by Karen Gardner
The beginnings of The Rusty Nail Winery are as incongruous as its name.
“This started as a joke,” said Shelly Crate. Her husband, Michael, was joking with a co-worker about working long hours for low pay, and the co-worker suggested starting a winery. Mike took the idea and ran with it.
“As soon as I threw out the name ‘Rusty Nail,’ the logo was already in my head,” Mike said. Shelly, a graphic designer, turned his vision into a label, and the winery was born.
Four years later, their 5½ -acre farm at 4099 Shepherdstown Road, between Martinsburg and Shepherdstown, hosts wine tastings Friday evenings, Saturdays and Sundays, with the wine that Mike and Shelly create.
Currently, they source grapes from New York and West Virginia, but they have planted 168 Niagara grapevines, which will be ready for winemaking in three to five years. They also have a few Concord grapevines.
The timetable has been pretty quick, considering Mike didn’t even drink wine until six years ago. Shelly liked to sample wines at wineries in nearby Virginia and Maryland, but Mike didn’t think he liked wine until he agreed to try a sample. Turned out, he liked the wine much more than he expected. So when his co-worker suggested starting a winery, it didn’t take much persuading.
Today, the co-worker isn’t involved, except as moral support. The Crates, however, spend each evening after work and weekends making wine, bottling it, getting the storage tanks ready and doing all the other things associated with running a small, successful winery. They opened for tastings and sales last spring, and each week, they’ve seen steady improvement in sales.
The couple converted part of the barn on their property into a workshop and tasting room. Customers can sit at picnic tables in warmer weather and bring food to enjoy along with the wine. The winery is family and dog-friendly, and customers can also visit with the couple’s two Percheron horses.
Before they opened, the Crates visited wineries around the region to see what wines were featured. They decided to focus on wines from Frontenac vines, a type of grape rarely seen in this area. They buy the juice from a New York winery.
“We traveled to Minnesota to see a grapevine that will withstand harsh winters,” Shelly said. “It’s unique. You might not taste these grapes at another winery around here.” They visited a winery in Wisconsin that featured the wine, and learned about its positive qualities.
This area’s latitude is similar to that of winegrowing regions of Italy, which makes it ideal for growing grapes, although occasional subzero temperatures make it harder to grow grapes used in traditional Italian wines.
As the winery expands, the couple plans to add in Frontenac grapevines along with the Niagara. They have planted about a quarter of their 2-acre front field in grapes, and plan to add to that in the next few years. Eventually, they plan to expand into their back fields as well.
“This is a small venture,” Shelly said. “We both work full-time.” Mike is an outside sales consultant for a Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, industrial firm, while Shelly does graphic design and works for the Washington County, Maryland, Housing Authority.
Friends and family often help with the bottling. They recently bottled 100 gallons of wine, and several friends willingly lent their time to help with the process. While testing the wine for sweetness, the couple’s friend, Tina Cavanaugh, often serves as a tiebreaker. Sometimes Shelly and Mike disagree about whether the wine needs more or less sweetness, and ask for Cavanaugh’s opinion. “She usually sides with me,” Shelly said with a laugh. Cavanaugh often brings her dog, Molly, who willingly serves as the winery’s mascot, along with the Percherons.
Most of the Rusty Nail wines are on the sweeter side of the spectrum, although not overly sweet, Shelly said. Wines are made with Frontenac, Diamond, Delaware, Chancellor and DeChaunac grapes. There are red and white wines. They do produce a couple of semi-dry wines. They also make wines from apples and pears, using locally grown whenever possible. They make a summer Chardonnay with coconut and lime that has proven to be popular.
The wines are aged in glass carboys, which they have bought from other wineries that started small and are expanding. “We don’t oak anything,” Shelly said. “We’re not a fan of the oaking. We like crisp, clean-tasting fruit in our wine.”
The couple decided to make wine that they like. “We don’t have anything super dry,” Shelly said. “There are a wide range of wineries, and we’ve done ours to our taste.” Some of their featured wines are Loralei, a soft, semi-sweet red, and Devil’s Punch, a combination of Frontenac and Chambourcin grapes.
The Rusty Nail Winery is already planning to expand. “We’ve outgrown our production area,” she said. The side of the barn that houses the tasting room and production area is already getting too small, so they are looking to add on.
They thought Rusty Nail was a unique name to wineries, but there is a similarly-named winery in Oklahoma. But The Rusty Nail Winery is one of only two in the Eastern Panhandle, so the Crates hope they are filling a niche. They plan to showcase their wine this summer at one or more area wine festivals.
The Rusty Nail Winery
4099 Shepherdstown Winery, Martinsburg WV
Open 6-9 p.m. Fridays, noon-9 p.m. Saturdays, noon-8 p.m. Sundays