Using a small tool known as a wine thief to extract Petite Verdot from a barrel, Old Westminster Winery winemaker Lisa Hinton tested the red's maturity Tuesday afternoon.
Hinton said she tastes from all of the wine barrels once a month to make sure it's going in the right direction. It's diligence like this that helped facilitate the Old Westminster Winery's Best in Show win for its Malbec 2014 at the 10th annual Comptroller's Cup Wine Competition earlier this month.
"Winning Best in Show is a great honor," Hinton said. "We were awarded best wine out of the 160 tasted that day."
The competition, held June 8 in Timonium, brings together winemakers from across the state for the opportunity to taste and evaluate one another's wine. The Comptroller's Cup, formerly known as the Winemasters Choice competition, is a blind tasting: Judges only know the composition of the wine, not the label, price, intended market or any other details. Panels of five judges are given a flight of wine spanning a single category, then are asked to evaluate the wines within the category.
Old Westminster Winery is the first Carroll County winery to win Best in Show, according to Maryland Wineries Association marketing coordinator, Callie Pfeiffer.
"We hope the recognition helps with countywide tourism," Pfeiffer said.
The winery's white blend Greenstone Third Edition and Malbec 2014 each received a gold medal in both the first round of judging and then again in the semifinal round. Both wines were also awarded Best in Class for white blend and red wine, respectively.
Old Westminster is a family owned and operated winery located at 1550 Old Westminster Road. In 2009, Jay and Virginia Baker began discussing how to preserve their farm with their children, Drew, Lisa and Ashli.
Drew became Old Westminster's vigneron, cultivating the farm's grapes for winemaking. Using her chemistry education, Lisa (now Hinton) became Old Westminster's winemaker. Ashli (now Johnson) became Old Westminster's estate director, handling the winery's marketing, promotions and events.
In 2011, the family planted their first 7,600 grape vines: Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay and Albariño. In spring 2013 they bottled their first wines and celebrated their first wine release. The family now cultivates and produces 30,000 bottles of wine annually.
About 50 percent of the grapes used are grown on 9 acres in their home vineyard. The other 50 percent are grown in other Maryland vineyards, such as South Mountain Vineyard in Hagerstown.
"Our team has set out to craft delicious wines that are uniquely Maryland," Drew Baker said. "Everything we do in the vineyard and cellar is directed toward this goal. Winning the Comptroller's Cup is a great honor and evidence that we're onto something special."
Hinton said her brother walks the vineyards on a daily basis to check the health of the vines and make sure they're producing healthy fruit. Hinton, who is in charge of the winemaking, explained that 2014's Malbec grapes looked particularly healthy.
"That made my job very easy," she said. "When fruit is healthy, it needs little to no help when processing."
Hinton said it takes a special wine to be bottled without any blending. Some wines are a blend of multiple grape varieties, but 2014's Malbec was made entirely with Malbec grapes.
Traditionally, consumers know Malbec to be very intense and bold with a high alcohol content. Malbec is grown with success in Argentina, and Hinton said the variety also grows well, though differently, in Maryland; the state's moderate climates lower the grapes' sugar content, ultimately decreasing the alcohol content.
"This Malbec is incredibly balanced, and that was our goal," Hinton said. "It's harmonious. The aromas match the flavors, which match the mouth feel and finish."
Hinton likened the Malbec's aroma and flavor to dark fruit like black cherries and blackberries. She said 2014 was a good year with less rainfall and more sunshine. Those conditions helped make the Malbec's flavors more intense.
"It was our first time working with the Malbec variety," Hinton said. "We like to experiment with a number of different varieties, and we try to try something new every year."
Hinton said she hopes the award encourages others to get more involved in the Maryland wine industry by planting more vineyards. She also hopes consumers become more open-minded about the quality of wine produced in Maryland.
"I believe that Maryland as a whole can produce world-class wines," Hinton said.
Comptroller's Cup winners
Best in Show
Old Westminster Winery, Malbec 2014 (Carroll)
2016 "Best in Class" Winners
Best White: Boordy Vineyards, Landmark Reserve Albariño 2015 (Baltimore County)
Best White Blend: Old Westminster Winery, Greenstone, Third Edition (Carroll County)
Best Rosé: Crow Vineyard, Rosé 2015 (Kent County)
Best Red: Old Westminster Winery, Malbec 2014 (Carroll County)
Best Red Blend: Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, Evoe 2013 (Montgomery County)
Best Cider: Great Shoals Winery, Hard Blackberry (Montgomery County)
Best Fruit: Linganore Winecellars, Mango Sangria (Frederick County)
Best Mead: Charm City Meadworks, Sweet Blossom (Baltimore City)
Best Dessert: Linganore Winecellars, Indulgence (Frederick County)
2016 "Double Gold" Medalists
A double gold is awarded to a wine that earns two gold medals; once in the first round of judging, and then again in the semifinal round
Boordy Vineyards, Landmark Reserve Albariño 2015 (Baltimore County)
Boordy Vineyards, Landmark Reserve Viognier 2015 (Baltimore County)
Crow Vineyard, Rosé 2015 (Kent County)
Crow Vineyard, Rosé 2015 (Kent County)
Linganore Winecellars, Indulgence (Frederick County)
Linganore Winecellars, Mango Sangria (Frederick County)
Old Westminster Winery, Greenstone, Third Edition (Carroll County)
Old Westminster Winery, Malbec 2014 (Carroll County)
Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, Evoe 2013 (Montgomery County)