Those of us in Kent County and northern Queen Anne’s have probably driven by the Cassinelli Winery on route 213 just outside of Church Hill dozens of times without stopping, or realizing that along with their 13 acres of grapes, they have three acres of fruit trees, Wye Angus cows, buffaloes and two burros.
Those grapes have produced seven award winning wines in the Maryland Governor‘s Cup competition, including a gold this year for their 2009 Merlot Reserve and two bronze medals for ‘09 Rose Barbera and Barbera Reserve.
The Spy dropped in for a visit on a recent weekend to chat with owners Al and Jennifer Cassinelli in their tasting room -actually, Al spoke with the Spy while Jennifer poured wine and talked with customers.
Those cows and buffaloes are not there just to enhance the bucolic setting. They eat the grass as well as grape skins, bruised or otherwise unusable fruit, and fertilize the fields. Apples, peaches, plums, and Asian pears are offered for sale as ‘pick your own’ and at farmers’ markets.
The winery also plans to offer brandy and grappa – style spirits made from their fruit this fall. Under the 2010 Maryland Winery Modernization Act, wineries may produce 1900 gallons of brandy and port- style wines annually. Their federal distiller’s license is in process and should be completed shortly, according to Al Cassinelli.
The conversation turned to the business of grape growing, wine producing and selling. Al’s day gig is in financial investing – he’s not quite ready to devote all his time to the winery. High school students prune, weed and position the shoots throughout the summer, with Al doing all the spraying – every ten days June through September. The number one enemy on our humid Eastern Shore is mildew. Schmidt Vineyard Management handles the heavy pruning and grape picking. Pruning occurs eight times a year, four minutes if you’re speedy, to tuck the shoots and sucker each plant. One of his consultants recommended planting in relatively short rows so pruners don’t face an endless vista of vines. Al estimated 370 hours spent on each acre; at 700 plants per acre, the cost is approximately $4,000 per acre just to tend the vines.
Harvesting was early this year – August and September vs late September. The hot, dry weather produced high quality grapes, but a low volume. 2010 was the reverse—too much wet weather means low quality but high yield. Kathryn, their wine consultant, arrives the first of March each year from France to taste and smell each one of the 30 barrels of wine. She’ll then separate them into three rows. The first is set aside for single varietals; Chardonnay, Barbera, etc., the second for blends, and the third designated for the sweeter wines and distilled spirits. The whites will be bottled in April, the reds at the end of October. Al prefers to have the wines, especially reds, sit in the bottle for at least 90 days prior to selling.
Plans are underway for a new 10,000 square foot ’events’ building complete with catering kitchen, courtyard, grass lawn and bride dressing room. The winery has hosted twenty plus weddings in the past few years; they turned down a number of requests due to lack of indoor space. The Cassinellis envision holding a number of wine dinners in addition to renting the building for private events. Ground breaking is tentatively scheduled for this October.
Last year saw sales of 6,200 bottles, the goal is 10,000. About half of the wine is sold through their tasting room, 10 to 15% through retail shops, and 30% at festivals. Al expects an uptick in 2013 holiday season sales with the recent passage of the law allowing wineries to sell online. Business has definitely increased with the opening of Crow Winery (Kennedyville, Kent County) and Cascia Vineyards (Stevensville, QA County). The winery receives a number of tourists following the Chesapeake Wine Trail, which runs through the Upper, Mid and Lower Eastern Shore counties.
Al Cassinelli summed up the winery’s mission succinctly, “Our job is to grow great grapes and sell wine.”