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Michael McGarry, former managing partner of the D.C. office of Winston & Strawn, climbs a tall metal ladder that leans somewhat precariously against a 15-foot-high metal vat filled with grape slurry. He leans over, reaches into a bin at the top of the vat, and pulls out a luscious bunch of purple-red grapes, holding them in the air like a prize. Still perched on the ladder, he launches into a detailed lecture on the crushing, pressing, fermenting, and pumping that goes into transforming these grapes into Bordeaux-style wines. McGarry is a happy man. Opening Montgomery County, Md.’s only vineyard, on land that his wife, Carol, and her siblings inherited, was McGarry’s idea. The property — about 90 acres, complete with red barn and windmill, at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain in Dickerson — belonged to Carol’s parents, Daniel and Polly O’Donoghue, who bought it for a weekend retreat in 1962. When the senior O’Donoghues passed away, the couple’s four children decided, with some prodding from McGarry, to make wine. Today their land is called Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard. Its first grapes were harvested in 2005, and the first wine was on the market by May 2006. And despite the universally acknowledged truth that first-year harvests are never stellar, the early wines exceeded expectations. Indeed, the 2005 cabernet franc won a “double gold” medal at the 2007 International Eastern Wine Competition, a contest with more than 2,000 entries held each May in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The 1,000 bottles of that cabernet franc soon sold out. “It was about like winning the Super Bowl,” says McGarry. So how did a family made up of several generations of lawyers and judges end up with the equivalent of Green Acres? The story goes back a few years to a family wedding in the Napa Valley, where McGarry looked around and imagined that the family land also might be a good spot to grow grapes. But first he had to make the case to the rest of the family: Philip (an attorney with Furey, Doolan & Abell in Bethesda) and Kathy O’Donoghue; Daniel and Randy O’Donoghue; J. James (a retired Montgomery County circuit court judge) and Lois McKenna; and his own wife. With all the family memories, McGarry says, “this was sacred ground.” Then came the soil testing, grapevine importing, winery building, and barrel buying. Lucie Morton, who has a Ph.D. in viticulture from the University of Bordeaux, came in as a consultant. Architectural firm Cunningham & Quill designed the winery. In other words, expense was not spared. Just how much was spent? “Oh, millions of dollars,” says McGarry blithely. “But we wanted to do it right, and we wanted to go first-class.” Each French oak barrel, for instance, costs $775, and even though the French variety is “the densest oak in the world,” the barrels are only good for four years. So the vineyard spends $100,000 a year on barrels alone, McGarry says. Although the whole family pitches in as individual expertise or strong backs are needed, McGarry is the one who runs the business. He retired last February from Winston & Strawn and now spends “4.8″ days a week at the vineyard, doing everything from helping harvest the grapes to giving tours of the winery. “I’m the person with the most time,” he says. Earlier this month, Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard hosted its “first annual” grape stomp as a way to introduce the year’s new wines, show off the winery, and have some fun with those brave enough to roll up their pants and stain their toes purple. Overseeing the festivities with a bullhorn and a jaunty beret was James McKenna, and O’Donoghue grandchildren were stomping grapes and emptying buckets. The vineyard doesn’t actually turn those few cups of squished grapes into wine. From its actual system of picking, straining, smushing, and casking, the vineyard produces a selection of mostly red Bordeaux-style wines — merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and meritage — along with a few whites. The goal is to eventually produce 6,000 cases a year. These days, a few liquor stores in Maryland and the District sell the wine. In addition, some Maryland restaurants, including La Vieux Logis in Bethesda and Comus Inn in Dickerson, sell the wine by the glass. And of course, visitors to the vineyard can buy a few bottles or cases on the spot. This year’s drought, bad for most crops, was beneficial for the grapes, because a lack of water stresses the vines and makes the grapes sweeter and more intense. “This is a vintage year,” predicts McGarry. “They’re really good.”
Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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