BRANDYWINE – Warm weather and clear skies set the scene for a perfect time for wine enthusiasts to explore the scenic location of Romano Vineyard & Winery, located at 15715 Bald Eagle School Road in Brandywine, not long after the first day of summer.
The Romano family once held wine tastings in the living room of their house. However, last Saturday customers spread out blankets on the grass and sat in chairs on the brick patio while sipping wine with friends and family outside of the winery. Another group of customers stood inside at the long wine tasting bar to sample wines in the spacious tasting room, while deciding on their favorite selections. It marked the five-year anniversary of the opening of Prince George’s County’s first commercial winery.
Tiffany Romano-Myers, one of two daughters who help Jo-Ann and Joseph Romano run Romano Vineyard & Winery with their son-in-law, said a sweet white blend called Smitten was the hot seller on the sun-filled day, in addition to their signature wine slushies. While she remained busy ringing up purchases and serving customers, Romano-Myers mentioned how rewarding it felt to reflect on the growth of the family-owned business.
Jo-Ann said the winery evolved after their family’s land was previously farmed by someone else who grew vegetables for them. The family also has honey bees. After initially planning to plant wild flowers to serve as the bee’s food supply, research led to an innovative program by The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (SMADC). The group’s website explained how it was created to administer the Tobacco Buyout program to farmers who committed to stop growing tobacco, the region’s main crop. Using funding from a “Cigarette Restitution Fund” provided by major tobacco companies, SMADC offered resources and assistance to help farmers in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, St. Mary’s and Prince George’s counties to move forward into new kinds of farming, including growing wine grapes.
“(SMADC) were offering a grant at the time, because of the tobacco buyout, so they were looking for crops that tobacco farms could grow. They already had the land and they already had the equipment. And so we started investigating that and we did the really hard part of the market research by going to the wineries and tasting wine. That was the hard part,” Jo-Ann said during a vineyard tour.
Initially, the family planned to sell the grapes to another winery in Leonardtown, but after seeing the effort involved and thinking about stability, plans changed, she said.
“We kind of took a step back and thought, well if we grow for a full season, let’s just say, and we have a tornado or a hurricane that comes through and it wipes out the harvest for the whole year, I’ve just spent six to nine months taking care of the vines and we have absolutely nothing,” Jo-Ann said. “But if we start making our own wine, we can use our own grapes and then we have a product, so we control what it is in the end. We have an inventory. We can get through for a year and then pick up the next year with the next harvest that comes through, so kind of on a rotational cycle.”
A matching grant for grapes paid for half of the vines, while the Romanos paid for the rest. In 2007, grape planting began on an empty field. As a part of research and development, the local winery owners report back to The University of Maryland (UMD) and to SMADC about topics such as their vineyard yield, winter heartiness and what products they make with the grapes. This and other information is provided to UMD so it can use it for other people who want to plant.
Today, Joseph is Romano Vineyard & Winery’s winemaker. Jo-Ann said a surge of interest in wine has connected with a local movement where people want to know where food and drink and is coming from.
Customers like Stephanie Stewart from Prince George’s County said she loves the delicious wines, the scenery, the ambiance and the Romano family’s warmth. She found out about the vineyard and winery about a year ago when a friend who sings hosted an event there. Stewart also said she loves to support locally-owned businesses and artists.
“I think that’s so important, to support within your community first and then support outside of your community,” Stewart said. “Jo-Ann and Joe, who own it, they’re so personable and I love the product.”
As more wine enthusiasts from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia desire a reprieve from city life and hectic schedules, they are often willing to travel to a part of Prince George’s County off the beaten path. Romano Vineyard & Winery is a destination that offers wine, a line-up of summer concerts, various events, food, serenity and good company.
The Romanos split their time working full-time jobs and meeting the demands of their blossoming business. Starting on July 1, Romano Vineyard & Winery will be open year-round on Fridays from 1-6 p.m., and on Saturdays from noon-6 p.m. for wine tastings.
“Right now we’re sampling nine wines,” Jo-Ann said, adding the most rewarding part of her family’s journey: “Having customers that come back. They’re repeats. It is people coming in and standing there and going ‘Oh, I like all of your wines.’”