A crash course in winemaking was required of Damon Callis during the courtship of his wife, Georgia.
Her dad, Anthony—a Greek immigrant—demonstrated his process for making wine to Damon Callis and, through the years, his proclivity for sharing it with family and friends.
“He was like, ‘Ask your boyfriend to come over,’ and we made wine,” Callis said Wednesday. “It was a rite of passage to date his daughter. It was tradition.”
Over the past two years, the couple have worked to turn that tradition into a business. The Urban Winery, their tasting room and wine production center in Silver Spring’s Fenton Village neighborhood, is set to open next week on Bonifant Street.
The couple made wines out of their Silver Spring home for 15 years, entering competitions and gradually improving to the point where wine-making became more than a family hobby.
The brick-and-mortar concept required a year-long renovation of 949 Bonifant St., a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $10,000 for specialized equipment and state legislation to allow for an urban winery model in Montgomery County.
“It was all a fantasy,” Damon Callis said Wednesday. “The hobby turned into a passion, the passion turned into a business plan and the business plan turned into what we created.”
The Urban Winery is conducting a soft opening this week and will open officially June 11.
Starting July 1, when the state law that allows for a “Class D” alcohol license goes into effect, The Urban Winery will expand its list of wines from the five homemade vintages it offers now. Other wines, including cabernet sauvignons and merlots (The Urban Winery doesn’t produce those varieties), will be brought in.
The winery has a front tasting room, windows into the production room, laboratory space and a barrel room. Callis will use Hungarian oak barrels and customers can venture into the production space to watch the entire process unfold.
The winery will offer a food menu that includes cheeses, charcuterie, Maryland crab cake and pulled pork sandwiches, Greek meatballs, salads and eventually soups.
It will host wine tasting classes and talks from other winemakers. Groups of up to eight people can come in to devise and produce their own wines, going through the entire process.
About two months after an initial session, after the wines have fermented, those customers can return to bottle and label their own wines.
The tasting room at The Urban Winery. Credit: The Urban Winery
Callis gets grapes from wine-growing regions around the world delivered to the Silver Spring space for production, a model that was the norm for wineries in the country’s biggest cities before Prohibition.
As wine soared in popularity in the 1960s and ’70s, it became tied to vineyards and farm-based tasting rooms in country chateaus. In the last 15 years, urban wineries have made a comeback, following on the heels of the craft beer boom.
To make an urban winery a reality in Montgomery County, Callis had to get some help from local state legislators.
District 20 Dels. Sheila Hixson, David Moon and Will Smith, state Sen. Jamie Raskin and District 39 Del. Charles Barkley were among those who helped pass House Bill 202 in this year’s General Assembly.
The bill, one of a handful of alcohol-related laws affecting only Montgomery County that had to be drawn up in Annapolis, allows the sale of beer and light wine for on-premise or carry-out consumption—as long as the winery produces no more than 20,000 gallons annually.
Callis said the law was necessary to allow for a winery tasting room without the traditional agricultural component.
In December, Callis set up an online Kickstarter campaign to raise money for some of the more expensive production equipment, including tanks and air conditioning units used for climate control during the fermentation process.
The effort raised more than $10,000 from about 60 contributors in 30 days.
“I was six months in to building the place. So that was really an awesome validation that this community was interested in this,” Callis said.
“I think [Silver Spring] challenges Bethesda in many ways and I would say that the energy level here is on pace to becoming that foodie haven,” Callis said. “I just want to uphold those expectations and provide for my own community.”