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Mark Cascia - A Grape Perspective: A Gold Medal-Winning Vintner
Goddard systems engineer and vintner Mark Cascia lives by the expression, “If you want to make a small fortune in the wine business, start with a large one.” From 1991–1993, Cascia worked in Toulouse, France. He arrived in France a beer drinker but, after visiting “almost every wine region in France,” he left a confirmed wine connoisseur. Once back home, he began making wine from concentrate, which he describes as “pretty awful looking stuff though surprisingly tasty.”

In 1998, Cascia and his wife Kimberly bought a 17th century house on 20 acres on Kent Island and started a twelve acre vineyard. Says Cascia, “I am the first person to grow grapes on Kent Island and one of the first to do so on the Eastern Shore.” Everyone told him it was impossible to grow grapes there, but Cascia became a pioneer in the fledgling Maryland wine industry. “My wife insisted on the name ‘Mark Cascia Vineyards.’ She believes that all good vineyards have two names,” explains Cascia, “as, for example ‘Robert Mondavi.’”

Mark and Kimberly Cascia at their vineyard on Kent Island, MD.› Larger image
Mark and Kimberly Cascia in their vineyard and in front of their barn which houses the tasting room. Credit: M. Cascia
Planting their vineyard proved to be both challenging and amusing. A friend’s young child, who now assists in negotiating nuclear proliferation treaties, insisted on planting the vines upside down because “they looked better that way.” Cascia and his wife now do almost all of the work themselves.

Explains Cascia, “It takes about four to five years after planting to get something, if you get anything. Then you find out about birds and deer.” His first harvest in 2001 did not yield much. Cascia was stranded on the west coast due to the events of 9/11, which coincided with harvest time. Although his wife kept telling him that their vineyard looked like the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” he thought she was just exaggerating. Cascia now admits that his wife was right. We are on the migratory path of lots of birds. They ate seven tons of grapes that week. The deer ate most of the rest.”

The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes growing at the vineyard. The Cascia vineyard circa 2009
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The Cabernet Sauvignon grape growing at the Cascia vineyard. Credit: M. Cascia
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The Cascia vineyard circa 2009. Credit: M. Cascia

Cascia wound up harvesting just enough grapes to fill a few tubs but found that his wife and two daughters Greer and Mia were too light to crush the grapes. “So I hopped in and was able to crush the grapes,” remembers Cascia. “It was exhausting. It’s like slogging in heavy, deep snow. It’s not at all easy like in the infamous ‘I Love Lucy’ episode.” What little wine he produced “turned out very nicely.”

Mark and Greer on the tractor circa 1999.› Larger image
Mark and Greer, his daughter, circa 1999, ride the tractor around the vineyards. Credit: M. Cascia
In 2002, Cascia bought $2,000 worth of bird scare devices which, though effective in discouraging the migratory birds, did little to move the resident bird population. “The residential birds were so aggressive,” says Cascia, “that some of them actually landed on my shoulders. So each day I had to go out at sunrise and again at sundown and drive around on my tractor like a madman shrieking at the top of my lungs at these birds to scare them away.”

In 2005, he obtained all the necessary winemaker’s licenses. That year, he made a Bordeaux blend called Queen Anne’s Reserve using a cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, and malbec all from his own grapes. He released this wine in 2009, entered it in the Maryland Governor’s Cup Wine Competition that year, and won a Gold Medal. In 2009, both his 2005 nebbiolo and his 2003 zinfandel won Silver Medals.

Cascia sold his first bottle in May 2008 at the Chesapeake Wine Festival on Kent Island. Concludes Cascia, “My wife and I do this as a big hobby now with our daughters. We get a lot of enjoyment producing something we can enjoy and share with others. We also want something to pass on to our kids.”

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Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.