“Basically, I was a wine geek,” Roberts said.
He used his writing skills to apply, and was accepted, for an apprenticeship at his favorite winery, Chateau Montelena, a Napa Valley winery that won the white wine section of the historic Judgment of Paris wine competition.
According to the company’s website, Chateau Montelena in 1976 “helped put California at the forefront of the wine world. That year, a who’s who of the French wine and food establishment gathered for a grand tasting at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Paris.”
Chateau Montelena’s victory was fictionalized in “Bottle Shock,” a 2008 film.
Roberts later took a job running a publishing program at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. That’s where he met Grabania, who was a museum curator at the time.
The couple worked in Pittsburgh for roughly 15 years while they dreamed of owning a vineyard.
In 1996, they bought 8 acres in Garrett County and started the winery the following year.
“We bought it for the hillside,” he said of the property with an elevation of 2,100 feet.
They continued working in Pittsburgh during the week and tended to the winery on weekends.
Their daughter, Ava, was born in 2000. About a year later, the family built and moved into a house on a high point in the winery.
They added a wine tasting room three years later, around the time that Roberts was president of the Maryland Wine Association.
Today, Deep Creek Cellars produces 10,000 bottles of wine per year and is one of a few Maryland wineries that has a distributor.
“It’s the perfect arrangement,” Roberts said of working with Baltimore-based Bacchus Importers LTD. The distributor regularly delivers products to businesses in the Deep Creek Lake area, a popular resort destination. Then it collects wine from Deep Creek Cellars to distribute in Baltimore.
The winery has worked with other companies in the state, too, and has been using all Maryland fruit since 2005.
The winery’s vineyard is 2.5 acres and grows four varieties. About 20 percent of the grapes come from Deep Creek Cellars’ own vineyards.
Most of their grapes come from Bear Hill Vineyard in nearby Oldtown, including pinot noir, pinot grigio, pinot blanc and cabernet franc grapes.
Roberts ferments the grapes using natural yeast that grows on the fruit.
He also avoids using filtration.
“A filter makes it squeaky clean, but it also takes the soul out of the wine. … We settle (the wine) by gravity,” he said. “We’re trying to make a pure expression of the grape with as little intervention as possible. We’re making almost completely dry, handmade artisanal products.”
That’s not easy. The winery is located in an area of the state where winters can get very cold. Roberts originally planted cabernet franc and chardonnay grapes, but the chardonnay were not cold hardy enough and died. He ended up planting a Frontenac grape, which is very cold hardy.
Also, grapes, which are pollinated by the wind and not bees, are “the most difficult thing in the world to grow,” he said.
“This is one of the windiest places on the planet,” he said, adding that the air flow helps reduce fungal problems in the vineyard.
Grape diseases such as black rot, downy mildew, powdery mildew, Phomopsis cane and anthracnose can also cause problems.
A constant effort is required to keep deer away from the grape vines. During the growing season, Roberts gets up before dawn and starts patrolling his vineyards to drive away the deer.
“I run them off,” he said.
While they employ two people, the couple still do most of the work.
“It’s literally a mom and pop business. … Sometimes we’re bottling wine and people drive up,” he said. “Customers want the people who made the wine actually pouring it.”
The wine business tends to attract a variety of people who want a unique experience, Roberts said.
“That’s exciting,” he said. “Wine is such a great expression of culture and history.”
Grabania said the winery gets more visits from large groups today than when it opened. Deep Creek Cellars now requires appointments for groups of five or more people.
“All sorts of interesting people have come through,” she said, adding that her husband is the backbone of the business and its success.
“I can take no credit for anything other than support work in what we do,” she said.
Now that he’s achieved two decades of winemaking expertise, Roberts said that he might take on a new venture.
“We’re trying to decide whether to start a small distillery,” he said. “I think it would be well received.”