John Irving Levenberg: The winemaker who loves working in the vineyards of Chesapeake Wine Country

John Irving Levenberg, Nueva Vista Consulting, listens to his clients and the microclimate they work with on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His partnerships with hardworking vineyards are paying off – turning up the perception that quality wines are coming out of our region and that a reputable Chesapeake Wine Country has been born.

When we meet winemaker John Irving Levenberg, on this rainy and cold afternoon in February in the winery of Crow Farm and Vineyards in the heart of the Chesapeake Wine Country, he is here to make sure the process is going according to plan for what will be wine made from last year’s grape harvest. John makes his home in Ohio but has been visiting the Eastern Shore of Maryland quite a lot in the last four years working consistently with a number of vineyards to develop distinctive wines.

John Irving Levenberg at Crow Farm and Vineyard Winery. Photo credit: Walter Bowie

John Irving Levenberg at Crow Farm and Vineyard Winery. Photo credit: Walter Bowie

This day he was inside the winery, but usually you can find him outside in the vineyard, which, according to John, is where the process for making great wine begins. As he says, “my job is out there – producing high quality grapes is the first step to producing great wine.” He explains that when the vineyard is first established, nearly all of his work is done there, which has surprised some of his clients. They were expecting a winemaker who was mostly interested in the end product. John has a more holistic approach to winemaking – there is no consulting from behind a desk. Instead, he works with the wineries through all the stages of vineyard management and winemaking and this is what he loves to do.

This approach is what got him into winemaking. His grandmother told him that it was important to listen when he was a child. And that is exactly what he does because he understands the winemaking process as organic… listening to the owner, winemaker and microclimate in the vineyard helps make a successful wine. Brandon Hoy, Crow Vineyards’ Vineyard Manager really values Levenberg’s listening methods. Says Hoy: “We heard John speak at an Upper Shore Regional Council Workshop that was designed for growers to learn more about winemaking. After his presentation, we knew he was what we were looking for. As a farm family it is our desire to learn how to make premium dry style wine to compliment the other parts of our agritourism business. John has been invaluable to helping us build our state of the art winery to achieve award winning wines so early in our business.”

John Irving Levenberg at Crow Farm and Vineyard Winery. Photo credit: Walter Bowie

John Irving Levenberg at Crow Farm and Vineyard Winery. Photo credit: Walter Bowie

John also speaks from experience. He started Nueva Vista Consulting in 2007 after 12 years of winemaking experience. In 1996, he completed his Master’s Program in Viticulture and Enology, and then spent seven years working for wineries in California, France, New Zealand and finally throughout the mid-Atlantic. He has won many prizes for his winemaking, including 100 point vines from Robert Parker and one of his wines has been rated by Wine Spectator as one of the three best wines in Bordeaux for the 2002 vintage. As a consultant, he specializes in winery development and premium production, working with both start-up and established wineries throughout the mid-Atlantic. Talking to John’s clients it is obvious that his skills to guide a new business from start to finish and his belief in the Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore region as a producer of high quality wines is very inspiring to them: “John’s passion and drive for seeing our region produce quality wine, along with his many years of winemaking experience from around the world, are helping to establish the area as a premier wine country. John is not just a winemaker but a steward of Maryland Wine. He can provide guidance from the day you start planning a vineyard through to the sales and marketing of wine and is deeply invested in seeing our region become world renowned,” says Mark Patrick from Clovelly Vineyards in Queen Anne’s County.

John consults for four wineries in the Chesapeake Wine Country. He tells us that his favorite thing about this area is that the people are real and very hardworking. For his clients to succeed he sets up a calendar, which they follow throughout the year. That approach paid off for his clients last summer when the area had a large amount of rain – John’s clients had followed the calendar of labor intensive tasks during the growing season, to maintain healthy canopies. He made biweekly visits during the spring, working with his clients to ensure they remained on schedule. The hard work paid off, as when the rain stopped the healthy fruit was able to benefit from the added days of sunlight. John’s clients had a good year and were able to harvest fully ripe and mature fruit. “I was very worried about the fruit quality, we had a lot of rain to contend with,” he says. “It is a testament to the work ethic of my clients that we were able to harvest ripe fruit,” he continues “had we not done the work in the vineyard, we would have been forced to harvest unripe fruit and the wines would not be of a quality we have today. His skills are at the same time bringing notoriety to Eastern Shore wines and the area itself with his clients. Just recently client Crow Vineyard won several Maryland Governor’s Cup awards including a Best of Class for their distinctive Rosé.

When asked about what John is hoping will be his biggest accomplishment in winemaking, his answer is that East Coast reds will be on par with the best reds in the world. He says that here on the Eastern Shore we are getting closer each year.

John has also learned some good winemaking lessons from working here on the Eastern Shore. Some wine varietals have surprised him since they are now showing well here compared to on the West Coast. When he worked in California he did not like barbera, nor cabernet franc, because they had a tendency to “flame out,” meaning develop sugar without tannin. He finds that these two varietals seem to be a good fit for the area. He thought these wines were too fruity on the West Coast, but with the East Coast background, from the work done in the vineyard and the microclimate, these wines are quickly becoming popular local varietals. This is part of why he likes working in the Chesapeake Wine Country, “You meet people that are grounded here, with backbones and a strong work ethic – you can taste that in the fruit.”

The local aspect is interesting for John. He would like more people to embrace local wines. According to him, right now is a unique time to become part of the local wine movement since it is still in its infancy. This means that when you visit a winery, it is easy to meet the people who are actually growing and making the wine. It is an opportunity, to become part of the movement. Says Levenberg: “People who join the movement now will be a part of a blossoming Chesapeake Wine Country on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

This article is brought to you by shorevines – an initiative supporting our growing wine country on the shore and a project sponsored by the Upper Shore Regional Council of MD.

Article Contact: Nanna Bailey Loblolly Productions nanna@loblolly.biz  

..