High Spirits: Casa Carmen Winery
The Pallares brothers’ journey from professional polo to winemaking
Brothers Enrique and Felipe Pallares are combining the competitive drive that led them to become professional polo players with the entrepreneurial spirit passed down by their pioneering predecessors in an effort to create world-class wine on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The duo, both in their early 30s, are the driving force behind the Casa Carmen boutique winery based just outside of Chestertown. Joining in their efforts are sister Maca Olsen and Enrique’s wife Laura.
Then, there’s Casa Carmen’s winemaker John Levenberg. The Pallares brothers describe Levenberg as more than just a consultant, he is a partner in Casa Carmen whose picture tops the winery’s leadership listing on the website.
“The only way of making world-class wine,” said Enrique in an interview at his home and the base of Casa Carmen’s operations, “is by having world-class knowledge.”
“That’s what John brings,” Felipe added.
And top quality offerings are just what the Pallares brothers seek to produce in a venture that is the realization of their long-shared dream, turning their love of wine into a business. Producing wines just like the others already occupying shelf space in stores is not what they have in mind for Casa Carmen.
“One of the things that we always talk about, I think, is that we grew up drinking really, really good wine. And if we were going to make wine, we were going to make that quality of wine. Otherwise, honestly for us it would be better to just work in something else and buy good wine,” Enrique said.
Enrique said that while the family members involved all hold titles, it’s really more about all of them working together. That holds especially true for the two brothers, with older brother Enrique leading the company, heading up planning, and younger brother Felipe overseeing the operations and agricultural side.
“It’s funny because the winery is a little bit just like a reflection of how our personal relationship is, with Felipe and me. For us, it’s very natural to have this kind of relationship where we know which one does certain things better. We grew up playing a lot and fighting a lot. We know exactly what the other’s strengths are,” Enrique said.
The Pallares family hails from Ecuador. They moved to the United States about 15 years ago.
Felipe said he has spent half his life at this point in the states.
“But the accent won’t go away,” Enrique quipped.
They have moved and traveled quite a bit, during their time as polo players and as they began to transition into winemaking.
They also launched a polo business, Pallares Polo Inc. in Florida in their early 20s, providing training, logistics, equipment, players and horses.
Not surprisingly to wine connoisseurs, they went to California’s Sonoma Valley and worked in a vineyard. Felipe studied viticulture there. Enrique’s education came more from maintaining vines, pruning and pulling leaves — “just learning the dirty part of the job in some ways.” he said.
So how did these two former polo players with thousands of miles under their feet land in Kent County on a historic property just outside of Chestertown?
“The answer for us is kind of like everybody. Kind of serendipitously,” Enrique said. “One of the cool things about this area is how there really are people from all walks of life who have somehow ended up here.”
Residing in Annapolis, Enrique and Laura were considering a move to Ecuador unless they could, as Enrique described it, continue living in the United States “in a really special way and a really special place.”
In late 2016, the couple found nearly 6.5 acres with a historic home and a partially restored two-story brick structure in the back — the old almshouse — half of which remains in ruins. For Enrique, this was the opportunity for him and Felipe to realize their dream.
“I was all onboard with it,” said Felipe, who was living in Florida and had already been mulling a move. “So, it was kind of like the right time as well when we found the place and decided to go through with the project we had always talked about.”
This was not the first site they scoped out. The brothers had looked at launching a winery in California. They also spent endless hours looking for properties in Argentina and Spain.
Enrique said they started to learn more about Maryland’s wine industry. For him the entrepreneurship among wineries here felt akin to the pioneering spirit passed down from his father’s side of the family.
“His grandmother was the first women to have a textile factory in Ecuador, and this was when women didn’t work,” Enrique said.
Through their research of the Maryland industry, the Pallares brothers learned about fellow entrepreneurs like Black Ankle Vineyards in Mount Airy and Crow Vineyard and Winery, like Casa Carmen located in Kent County.
Their efforts also led them to Levenberg.
“We were really encouraged by some of these more pioneering pioneers,” Enrique said. “I eventually found John’s name and then it was a little bit love at first sight. When we met, we just really agreed with the perspective of what wine should be and what kinds of wines we wanted to make together.”
Levenberg spent nearly a decade in wineries in California, France and New Zealand, according to the Casa Carmen website.
“He is responsible for the first L’Absolut de Quinault (Bordeaux, France), rated by Wine Spectator as one of the three best wines in Bordeaux for the 2002 vintage. As former winemaker at Paul Hobbs Winery in California, John produced 23 wines rated 90+ points by Robert Parker, including a 100-point wine,” the website states.
A 2017 profile in Palate Press speaks to how Levenberg’s efforts over the past 12 years or so have shifted to crafting great wine on the East Coast.
“It’s interesting though because I think that there’s no doubt that growing grapes on the East Coast is a challenge — that it is more challenging than in California in the same way that growing grapes in Bordeaux is much more challenging than in southern France,” Enrique said. “But what’s amazing about it too is that despite the difficulty, the type of grape that you can get is kind of profoundly complex — a really, really wonderful fruit.”
He said their efforts at launching a winery on the Shore have always been quality-oriented.
“It was like, we are here in Maryland because we truly believe that the really world-class wines can be made here, not because, say, we already have a farm here or work here,” he said.
Enrique said the soil quality for growing grapes varies in Kent County. Some areas have troublesome heavy clay and others have more sandy and gravelly soils with better drainage.
“What is truly essential I think for growing high quality grapes on the East Coast of the U.S. in general is to have well drained soils,” Enrique said. “If the water is still sitting there after 24 hours, you start running into trouble.”
Casa Carmen’s base of operations has that all-important drainage. Enrique spoke about finding dry soils and large gravely pebbles while conducting perc tests on the property at a time of the year when the water table is usually high.
Currently there are 900 vines on one acre at the property, with plans to double that planting density to 1,800 plants per acre. The brothers also are continuing renovations on the almshouse building. The partially restored half is an office and shipping area, with some experimental batches currently sitting around. The other half — currently ruins — is planned to be a tasting area and event space.
Casa Carmen’s grapes are not all homegrown. The brothers also manage the vineyard at the historic Thornton Estate outside Chestertown. They also are working with vineyards in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“Our motto with that is we always want to be as local as possible insofar as the grapes are top quality,” Enrique said.
Jennifer Laucik Baker stocks Casa Carmen at the Chester River Wine and Cheese Co., a shop she owns with her husband John, in Chestertown. She praised both the wines and the family producing them.
“We feel that Casa Carmen has developed an exceptional collection of wines. Not only for our region, but when we compare them against our national and international selections. They are well balanced, flavorful, and easily enjoyed with and without food,” Baker said in an email. “In addition to their wonderful wines, they’re great people. Their family has put their heart and soul into building a sustainable Kent County business. It is exciting to see more ‘young entrepreneurs’ moving to Kent County to raise a family and build their business.”
Casa Carmen is currently producing three wines. The red is a blend of 60 percent merlot and 40 percent cabernet sauvignon. The rosé is blended via a 60-40 split of same types of grapes. The white is 100 percent Grüner Veltliner.
“We focus mostly on very traditional Old World varietals,” Enrique said. “We like blends more than single varietals. The blend is the original way of making wine.”
He said the really old vineyards in France and Spain did not separate their grapes by variety. The single-varietal model, he said, is a New World invention.
“The great thing I think about blends is it brings out the different characteristics of each varietal to make one product. There is more complexity and nuance to it,” Enrique said. “It’s almost like managing ingredients in cooking. They feed off each other and kind of illuminate each other’s best attributes.”
Neyah White is the owner of the LTO bar in Chestertown, which sells Casa Carmen in its bottle shop. As a bar, LTO is a work in progress, with White having grand designs while the property undergoes a multi-phase renovation effort. In LTO’s iteration late last year, the Pallares brothers were pouring Casa Carmen for customers in a wine bar area set up in the building.
“What do I think of their wines? In short, I love them,” White said in an email.
“In the case of their white, I’m a big fan of Grüners in general. Just discovering one from Maryland was a small thrill itself,” he continued.
“Their rosé is a gem too. Not over the top at all and it happily pairs with all sorts of food,” White added. “I haven’t told them to their faces yet, but this is a wine I like to make cocktails with at the bar. It’s a perfect base for low-alcohol drinks when treated like gin.”
As for the red, which was not listed for individual sale on the Casa Carmen website earlier this year, White wrote that the sneak peak he received showed a young wine that is full of potential, just like the Pallares brothers.
“This wine, frankly is the beginning of a story, and a pretty long story if I see it right,” he wrote. “When I think about the Pallares family I find strong parallels to this wine. While the brothers are young, they are part of a strong family. While the red is still integrating, this family is learning what it means to make wine here in Kent County and becoming a part of our farming heritage,” White said.
The main avenue for purchasing Casa Carmen’s offerings is through its online wine shop or by joining its wine club. Membership provides access to early release wines and members-only selections and invitations to special events like dinners and workshops.
Enrique said the wine club establishes more of a direct relationship between the winemakers and their customers.
“Part of our idea with the wine club is that we have a big family. We already have over 50 members and we are just in the beginning of organizing some special events and private dinners for wine club members, which will take place at Thornton Estate,” said Enrique, adding that they hope to host events at the Casa Carmen property as well.
As they talk plans for expanding Casa Carmen, the brothers speak about how growing grapes is kind of counter to the traditional agricultural model of the last four decades or more calling for large swaths of acreage.
“You can have a really wonderful operation with just a few acres. In fact, some of the best operations in the world are just a few acres,” Enrique said. “If you have two acres and you are farming your two acres, then you’re a farmer.”
Felipe spoke about the important role agriculture plays in society, how when small farms are not doing well, the whole country is not doing well. He sees what they are doing at the winery as very much tied to the idea of what it means to eat and drink locally and to revitalize rural communities.
“I think that so much of the charm for us coming here was just how agricultural it is,” Felipe said of Kent County.
The area also would be good for polo, according to the brothers, who still like to pick up mallets for fun with their friends who also played or still play professionally. Noting all the flat land and already strong presence of horse farms, they said the Shore is not unlike Argentina, where the best polo players come from.
“They’re not coming out of English palaces that have a polo field in the back. They’re coming out of a land that looks a lot like this, which is wide open, mainly agricultural — where ... your young boys and girls are riding since they’re tiny and they can just pick up a polo mallet and start hitting the ball in any open field of grass,” Enrique said.
Casa Carmen is named in part for the farm on which the family grew up in Ecuador and from the architectural style of homes in Granada, one of the old polo stomping grounds, called “carmenes,” which Enrique described as typically having a little central patio and a vineyard and an orange grove in the back.
Enrique said the etymological root of the word “carmen” is the biblical Mount Carmel.
“And the name ‘Carmel’ means ‘God’s vineyard,’ so I thought that’s really, really perfect,” said Enrique, adding that Mount Carmel is where the prophet Elijah brought his people to realign themselves with God. “So, in the terms of the history of the world, the significance of Mount Carmel is it’s a place where the people that are there are in line with nature and the divine.”
Felipe said launching Casa Carmen has brought their family together. The siblings’ parents moved to Chestertown late last year.
“It’s the first time since we have been living in the U.S. that we are all in the same place,” Felipe said.
The brothers agree that there were easier life choices than moving to the Eastern Shore and launching a vineyard, yet it is the culmination of their dream and who they are as people.
“This is truly a way of life,” Enrique said. “This project really expresses our love of nature and our love of family and community and what it means to do things right.”
To learn more about Casa Carmen, visit www.casacarmenwines.com.