Doris Behnke: The gifted farmer who brings her wine into town in Chesapeake Wine Country

Synopsis:
Doris Behnke, farmer and vineyard owner, together with her husband Eric have opened a Wine Tasting Room and Gift Shop in the town of North East instead of at their vineyard. A unique debut for our growing Chesapeake Wine Country.

Article by: Nanna Bailey, loblolly.biz
Photos taken by: Walter and Lotte Bowie, loblolly.biz

We meet Doris Behnke, owner of Turkey Point Vineyard along with her husband Eric, on a Friday afternoon in their newly opened Wine Tasting Room and Gift Shop on Main Street in North East. Doris and Eric have brought their wines in to town to support their vineyard, while many other local vineyards have their tasting room located on their property where they grow their grapes. As Doris explains: ‘Our business model is to take our wine to the customers. Eric and I wanted the opportunity to meet all of the people that visit our wonderful town of North East. There is high foot traffic, and we thought that it would be worth the overhead to gain walk-in traffic.’

From the beginning Doris has done it her own way when it comes to farming. She grew up in a dairy farming family where she watched her family struggle to make ends meet. She attended the University of Maryland College Park campus to study General Agriculture, hoping to find a way to make the farming life better. Through working with professors in the Plant Sciences Department while attending the University, she learned a few things that her father was able to apply to the farm, making his life easier and in turn, better. After graduating, and for a time working with her father, she left the family farm to start a career and raise a family, putting a hold on starting her own agricultural business. In 2007, her husband Eric saw an article in the Sunday Baltimore Sun explaining that Maryland Wineries needed more grape growers in the state. They then decided to start growing grapes, and today they have five acres in production with another two forthcoming.

The change from vineyard to winery for the Behnkes has always been a dream of theirs, but it also had to do with economics. According to Eric: ‘Growing grapes is a commodity business, with very slim margins. Until you get very large in scale, probably 20+ acres, you can't really make a living by growing grapes. It's more of a partial living or a hobby. Becoming a winery introduces a new level of risk, investment necessary and potential return’. And Doris adds that ‘Opening a winery completes the overall challenging efforts of being a successful vineyard.’

photo (r): Doris and Eric Behnke outside the Wine Tasting Room and Gift Shop in North East
photos taken by: Walter and Lotte Bowie, loblolly.biz

Doris and Eric both have fulltime jobs apart from growing grapes, and when it came time to evolve their vineyard to a winery, they entered a business relationship with Dave Collins, the VP and Wine Maker of Big Cork Vineyards in Frederick, Maryland. Big Cork had purchased grapes from Turkey Point Vineyard in the past and they developed a good working relationship. As Eric notes: ‘He made some award winning wines with our grapes under his label, so we knew that he was good’. Doris states, ‘ For us this has been a great arrangement, Dave is an awesome mentor to us and has been able to provide us with the necessary guidance that we need to help establish our business; the agricultural sector could really benefit from more mentoring relationships like the one we have with Dave.’

As Dave Collins notes, ‘Eric and Doris Behnke have emerged as true leaders in the Maryland Wine Industry. I first met them two and a half years ago in their meticulous vineyard in Cecil County as I was seeking the finest Maryland grapes for my own new winery. From my first step in their vineyard, I knew they were groomed for success. The arrow-straight rows, the perfectly groomed vines and the meticulous trellis construction were perfect evidence of quality minded growers. My first wines from their vineyard have yielded multiple awards from Maryland and the entire country. Unfortunately, the following year they decided to open their own winery and I wasn’t able to use all of their grapes. I was, however, privileged to assist in making wines for their new winery located in the quant town of North East, Maryland.’

The Behnke family is still very much involved in the wine making process: they grow and maintain the grapes in the vineyard throughout the growing season; they hand harvest the grapes; load them into a rented truck and deliver them to the winery in Frederick. At the winery they sort the grapes on the sorting table, then crush the grapes and pump the wine into tanks. They purchase and clean out wine barrels from France, design the labels, pick out their bottle types and help make tasting decisions that determine the “style” of the wine they want to sell from their winery and then they complete their winery work by bottling their wine using a mobile bottling truck before trucking the wine back to North East.

The next step was opening the tasting room in the town of North East, but that turned out not to be a straightforward task. First the Behnkes had to get the town code changed to be able to serve alcohol in an area close to schools and churches. It was a six-month process where the Behnkes received invaluable help from Kevin Atticks, Executive Director of Maryland Wineries Association. They succeeded and the Tasting Room and Gift Shop opened on May 1st of this year.

Kevin Atticks, Executive Director Maryland Wineries Association notes, ‘The Behnkes have a unique business model ...its totally vertical ...they are expert growers and now they are Main Street retailers. They are hand-selling their wines to customer interested to taste the latest Maryland wine to debut.’

Even with this new business venture Doris and Eric are still keeping the family farm in mind – the bar in the tasting room is made with wood from Turkey Point Vineyard barns. From this bar, customers now enjoy their tasting of the Turkey Point Merlot, Rose, Chardonnay, Vidal Blanc and a Late Harvest Vidal Dessert Wine. At the same time daughter Jessica and son Alex are both part of the family business, helping to make it what it is today. According to Doris ‘The family goal is to produce the best wines that we are capable of making, and we are always interested in becoming better educated and more experienced and skilled at what we do.’ Eric adds, ‘We don't really have any super words of wisdom here, but we work hard and try to produce the best quality raw product (wine grapes) from which we try to make the best quality wine. It's paying attention to the details, and experience. We're not perfect, but we're getting better and better every year.’

That also sums up how Eric and Doris see the potential for a Chesapeake Wine Country: ‘The region has all the correct raw materials for success: Good ground, beautiful farms, reasonable growing conditions and lots of customers anxious to experience Wineries.’

The Turkey Point Tasting Room and Gift Shop have been well received according to Doris: ‘We hear lots of positive comments and wishes of good luck. From people who enter the shop and didn't know that we were there, we get a pleasant surprised reaction and questions about the vineyard and when can they come see it! From all of the locals, family and friends we get the comment that they are so excited for us and they are proud of what we have done with the family farm.’

This article is brought to you by shorevines – an initiative supporting our growing Chesapeake Wine Country on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and a project sponsored by the Upper Shore Regional Council.

Learn more, support the movement visit:
shorevines
chesapeakewinecountrymd.com
Upper Shore Regional Council of Maryland

Contact Doris and Eric Behnke at 410-287-9463 and see more info about Turkey Point Vineyard and the Wine Tasting Room and Gift Shop here

Photos taken by: Walter and Lotte Bowie, loblolly.biz

Second photo: Doris Behnke working in her vineyard. Doris is a farmer, a horticulturist, and the Faculty Extension Assistant for Agriculture and Natural Resources and Master Gardener Coordinator at the University of Maryland.

Third photo: Doris with husband Eric, daughter Jessica and son Alex.

Fourth photo: Turkey Point wines which are being served in the Tasting Room. Turkey Point Merlot, Rose, Chardonnay, Vidal Blanc and a Late Harvest Vidal Dessert Wine.