For the Love of the Farm
STORY AND PHOTOS BY NANCY L. SMITH | “WE STARTED THIS FOR THE LOVE OF THE FARM, NOT BECAUSE WE JUST LOVE WINE,” SAYS JENNIFER LAYTON OF LAYTON’S CHANCE VINEYARD AND WINERY THAT SHE AND HUSBAND WILLIAM OPERATE IN VIENNA, MARYLAND. THE BUSINESS IS A SUCCESS, BUT YEARS OF THOUGHT AND PREPARATION OCCURRED BEFORE THE FIRST POST HOLE WAS DUG.
The Layton family has farmed the land since the 1920s, starting as share croppers. William’s grandfather bought the property in the late 1940s.
When William returned to the farm in 2003, he, Jennifer and his parents needed to find a way for the farm to support two families. They weighed diversification options against a set of criteria including “which of these will put us in the best position 20 years from now?” William says.
Jennifer, who was completing an MBA at the time, wrote two business plans: one for the vineyard alone because “what if we get two years in and we don’t want to open a winery?” William explains, and another for the winery.
In 2005, they decided on a vineyard and “we took two years to convert the ground from growing grain to growing grapes to get the soil correct,” Jennifer says. By 2009, they were harvesting grapes and making wine.
It cost $12,000 to $13,000 per acre to plant grapes on the first two acres in 2007, including tile drainage, irrigation, vines and posts. Farm Credit handles the financing for the vineyard as well as the farm. Farm Credit handles the financing for the vineyard and farm, as well as writes the crop insurance for the vineyard. Loan officer Jim Newcomb reflects, “Adding the vineyard and grape rotations to the farm wasn’t a big issue for Farm Credit because of the credit history and management structure of this family. Starting the winery took a great deal of planning and talking through every detail.”
William learned wine making from several sources. “The University of Maryland has a grape researcher and I took his beginning grape grower class three times before I ever planted my first grape.” He also studied grape growing and wine making at Virginia Tech and Penn State.
He completed the wine making program of the University of California at Davis, the premier wine education center of the country. “It is really intensive, and it really taught me so much about wine making—the technical and scientific aspects of it,” he says.
The Maryland state viticulturist advised on best site selection, tile installation and varieties to plant. “We pretty much did everything he said to ensure our success because we literally bet the farm on this,” notes Jennifer.
Other winemakers shared their knowledge. Jennifer explains, “The way to sell more Maryland wine is to make more good Maryland wine no matter who makes it, so it’s in everyone’s interest to raise the quality.”
Last year, Layton’s Chance bottled 14,000 gallons of wine and employed 20 people, including five full time, among the farm, vineyard and winery.
The business plan envisioned on-site events. “Weekend days are booked with private events about 80 percent of the time,” says Jennifer. “We still have a lot of capacity for nighttime and weekdays.”
She adds, “Word of mouth is really our biggest advertiser, so creating an experience at a destination is really important for us. That is what gives somebody a reason to talk about us on social media.”
The Laytons also do about 20 off-site wine festival events annually, but Jennifer says, “We would rather do more events closer to us and we’re looking at ones that aren’t even wine related because sometimes it’s better to be at a music festival as the wine vendor than to go where you’re giving free tastings and you’re one of 20 wineries.”
William agrees, “We are very much an agritourism business. We are a destination. I make a bottle of wine that people want to come here and enjoy.” Jennifer concludes, “The goal would be to sell more here. If we were at capacity, we could quit doing other [offsite] things and bring more here and increase our profitability.”
The winery’s name was suggested by William’s aunt Sylvia Bradley, a retired Salisbury University history professor. He explains, “Layton’s Chance was a piece of property that my ancestor owned in Dorchester County in 1709.
“We liked it because it had that connection to our family history but also it made sense because it was a big chance that we were taking here.” •