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A Tour of Hemsley's Fortune Vineyard

By Wick Dudley

 

Located in Queen Anne’s County, the Hemsley’s Fortune Vineyard was started in 1996 with the planting of 1000 vines each of Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from the root stock number 3309 purchased from Mori vineyards in Ontario, Canada.  Arriving in a single package via UPS, I opened the box to begin planting.   Little did I realize how much my life was going to change!


My grandfather, a grain broker from Baltimore, purchased Hemsley’s Fortune Farm in 1880. He owned several sailing ships which brought grain and other commodities from the Eastern Shore to Baltimore.  Although my family did not till the land, I had the good fortune to grow up on the farm spending much of my time watching and learning from the farmers who leased our land. In 1984, after college and marriage to my wife Lawrie, I returned to Hemsley’s Fortune and bought a Massey Ferguson equipment dealership in Wye Mills.  During that same time my father decided to become actively engaged in the planting and operation of the farm’s 600 tillable acres. So we bought the needed equipment (Massey Ferguson, of course!) and got to the business of farming.  We closed the equipment dealership in 1992 and farming became my primary occupation.  Believe it or not 600 acres is not enough land to be profitable.  I liked working the land and I knew that I needed to diversify the farm operation in order to be profitable.  But how was I to diversify?

Enter Bill Kirby.  Bill had previously worked at Elliott Equipment in Easton and was working in my father’s real estate office as an appraiser.  Whenever I went into the office Bill would make references to growing grapes. He had begun in 1985 and each time we saw each other he said I should grow grapes. As I indicated, I had been trying to find ways to diversify my farming operation.  There were not many choices unless I was willing to invest more capital in the purchase of different types of equipment.  I already had everything I needed except an air blast sprayer.  So I began to take Bill’s suggestion seriously.  He came out to the farm one day to help me determine a possible vineyard site.  The most suitable field for grape growing was one that consistently yielded the lowest grain yields on the farm.  The field location and orientation appeared ideal. It was situated on the east end of a 60 acre field and would allow for a north to south row direction.  There was also a nice roll to the land, allowing for good drainage. Further, the field was out of view, away from other crops and there was room for expansion.  Decision made.  I would plant my first grapes in the spring of 1996.

At the time Dan Burgoyne was president of the MGGA.  He had a farm in Henderson, MD where he grew 8-9 acres of grapes.  After consulting with both Dan & Bill the decision was made to plant a total of 3,000 vines.  I would plant 1,000 each of Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, as these were the varieties most in demand by the then ten wineries in Maryland.  In preparation for the planting I sub-soiled the field and used a rolling harrow to smooth the ground.  Because the ground had previously been under cultivation the soil fertility was in good shape. Dan recommended I plant red clover to help with erosion and to add nitrogen to the soil.  That turned out to be a huge mistake.  We planted all the root stock the first week of May before the clover had fully grown, thinking there would be no problem.  Each of the rows was 850 ft long and took about 20 minutes to plant using a small tree transplanter. 

Everything was going along just great!  The posts arrived and the clover was about a foot tall.  The weather was warming up, everything was growing fast, and to add insult to injury, I did not use grow tubes.  What a mistake! I was getting behind in a hurry and never did catch up. I was behind all year as I was still farming 600 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat by myself.  I had one hired hand that helped me, but he died that fall.  I was truly in a pickle.

By the following spring I hired two full-time helpers for the vineyard operation in hopes of correcting the prior season’s issues to make this a viable operation.  The first order of business was to get the weeds under control.  Weeds will always be an issue here on the east coast.  I bought a push weed-eater that worked quite well in getting the weeds down. That was followed by spraying with Roundup.  At this point things were starting to look like they should. The wood posts and wires were up and it was time to get the vines trained onto the wire.  Because I had not initially used grow tubes, we spent a lot of time on our hands and knees with a tapener in an effort to keep the young vines off the ground. Lesson learned: Before starting out, do your homework, be prepared and learn from other peoples’ mistakes.

Over the last 15 years my vineyard has expanded.  Merlot seems to grow well here and is in good demand.  In response, I increased my initial operation to ten acres with 7.5 of those acres in Merlot.  All of the vines are trained to VSP with 7 wires per row.  We try to have two trunks per vine, which is easier to do without using grow tubes, but using them makes growing grapes and controlling weeds so much less work.  Keeping the weeds under control is essential in the first two years since you should not use any residual herbicides.

This is what I have learned:  when I plant in the spring, we keep the area weed free, and in the early fall we plant a 5 ft grass strip in the middle of the row. I continue to use the transplanter and I use both wood and metal posts (one wood post for every five metal) driven in with a driver.  I find that the planting and training goes much smoother and quicker than it did in the first few years. I have also added a mechanical hedger and leaf puller which allows me to do most all the canopy management in air-conditioned comfort.  As an aside:  I like equipment.  It always shows up for work.

At this stage, I had learned how to manage the weeds but I struggled with a downy mildew problem. No matter what chemicals I used or how often I sprayed, downy would show up.  I eventually learned that the problem was not caused by how often I sprayed or with what but WHEN I sprayed.  Initially I would spray in the early evening when there was little or no wind.  When I switched to spraying in the morning the problem went away.  Also we have many more chemical options now, and with rotating their use, there is less chance of building resistance.  I use Jeanette Smith’s spray chart, which is a great tool to have to learn about the new chemicals, their rates and costs per acre. As a result my spraying is timelier and the quality of my fruit greatly improved.

After a season of doing a great job of managing the canopy, timely spraying and weed control, now here comes the wild life, just as the fruit is getting sweet.  It is like having a dessert and buffet table for them -- how frustrating! I use a plethora of tools to try to control the deer and birds.  Gas cannons, streamers, dogs, bird squawkers, shotguns, talk radio, human hair and fences.  The best thing here is to have varieties that can be harvested before all the corn and soybeans are gone.  Once they are all harvested the wild life seems to descend on the vineyard.  I have not yet gone to netting, but with late varieties, you almost have to use it.

Three years ago I expanded again.  The wineries now seem to want more whites that are sweeter, lighter varieties, plus hybrids. In response I ripped out all of the Cabernet I initially planted.  I could never get the fruit ripe enough.  I replaced it with the needed Chardonnay, increasing the vineyard total to 2.5 acres.  Most recently I planted two acres each of Vidal Blanc and Pinot Gris.  These new vines yielded a few tons last season.

I think the Eastern Shore had gotten a bad reputation a few years ago for being unable to grow reds. That is certainly not the case now.  Fruit quality has dramatically improved by variety selection and good management.
    It is hard to believe I’ve been growing grapes for 15 years. My vineyard has grown to approximately 14 acres. It is amazing how far the industry has come and how much it has grown here in Maryland.

Maryland Wine History Highlights

  • 1648 Earliest Records of winemaking
  • 1700's Governor Charles Calvert attempts to plant 200 acres of European grapes on Maryland soil but the vineyard attempt failed!
  • 1823 Havre De Grace native John Adlum, publishes first narrative on viticulture and winemaking
  • 1829 Society for Promoting the Culture of the Wine established
  • 1933 Baltimore Sun columnist, Phillip Wagner, publishes American Wines and How to Make Them
  • 1945 The state's first bonded winery, Boordy Vineyards opens
  • 1981 Maryland Grape Growers Association founded to improve standards for grape growing
  • 1984 Maryland Wineries Association founded and births Maryland's first wine festival

Since 2000, over 30 wineries have begun production in Maryland; as of 2012 55 wineries make up the MWA. For more history see "Maryland Wine: A Full Bodied History" available at www.historypress.net