WTM Wine Talk | Lauren Y. Zimmerman on Maryland Wine / by Brian Yost

Lauren Y. Zimmerman is a Canadian winemaker and grape grower, who graduated from the Niagara College Winemaking and Viticulture Technician program. She traveled the world working with different wineries and came to rest three years ago in Maryland. She accepted a winemaker position at Port of Leanoardtown Winery, one of only two co-op wineries in the United States.

WTM: When did you first become interested in wine?

Lauren: While growing up in Prince Edward County, Ontario, I witnessed vineyards being planted all over the area, including a 5 acre vineyard planted across the road from my parent’s house. I used to walk my dog through the vines and pop Chardonnay grapes in my mouth as we strolled through the rows. While in high school I worked at Huff Estates as a vineyard labourer, which is where I became extremely interested in the viticultural and biology side of the grape industry. It wasn’t until I moved to Niagara Falls, Canada to study Winemaking & Viticulture that I really developed an appreciation for fine wine. One of my classes focused purely on tasting and pairing wine. Homework consisted of cooking and pairing the perfect wine with a meal. It was a tough gig.

WTM: When did you realize you wanted to be a winemaker?

Lauren: I have worked in all areas of the wine industry; grape farming, wine production and marketing & sales and really enjoyed all positions. The winemaker’s roll requires someone with a strong grasp of all three areas of the industry. As the winemaker I love that I get to be involved in all areas of the business from monitoring the grapes throughout the growing season to harvest and processing the grapes from crush to bottle, and also getting to pour and discuss wines with our Wine Club members and customers. I get the best of all worlds.

WTM: What do you love most about your work and why?

Lauren: I love the variety in my job. I have worked at many wineries including a mass production winery in New Zealand, Coopers Creek, which produces over 175,000 cases annually where I was part of the lab team running tests all day, every day. It wasn’t very stimulating or gratifying. I have since discovered that boutique wineries (small production of under 10,000 cases annually) are the best locations for me because I can be involved in all areas of the business. You may find me out testing sugar levels in the vineyard one day, blending barrels in the cellar the next, then off to a lavish event in the city the day after. There is never a dull moment at my job.

WTM: Who has had the most influence on you in your current career?

Lauren: I still work closely with the former winemaker at Port of Leonardtown Winery, Patrick Isles. Though he stepped down from the winemaker’s position, he is still part owner and very involved with the winery. We work with over 25 grape varieties at the POL Cooperative and he knows the varieties better than anyone else. So I am always bouncing ideas off him and learning from his past experiences.  He is extremely knowledgeable about both grape growing and winemaking.

WTM: What was your most memorable wine-travel experience?

Lauren: Traveling to New Zealand was an amazing experience that I would recommend to everyone. I worked at the large production winery, Coopers Creek, in Auckland. They have vineyards in all the main viticulture regions of New Zealand including Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Marlborough and Central Atogo. New Zealand is best known for their crisp, herbaceous Sauvignon Blancs and aromatic Pinot Noirs from the South Island. If you want to try an absolutely outstanding Sauv Blanc, ask for one from the Marlborough region.

Lauren Y. Zimmerman in tank room at Port of Leonardtown Winery in Southern Maryland

Lauren Y. Zimmerman in tank room at Port of Leonardtown Winery in Southern Maryland

WTM: When you first started working in Maryland, what surprised you most?

Lauren: When I first travelled to Maryland, I was blown away by the number of vineyards here. I was aware of Virginia wine but had no idea that Maryland was a grape growing region. Maryland is a new and very quickly growing wine industry with over 75 wineries to date.  

WTM: What challenges does the Maryland wine industry face?

Lauren: While working in different wine regions around the world, I see that everyone faces different climate issues. Weather’s frigid cold winter temperatures in the north, or hurricane danger in the south. Maryland faces extremely humid weather during the summer and fall seasons which can make growing some grape varieties difficult. Chardonnay is one of the most popular varietals, and is an example of a variety that is very susceptible to mildews especially in humid climates. Grape growers are at Mother Nature’s mercy and even this spring we were hit with several frosts that set back our early budding varieties.

WTM: Can you make a single prediction about the future of Maryland wine?

Lauren: I predict that Maryland will evolve from being known as a new wine region to being recognized as a world class region producing ultra premium wines. We are consistently winning gold medals for our wines in international competitions and gaining recognition throughout the world. A very large percentage of Maryland’s vineyards are just now maturing to produce top quality wines. It takes 3-4 years for a newly planted vine to produce harvestable fruit, but realistically, it takes more like 10 years for the vine to fully mature and produce the best quality fruit possible. In 2006 the total vine acreage in Maryland doubled to total 500 acres, so we are now seeing the full potential of these vines in the last few vintages. In 2008 and 2009 the number of commercial plantings grew substantially as a result of available funding from the Maryland Capital Assistance Grant, which helped to bring our total acreage to date close to 900. Maryland grape growers now have a better grasp on what varieties work well in our climate and Marylad winemakers are now experienced with how to manage the grapes grown here to produce world-class wines.

I also see an evolution with wine drinkers in Maryland. Everyone starts out drinking sweet and fruity white wines, but eventually their palates evolve to enjoy more dry, full body red wines. In the tasting room at Port of Leonardtown Winery, there is a greater demand for dry serious wines which I can see the industry shifting more towards in the future.

WTM: What do you think will surprise someone visiting Maryland wine country?

Lauren: I think new visitors will be surprised to learn that there are over 75 wineries in Maryland. We are a new wine region that is growing extremely fast.

WTM: What can you tell us that might encourage people to visit your wine region?

Lauren: I always tell people, even those who are not big wines drinkers, that the Maryland wine trail has something for everyone. Each winery has a tasting bar where you are able to taste and learn about what styles of wine you enjoy. Many wineries, including Port of Leonardtown Winery, have a large selection ranging from sweet and easy sipping to serious dry and bold. Some of our wineries even have partner breweries on site, so beer and wine lovers alike can enjoy the experience. Running Hare & Calvert brewing is a popular destination and like most wineries, they have regular live music on the patio. A gorgeous patio with wine, beer and music; what more do you need! 

www.MarylandWine.com is a great resource for planning a wine trail trip.

Also check out The Governor’s Cup Competition Winners List (2016 results will be posted soon) to find the top gold medal wines in Maryland. www.marylandwine.com/awards

WTM: What advice can you give someone thinking about getting involved in the wine industry?

Lauren: My advice is to travel and visit as many wineries as you can. Talk to grape growers and winemakers to learn what makes each region unique, and taste as much wine as possible. Practice makes perfect! 

WTM: What was the first wine you remember tasting?

Lauren: The first wine I remember tasting was a beautiful and luscious Ontario Icewine made from Vidal grapes. It tasted like heaven.