It was a cold and bleak evening in December 2009 when the Baker siblings gathered at the family farm in Westminster for a reckoning. The fall semester had ended, and Drew, Lisa, and Ashli were home for the holidays from their respective colleges. The Great Recession and the accompanying slump in housing starts had eviscerated their father’s carpentry company, and they’d been informed that their 17-acre Carroll County family farm, which they had never farmed but had rented out to local farmers, was going to have to be sold.
“My sisters and I were all home for Christmas break,” recounts Drew, then a senior at Towson University. “This was the place we grew up. It’s the only home we knew.” The siblings were crestfallen. “The whole family was trying to figure out what to do when our mom, Virginia, said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to plant grapes?’ She read an article about the rising popularity of wine grown in unlikely places around the country,” says Drew. “That’s where the idea for all of this began.”
And so, what started as a farm rescue fantasy is now Old Westminster Winery, a welcoming sprawl of neatly kept vineyards that surround the original farmhouse, flanked by their spacious Western ranch-style tasting room and events space, built by none other than Jay Baker, carpenter and proud Dad. It is here that visitors may sample Old Westminster’s offerings, from their fanciest reds to their fun, low-alcohol, spritzy canned beverages.
The fantasy became a reality in no time at all. Virginia and Jay fronted all their savings to seed the business as their children began to set the plan in motion. The siblings weren’t even finished with school; only Drew was of legal drinking age at the time and would spend the year applying for permits while studying for final exams. The following year, they planted their first vines, and, on June 8, 2013, they opened for business. They have never looked back.
In the interim, they have become not just local winemakers but Maryland wine evangelists. Today, Old Westminster Winery produces roughly 120,000 bottles a year from grapes grown on the farm or at neighboring vineyards in an effort to showcase all of the potential of the region’s winegrowing. They were also the first Maryland winery to can some of their wines. The tasting room and events space, completed in 2015, hosts weekend events, live music, and wine dinners. They also support a wine club that boasts 2,000 members.
All their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. At the 2014 Maryland Governor’s Cup Competition, Old Westminster’s Albariño 2013 was awarded best white wine and brought home a gold medal. At the 2015 Maryland Winemaster’s Choice Competition, Old Westminster’s Greenstone 2014 was awarded best white blend wine and a gold medal. In 2017 alone, they won a gold medal at the Governor’s Cup and Best in Class, two double-golds, and four golds at the Comptroller’s Cup. Even without the accolades, a visit to Old Westminster is an experience on par with any of America’s wine country destinations.
Maryland’s winescape has always been an eclectic mix of businesses, ranging from purveyors of sweet fruit wines to focused aficionados striving to put Maryland on the national stage of serious wine regions. Old Westminster was conceived from the beginning as the latter, looking to stalwart producers such as Rob Deford at Boordy and Sarah O’Herron and Ed Boyce of Black Ankle Vineyards for inspiration. Lisa, now 32, a chemist who was sizing up a corporate career before that fateful December, is now Old Westminster’s winemaker.
“We began with a vineyard consultant and a winemaking consultant,” she says. “We had a broad idea of what our soil composition was, what grapes might work, and a sort of orthodox conception of the winemaking.”
For Lisa, that initially meant using techniques to emulate a Californian style. But the sibs were quick to learn that chasing a West Coast ideal was a fool’s errand. Instead, they decided to take advantage of Maryland’s unique terroir (the French concept of defining a place based on its soil composition, weather, and geography), and pursue natural winemaking, though that term is difficult to define and is still the subject of heated debate globally.
Essentially, the family is building a model of Maryland winemaking that leans into our region’s limitations rather than trying to patch them up. “We go with what nature gives us, rather than fight for a predetermined style of wine,” Lisa (now Hinton) points out.
The family is building a model of Maryland winemaking that leans into our region’s limitations rather than trying to patch them up.
It was in the Loire Valley that Drew, Old Westminster’s wine grower and farmer-in-chief, and his wife, Casey, discovered wines that were fermented not with purchased yeast, but with the local spores that rode into the winery on the grapes. “Our principles and philosophy evolved rapidly,” says Drew, 33, especially after his honeymoon trip to France in 2014.
Along the way, they also fell in love with a style of wine known in France as pétillant naturel. These are wines that undergo fermentation in the bottle itself, capturing the resulting carbonation in a lower-alcohol, super-fresh style of sparkling wine. Upon their return to Maryland, Drew and Casey shared their discoveries and stories with Lisa and Ashli.
“That was a pivotal year for me,” recalls Lisa as she gazes out over the vines. “The 2015 vintage was a learning year. It was empowering and liberating to let go of orthodoxy and begin making the wines our vines wanted to make.”
In many winemaking regions around the world, it is considered safer to use purchased yeasts that have been bred specifically for winemaking purposes. Fermenting with yeasts that naturally hang out in the air and on the grapes is a risky endeavor. Will your yeasts impart desirable flavors? Will they be robust enough to complete fermentation as alcohol rises? This is one of the biggest challenges to anyone who wants to make wine naturally, without intervention.
“No doubt it’s a challenge,” admits Lisa. “But coming to this from a chemist’s perspective, it’s a matter of understanding the science. We are okay if the wines are a little wild.” Drew agrees. “Today, what our wines lack in refinement they make up for in intrigue.”
“We make Maryland wine,” adds Ashli (now Johnson), 30.
Local retailers are more than happy to hawk the wine. “I like that they’re adventurous,” says Lauren Loeffler, wine manager and buyer at The Wine Source. “They’re willing to try out various winemaking techniques, which I think is a smart move for a Maryland producer to stand out. They definitely have a loyal following and customers seek out their wines to try and often come back for repeat purchases—I think they have a positive presence in the market and are adept at reaching their audience.”
Clare Yost, beverage director and general manager at True Chesapeake Oyster Co., agrees. “I find the wines compelling because they are giving Maryland Wines a sense of place. They have a distinctive style that is relatable. They’re bright, balanced, but with a hint of funk…just like the people of Maryland!” Ashli Johnson sums it up this way: “This is what Maryland tastes like if you aren’t trying to influence the wine.” The youngest of the three, Ashli is ostensibly in charge of business and marketing, but her brother and sister assert she is also the unsung hero of Old Westminster. “She holds this all together,” says Lisa. Gesturing to the tasting room, the patio, and the outdoor entertaining space, she adds, “And all this.”
“This” is a concerted effort to create a space as warm and welcoming as the Baker family itself. In 2015, the family ramped up the hospitality aspect of the winery, with a tasting room built by Jay Baker, and plenty of space for outdoor revelry. Visitors can visit the tasting area, hang out on the patio, or help themselves to picnic tables on the grounds.
There is also a push to spotlight the bounty of Maryland farms with a burgeoning food program. “We want to take a holistic approach to food and wine from Maryland farms like us,” explains Ashli. “We want to showcase Maryland on top of a pizza!” Consider this offering, called “The Crew.” It features housemade honey mustard, Kitchen Girl Farm kale, salami made from pigs raised at Burnt Hill Farm, and mozzarella from Caputo Brothers Creamery in Spring Grove.
Artisan farmhouse pizza may be where it starts, but what’s happening at Old Westminster now is just the beginning of a much grander plan that these three visionaries conceive for the farm. “We now know what European wine grapes do best here. Albariño is our white wine rock star,” says Lisa, “and Old Westminster in more suited to white wine.” “But what we grow here now are all European wine grapes, the same ones used around the world,” adds Ashli. Drew agrees, adding, “Burnt Hill is where our future will truly be written.”
THE SIBLINGS WERE QUICK TO LEARN THAT CHASING A WEST COAST IDEAL WAS A FOOL’S ERRAND.
Located 25 miles south of the main farm, Burnt Hill was acquired in December 2016. It represents the culmination of all these emergent philosophies—dedication to the land, to a sense of place that speaks through its produce, produce that is coaxed from nature without any reliance on outside help or influence. Burnt Hill is a parcel of land that the family has exhaustively researched—soil types, drainage, orientation to the sun, elevation, average temperatures, rainfall, and a dizzying array of other factors.
“It’s an ideal site,” says Drew. “It is our opportunity to take 10 years of learning to a blank canvas.”
It is here that an even grander winemaking experiment is underway—to learn which of our region’s native grapes, grape varieties that were here long before European settlers, are best for making wine as local and ancestral as anyone has ever thought possible. Alongside new experiments with grape varieties from Europe is a block of vines of dozens of native American grape varieties.
“We’ve got some experimental genetic diversity in there,” Drew says with a chuckle. “There’s this guy who has been carefully collecting and nurturing all these native grape vines,” adds Lisa. “It’s nuts. We have acquired over 20 different plantings from him, and they are all planted at Burnt Hill. I am so excited for 2021. After all the craziness of this past year, this is going to be Burnt Hill’s first harvest, and there is going to be a lot of fruit coming in!”
Fruit won’t be the only thing coming in, though, as Ashli is quick to point out. “There is a dual aspect to what we are doing there with agriculture. Yeah, there are the grapes, but Drew is living [at Burnt Hill] now and raising animals, and there’s an apiary . . . the holistic bond between our wine and our food here is going to be vastly different.”
One can’t help but be taken in by Ashli’s energetic enthusiasm for everything that’s happening at Old Westminster. She sees how every facet of the family business flows into the others and is often the one to shepherd them all along. Drew exudes the same passion and positive energy, and he is clearly happiest when he’s connected to the land.
On one recent spring day, he was super excited about a new tractor (“I mean, it’s just like the old one, but this one won’t break!”), and on another day he had to bow out of an interview due to a lost pig at Burnt Hill. (“It sounds kind of funny, but actually I’m really stressed out about it,” he said. “And I need to stay here and find it.”)
It doesn’t take long to understand why Lisa is the scientist of the group. Her relaxed bearing belies an intense focus, a constant striving to improve, and a sense of practicality born out of a mission to make truly good wine in a region bereft of a reputation for doing so. Collectively, they represent a superhero team of hospitality, passion, and inquiry that is the essence of Old Westminster’s success.
“In retrospect, I am amazed that it didn’t go as poorly as it could have,” says Drew. “We really just want to make the best wines possible while sticking to our principles and philosophy about how we nurture our land and nurture our fruit.”
Nearly 11 years into the project, all three siblings are married with families of their own. In the context of establishing a vineyard and a winery, 11 years is nothing—the greatest sites in Europe have been under vine in one form or another for millennia. Given the extraordinary legacy Old Westminster has already established, it is breathtaking to imagine the future as a second generation grows into the business. How amazing will it be? We can’t wait to see—and taste.