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John Grapevine

grapes

Like Johnny Appleseed, the legendary orchardist, John Levenberg and his fellow winery consultants are spreading an age of discovery in good winemaking up and down the East Coast. No one with an unbiased palate who has spent much time drinking Eastern wines has doubts that this side of the country can, and does, make some superb offerings.

But the region is also still producing some incredibly dull wines and poorly oaked ones, in part because the winery owners and the people they hire are often not properly trained. Levenberg’s skills, both in advising grape growing and winemaking, are in making sure this doesn’t happen – that his client’s wines are fresh, lively and well-structured, and that the oak doesn’t produce splinters in the mouth. And, in the process, Levenberg passes along his winegrowing knowledge to his clients who pass it along to their staffs.

I first met Levenberg a few years ago while he was still working on Long Island’s North Fork but was also consulting with two startups in the nearby Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania – Grace Winery at Sweetwater Farm and Galer Estate.  I met him again last week at Crow Farm, another winery startup he advises in the flat farm country of Maryland’s Eastern Shore just north of Chestertown.

“My current client load is a good one and primarily centered around the Baltimore area,” Levenberg says, although he also consults in New Jersey (great results at Heritage), Virginia and Pennsylvania – about a dozen wineries in all.  “I’m proud to say that I've been able to ‘cull the herd,’ and now only have clients that also happen to be good people” who want to make the best wines they can and not just “good enough.”

That certainly would describe the Crows. Roy and Judy Crow, having both had families by previous marriages, returned to the dairy farm where John grew up and turned it into a diversified property – grapes and wine, meat-producing Angus cattle and a “farmstay” B&B.  “We wanted the next generation to be here as well,” Roy says, “and we figured growing grapes and making wine might appeal to our kids more than milking cows.”  Judy’s son Brandon Hoy and daughter-in-law Brook Schumann are now in charge of the vineyard and winery.

The Crows began by growing grapes to sell to others – “People told us to plant Vidal and Barbera for starters,” Roy Crow says – but under the tutelage of Levenberg, they now produce wine from estate and purchased grapes and also have a healthy custom-crush business for other wineries. The Crow Vineyard’s (as a part of Crow Farm) vintage-date sparkling Vidal, table Vidal, barrel-fermented Chardonnay and Barbera and Merlot, both tasted in barrel, are all modern, well-made wines.

Right now, the Angus business produces the most income. “But John brought in his spread sheets,” Judy Crow says, “and now our business plan is to make wine our primary producer.”

Not that Levenberg is a miracle worker, nor that some self-taught winemakers aren’t producing superb wines on their own. But in more cases than not, the consultants who made wines in California and, to a growing degree, in France are helping raise standards, especially those who have now adapted, sometimes painfully, to the different terroirs and humid climate of the American East.

The legacy grows.

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