The folks at Robin Hill Farm and Vineyards in Brandywine (southeastern Prince George’s County; click here to see their listing in our Food & Drink Business Directory), plan to open their wine-tasting room to the public this coming October. I went there on June 7th to interview Susan Watson White and her husband Bob White about the plans for the new business.
As I drove the 11 miles from my home to Robin Hill, I passed Janemark Winery & Vineyard, as well as Romano Vineyard and Winery. Gemeny Winery & Vineyards is only 7.6 miles (as the crow flies) from Robin Hill, and just 3.9 miles from my house. All four wineries have a Brandywine address, due in part to this being a fairly rural area, so the Brandywine Post Office covers a lot of territory. Click here to see them all mapped in our Food & Drink Business Directory.
Susan’s parents, Russel (now deceased) and Shirley Watson, bought the farm in 1955. Over the years they grew tobacco, raised pigs, and had a tree nursery. For a while, they also had a pumpkin patch and fall festival. Since 2014, the family have run an event-hosting business for weddings, receptions, corporate events, etc. The vineyards were first planted in 2014. Click here to see a more complete history of the farm on their website.
The winery and vineyard business is a partnership between a pair of spouses: Susan Watson White (daughter of Russel and Shirley Watson) & Bob White, and Shelby Watson Hampton & Wade Hampton, who are also partners in the event-hosting business (you can see them all in the photo at the beginning of this article). In addition to the spousal relationships, the ladies Watson are Aunt (Susan) and Niece (Shelby). Susan and Bob work on the farm full-time. Shelby works days as Director of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission (she also maintains the social media presence for the vineyard). Wade’s day job is as a Conservation Planner at the Prince George’s County Soil Conservation District.
The farm covers 70 acres, of which 4.5 acres are planted in grapes. So, each partner has about an acre of vineyard to oversee. Currently, they have planted Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Vidal blanc, Chardonel, Chambourcin, and most recently, Chenin blanc.
Learning to make wine
The first question I asked when I sat down to chat with Susan and Bob (Shelby and Wade were unable to join us), was “where did you learn to make wine?” Susan said that in 2013 she went to a winemaking workshop, which is where she first met Bob.
Bob said he first made wine (“unofficially”) as a teen in upstate New York, with elderberries, wild fruits and grapes. In 1990 he bought a home wine-making kit, and went on from there. His wines started winning awards in the mid-‘90s. After a 30+ year career in the Coast Guard, he settled on a 12-acre farm in Manchester, MD, where he had his own vineyards.
Bob was eventually hired as a consultant to Robin Hill. Sometime along the way, Susan and Bob fell in love. Bob sold his farm in Manchester and moved to Southern Maryland. They were married just a year ago.
Robin Hill wines
When we started our interview, Susan and Bob’s first question to me was, “would you like to try some of our wine?” Silly question. Of course! So the three of us shared a bottle while we talked, with Bob pouring.
What was it? Well, I agreed not to reveal any of the names of the wines (they may change one or more of the names before they open for business), but I can tell you this bottle was a mixture of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Chambourcin — their “top of the line” offering. Bob said he looks forward to competing it. I thought it was a great bottle, and wished I could have brought some home with me. Their four red wines feature some combination of two or three of those grapes. So, unlike many other Southern Maryland wineries, you won’t be able to get a bottle of just Chambourcin here.
The sweet wines will include a red, a white, and a blush. Their dry white wines use Chardonel and Vidal Blanc grapes. The remainder are dry reds. At this time, they’re not bringing in any grapes or juice from elsewhere, but when/if they do, they plan to try and source them from within Maryland.
The buildings for making and tasting the wine are still under construction. A restored tobacco barn (the large central building in the picture below) is used for wine production. It has a new roof and metal exterior. Inside, they have kept some of the original old planks from the barn.
The lower roofed section in front of the barn on the right side is all new construction. The roof covers the area where the grapes are pressed. The structure was purchased from R&D Cross, and built by R&D Cross and a crew of Amish workers from St. Mary’s County. If you visit, checkout the weather vanes on the three roof-top cupolas: each has an Amish horse-and-buggy for a finial — a trademark of the Amish who helped in the construction.
The low building on the left consists of two parts. The building itself is the tasting room, also purchased from R&D Cross, who built it (again with help from an Amish crew). The wrap-around porch for the tasting room was then built by Linear Deck and Fence. Susan and Bob said that the greatest challenge they face between now and the October opening is finishing the interior construction.
Help & Cooperation
Robin Hill Farm and Vineyards has gotten advice from others who’ve already been through starting a winery. Fortunately, Susan and Bob said they are on great terms with the three other wineries in the neighborhood. They spoke highly of the Romanos (of Romano Vineyard and Winery), who were the wine-business trailblazers in Prince George’s County. Susan and Bob even had the opportunity to work in the Romano vineyards, which helped them learn how the Romanos care for their vines.
Robin Hill also joined the Maryland Grape Growers Association and the Maryland Wineries Association. Bob and Susan both have said they found the associations very helpful. Those organizations provide such things as field days, workshops, seminars, cooperative purchasing, marketing, and lobbying services. They said that Kevin Atticks, Executive Director of the Maryland Wineries Association, has been especially responsive and helpful.
Once Robin Hill opens
When the construction is finished, they plan to have tasting hours from noon until 6 PM on weekends. While they won’t offer food, guests will be able to bring their own, which is a common practice at other wineries. Visitors will also be able to view the vineyards and farm animals. They don’t anticipate conflicts with their wedding business, as it is based in another section of the farm. Also, those events typically take place in the evening, after the tasting room will have closed.
If all goes according to plan, they expect to make 1,500 to 2,000 gallons of wine this year. When asked where they’d like to be in three to five years, they thought for a minute. Bob replied that he thinks they’d like to be making about 5,000 gallons in five years. ♦