It was a strange sort of day at the Maryland Wine Festival in Westminster last weekend. The weather seemed unable to make up its mind whether to be cloudy and cold or sunny and warm, so it alternated between the two in irregular intervals.
In a way, it might have been a metaphor for the state of the Maryland wine industry. After a sustained period in the sun, the state's winemakers are finding some gloomy clouds darkening their skies, but rays of light keep shining through, promising better days ahead.
It would be wonderful if an unbiased observer could report a steady improvement in the state's wines, but that would not even be close to the truth. In fact, a string of spotty vintages and financial problems at some of the state's best wineries have stopped progress in its tracks.
There were no new names at this year's festival, for instance, and a couple of past participants had vanished. Byrd Vineyards, the state's most widely acclaimed winery, is still making excellent wines, but Bret Byrd has had to go back to work as a pharmacist to maintain a decent lifestyle. G. Hamilton Mowbray, the dean of the state's active winemakers, has been struggling for years to arrange a decent transition that would let his legacy continue at Montbray Vineyards.
Nevertheless, the tiny Maryland industry is also showing some impressive resilience under tough conditions. Nature may not have been as kind in 1988 and 1989 as it was in such favored years as 1983 and 1986, but quality has not slipped appreciably at the better wineries, and some are making better wines than ever.
The most encouraging success story I encountered at this year's festival was the dramatic improvement over the past two years at the state's oldest winery, Boordy Vineyards.
When I visited the festival in 1988, Boordy was doing pretty much what it had been doing ever since Rob Deford took over from founder Philip Wagner in the early 1980s: making a mix of subpar and decent wines, but nothing of great consequence.
But now, just two years later, Boordy is showing signs of becoming an important regional leader and a reliable source of good-value wines that don't need any boost from state pride in order to sell. Mr. Deford, who is quite candid about his wines' former quality, explains that he cut out spending in advertising and put money into equipment, and that he is reaping the benefits of hiring winemaker Tom Burns, whom Mr. Deford calls "our secret weapon."
Wherever the credit goes, it is clear that the once-religiously pro-hybrid Boordy's Johnny-come-lately venture into European (vinifera) grape varietals is beginning to pay off. Both the 1989 chardonnay and 1988 cabernet sauvignon -- now made entirely from Maryland fruit -- are flavorful, well-balanced wines at attractive prices (about $10).
At the same time, its hybrids and vinifera-hybrid blends have continued to improve. Boordy's "Sur Lie Reserve," a yeasty, intense dry white wine made from the hybrid seyval blanc grape, may well be the winery's finest wine of all. And its crisp, dry 1988 Maryland White is an exceptional value at about $5.
Boordy also has a very attractive semisweet wine it calls Nouvelle. It's a great wine for casual sipping or dessert consumption, but it really needs more descriptive labeling so consumers know they aren't getting a dry table wine.
Apart from Boordy, there were other encouraging signs. At Montbray, a young man named Dave Argento is trying to put together an investors' group to acquire the winery from Mr. Mowbray, and he reports that he's 85 percent of the way there. In the meantime, he's helping to reinvigorate Montbray's excellent vineyards. The worth of his effort was once again shown at the festival by the extraordinary performance of Montbray's 1985 Seyve-Villard (seyval blanc), a big, flavorful white that might have been the best wine at the festival.
I can't be absolutely sure of that, because I wasn't able to visit all the wineries' booths (the same 1-year-old who gave me a great excuse for missing last year's festival began to express his impatience with watching Daddy spit wine all over the place). Still, past track records argue that there is no finer wine made in Maryland.
Some of the other highlight wines tasted at the festival were:
*1987 Byrd Cabernet Sauvignon, a little lighter that some past versions of this brawniest East Coast cabernet, but still a big, flavorful red wine for aging. Its 1987 chardonnay also shows promise.
*1989 Basignani Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc.
*1989 Loew Vineyard Johannisberg Riesling.
*1989 Elk Run American Chardonnay, made from Oregon grapes, it's a crisp, clean, fruity wine and an excellent value at about $8. Elk Run also has a good 1988 riesling from the Finger Lakes.
*1988 Catoctin Vineyards Chardonnay, 1986 Oak-Fermented Chardonnay and 1989 Riesling. The riesling is an especially good, crisp and dry version of this often-underestimated varietal.