County Roots: Lauren Zimmerman
by Nicole Bergot-Browning
Long before Prince Edward County was known as an emerging wine capital, Lauren Zimmerman was already plotting her future as a vintner. She’d sneak sips from her mom and grandfather’s home brew, and pop grapes into her mouth during dog walks through the Chardonnay vineyard across the street from where she grew up in Wellington. By the time she landed a job picking grapes at newly opened Huff Estates in 2003, the wine bug had bit. “I saw them – Huff Estates, The Grange and Carmela Estates (now Casa Dea) – plant their first vines,” she writes in an email. She still has a bottle of a Huff Estates 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, and she doubts she’ll ever open it. “I helped grow the vines that produced that award wining wine… it’s cool to be a part of that.”
It was her mom, probably wise to her sneaky sips, who encouraged her to enroll in the Winemaking and Viticulture Technician program at Niagara College, where she learned the art of winemaking. After graduation she moved back to Wellington and took a job as winemaker at Hillier Creek Estates. She was there for two years until the Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand called to her, and she took a job at major wine label, Coopers Creek, on the North Island. Eventually Zimmerman was ready to have her own grapes to cultivate and she moved back to the county, where she and a partner purchased property on the corner of Danforth Road and County Road 33 in Hillier, what was becoming the heart of wine country in the county. With help from her family, they hand planted 5000 vines of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Marquette grapes. Four tough years of farming, maintenance and business building followed, and at 27 years old she decided she was not yet ready to be tied down. She sold her stake, and the property eventually became The Traynor Family Vineyard.
In 2011 she met an American musician and moved south of the border to Maryland, where she still lives. “I couldn’t resist his southern accent and fell deeply in love with him and with Maryland,” she writes. No stranger to emerging wine scenes, she embraced the evolving wine culture there, working at Port of Leonardtown Winery as a winemaker. One of only two cooperative wineries in the US, it is owned and operated by 12 Maryland grape growers who work together to produce wines under one label. Zimmerman calls this a blessing and a curse. “The challenge,” she writes “is keeping track of each lot and deciding the optimal time to harvest each variety.” Whereas most winemakers only have to walk out into their vineyard to check on their grapes, Zimmerman has 12 growers to negotiate the optimal harvest time. That’s the hard part; the bright side, for a winemaker, is pretty exciting. “Working with so many vineyards and grape varieties, I have endless blending options,” she writes. “It’s a guaranteed recipe for some phenomenal blends.” And the range of wine styles is broad as well, from sweet and fruity to big, bold and dry. “With 20 different wine products in our tasting room, we have something for everyone.”
Before moving south, Zimmerman always looked to the American winemakers with envy – after all, they don’t have the months of deep freeze to deal with, nor the hard work of protecting the vines by hilling up after harvest each fall. But as she has learned, the grapes aren’t always greener on the other side, and each wine region has its own difficulties. This past week, concerned about Hurricane Matthew causing havoc, grape growers along the eastern seaboard picked grapes earlier than they would’ve liked. This time they got lucky, and Matthew bypassed Maryland, but in 2011 Hurricane Irene destroyed the majority of red grape varieties there, “it was devastating,” Zimmerman writes.
Whereas the county climate with its low humidity favours Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, these mildew sensitive varieties don’t do well in humid Maryland. So Zimmerman sticks to bigger, bolder reds like Merlot and Malbec, grapes that thrive in the longer, hotter growing season. “The Spanish Vinifera Albarino is a thick skin grape that does exceptionally well in Maryland’s hot, humid climate,” she writes.
In Prince Edward County 95 percent of the wine Zimmerman made was dry. In Maryland, however, sweeter, easy sipping wines are popular. “Maryland’s population is extremely diverse with a combination of country folks who prefer sweeter wines, and the larger metropolitan population who enjoy more premium styles,” she explains. “We have to cater to both casual and wine connoisseurs alike.”
She comes back to the county frequently to visit family and friends and is excited by the explosive growth happening here. “Every time I visit I hear about a new winery or restaurant opening,” she writes. “I used to know every winery along with the name of the owners and winemakers, but now there are a lot I haven’t visited yet.” All the more reason to come back.