Cecil County's first family of wine
Jan 08, 2015 05:18PM
By Kerigan Butt
Dove Valley Vineyard & Winery founder Harry Hepbron with his wife Janet, daughter Janel Griffith and granddaughter Corinn Henson.
By Richard L. Gaw
When you first encounter Harry Hepbron, proprietor of Dove Valley Vineyard & Winery, you cannot help but immediately realize that you are staring smack dab into the clear blue eyes of a dreamer.
The eyes take you on a journey, and you have no choice but to follow. They take you to his childhood, to when he was a kid in Kent County growing up on a farm, dragging around 100-pound bags of feed and planting row after row of corn. The eyes take you to when he graduated from high school, when with ten bucks in his pocket, Hepbron caught a ride to Chester, Pa. to work on a tanker, a job he hated. They take you to when he and Janet began a family, then a successful business. Finally, they take you back to the farm -- this one, spread out over 100 acres on Harrington Road -- the one he bought years ago in order to leave something to his family.
They take you to the moment he decided to plant row after row of grape vines on a portion of the farm 15 years ago. They take you to the opening of his vineyard seven years ago -- a well-intentioned and painstakingly orchestrated roll-of-the-dice venture, that through his hard work and dedication has earned him a reputation as one of Maryland's leading wine proprietors.
"In my lifetime, I've never been afraid to make a change," Hepbron said. "I've always had vision. I've never had the problem of having blinders on. When I bought this farm years ago, I thought, 'What kind of crop do I grow?' I love to farm but thought that soybeans and corn weren't where I wanted to go.
"I didn't know yet what I wanted to grow, but I knew that I always wanted to grow a product that people would come here to buy. That was my vision, instead of me jumping in a truck and selling."
When Hepbron was clearing his land 15 years ago, he came across some wild grape vines that had apparently been growing on the edge of the farm for decades. They were Niagara grapes, and they were growing as big as his thumb. He thought,' This must be a fantastic area for growing grapes.'
He began to read magazine articles that wrote about vineyards. He bought books about how grapes are made into wine, and pored through them. He visited the Finger Lakes in upstate New York and learned how winemakers in that wine-rich region worked. He attended a wine school in New Jersey, and made himself known to as many people as he could.
When he decided to cultivate his winery, he did so with the exactitude of an engineer. He planted in a way to allow the air to properly go through the planted vines, the way the winemakers told him. Well into his sixties, he planted the 9 acres of his vineyard nearly by himself, and there were many times when Janet would look out and see her husband working in all kinds of weather and thinking, "He has completely lost his mind.'
When the grapes first arrived, he sold them in bunches, but finally, seven years ago, they were mature enough to be made into wine, and the winery was officially opened in 2007. Now, under Hepbron's watchful eye, Dove Valley Wines have earned a reputation as some of the best wines in the state of Maryland and beyond.
With its seven types of wine and 13 varietals that range from its Pinot Noir and Merlot, to whites like its Riesling and Gold, as well as its signature offerings like Chocolate Raspberry and Winter Spice, Dove Valley has hit the regional wine map. Visitors from as near as Elkton and as far away as Germany, China and Australia now have Dove Valley wines on their shelves, while those who know best have also taken notice. Dove Valley's Pinot Noir was a winner in the Finger Lakes International 2009 competition; its Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Vignoles were both given the Maryland's 2008 Governor's Cup bronze; and its Dove Valley Red took home the Maryland's 2008 Governor's Cup silver recognition.
During that time, on the back of superb products and supported by a year-round calendar of events held at Dove Valley, Hepbron and his family have become Cecil County's First Family of Wine. His daughter Janel Griffith manages everything from event planning, wine making, marketing, and wine analysis, and its not uncommon to see many Hepbrons working in the fields or managing a wine tasting event.
Griffith pointed to a sign above a door in the tasting room that read, "Enter as strangers, leave as friends.'
"This line of work requires hard work, dedication and personality," she said. "I think we're gifted in the fact that we enjoy speaking with our customers. We try to treat people like we want people to treat us. People tell us that they're comfortable here." "As a small business, not only do we grow our grapes, bottle them and distribute them, we also recognize that because we're off the beaten path, we recognize the need to bring people in."
Under Griffith's vision, Dove Valley has become a destination point for hundreds of visitors who participate in events like its Dog Days of July; the Harvest and Crush Festival, that allows visitors to help the Hepbron family pick and prune the annual crop; dinner theater gatherings that feature local performers and allow the vineyard to collaborate with are restaurants; as well as a full line-up of arts and music festivals -- such as Winestock, which drew over 600 concert-goers and wine lovers this past October.
"We keep exploring ideas to make our events more successful," Griffith said. "We try to do a lot locally with local folks, as well as with local artists and restaurants and vendors. We open our door a lot with other businesses. People tell us all the time that we're a little hidden treasure. We've always tried to make Dove Valley a destination point, and it gives us great pleasure to know that we've done that."
On a recent late November morning, Griffith was swamped by a flurry of phone calls inquiring about remaining availability for Dove Valley's upcoming dinner theater production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," which was held three times at the winery's pavilion.
Each performance was nearly sold out. Proudly displayed at a wine tasting table were award-winning bottles of Dove Valley wine, while above the table, tye-dyed Winestock t-shirts are indicative of the many events held there every year. Nearby, there was a framed photograph of Griffith' son Dillon, a Marine, who is currently serving overseas. Nearly everywhere you look in the tasting room at Dove Valley, there is clear evidence of family, ingenuity and quality.
There are also hints of the future, too. In a recent correspondence back home, Dillon wrote that when he comes back from the service, he wants to use a part of the family farm to develop a microbrewery.
Harry Hepbron's blue eyes sparkled when Dillon's letter was mentioned. He is already making plans for expansion.
The Dove Valley Vineyard & Winery is located on 645 Harrington Road, Rising Sun, Md., 21911. Tastings and tours are held daily. To learn more about Dove Valley, call 410-658-8388, or visit www.dovevalleywine.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.