personally, am really proud. It’s been challenging,” Riley said. “We’ve gotten a little bit of assistance from Maryland and federal government, but for the most part, it’s just been our employees being pretty flexible. We’re just doing the best we can.”
For more information on the vineyard, the wines and safety protocol or to make a reservation or order, visit www.bigcorkvineyards.com.