State Wine Industry Drying Up


September 29, 1991|By Michael Dresser

Perfect fall weather drew so many people to the Maryland Wine Festival last weekend that the wine glasses ran out, but there was a cloud hanging over the event -- at least figuratively.

While this year's festival set records for attendance, the future of Maryland's annual celebration of wine is in jeopardy because a large part of the state's tiny but promising wine industry is on the verge of evaporating.

Two of the state's oldest and finest wineries, their owners tired and financially stretched to the limit, may not be around much longer.

At Montbray Wine Cellars in Silver Run, pioneering owner G. Hamilton Mowbray made no wine this vintage and is phasing out operations after a years-long effort to find a buyer.

A promising effort led by David Argento, a young man who had helped restore Montbray's deteriorating vineyards, to lease the property failed after he and Mr. Mowbray failed to come to terms. Montbray will try to continue as a grower for other wineries.

At Byrd Vineyards, owners Bret and Sharon Byrd have had enough.

Burdened by debt and unable to sell their property as a working operation, they have carved up their scenic hillside vineyard into eight building lots. Unless a last-minute buyer surfaces, bulldozers will soon be uprooting the vines that produce the finest cabernet sauvignon on the East Coast and what wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. called "America's very best gewurztraminer."

"It just seems as if we've given it a good 15 years of our life and we haven't seen much for it," said Mr. Byrd, 50. "It's just a matter of economics. We're not a wealthy family to start with."

This year's record crowds at the Carroll County Farm Museum -more than 25,000 for the two days -- showed that the wine festival is more popular than ever, but to have a wine fair you have to have wineries. The expected demise of these two founding participants would leave only nine producers, and some of them aren't in great shape.

Obviously, at some point you lose the "critical mass" you need thold a festival at all. My guess is that nine is about the minimum. And if the festival falters, the remaining wineries would lose one of the most reliable outlets for their wines.

That would be a shame, because Maryland makes very good wine -- occasionally excellent -- wine at reasonable prices. At my house, Boordy's 1989 Maryland White has become the virtual "house wine," not because of state pride or because owner Rob Deford is a great guy but because it's a great value at $6.

While a fractious 2-year-old prevented me from tasting all the wines at the fair this year, the ones I did sample showed a high level of quality.

Catoctin Vineyards, a Montgomery County winery that has been struggling with slow-moving inventory, won Maryland's Governor's Cup for its 1985 cabernet sauvignon, a full-bodied, classically structured red wine that reminded me of a well-made Bordeaux (specifically, Chateau Chasse-Spleen in Moulis).

The cabernet needs several years of cellaring to show at its best, but it is a worthy winner. Still, several other wines at the festival came close in my estimation (not all at the festival were entered in the judging).

Catoctin's 1988 oak-fermented chardonnay and 1989 riesling were almost as impressive as the cabernet. The lightly sweet riesling is one of the finest of its type made in the United States. And the chardonnay is a balanced, charming wine with much more freshness than most of its California counterparts. (A group of Catoctin wines have recently been selected for export to Japan in a trial run that has raised spirits at the winery.)

Elk Run's estate cabernet vineyard is really coming into its own as the vines gain maturity. Owner Fred Wilson poured the 1985, 1986 and 1988 cabernets, bottled under the Liberty Tavern label, and each was quite fine, with a distinctive black cherry flavor. Elk Run's 1990 Liberty Tavern Chardonnay was one of the best Maryland chardonnays I've ever tasted.

Basignani Vineyards, once again, displayed a sure touch with chardonnay, now bolstered by French oak barrels. Its 1990 is quite well made, and will probably show even better a year from now. For a real bargain, pick up the 1989 Elena, made entirely of seyval blanc in that vintage.

Montbray Vineyards may be on its way out, but it's going there with a bang. The current release of cabernet sauvignon, a blend of the 1987 and 1988 vintages, is one of Mr. Mowbray's best, which is saying a lot. Also showing well was Montbray's spicy 1990 cabernet franc.

Boordy Vineyards pleased the crowds by pouring Maryland's only commercial sparkling wine, its dry Blanc de Blancs, and this release is a big improvement over its first effort. It's a clean, crisp, relatively fruity wine -- not Champagne but equal well-known California imitators.

Other stars in the Boordy cast include its 1989 seyval blanc "Sur Lie Reserve" and its 1989 cabernet sauvignon. Its crisp, distinctive 1990 Cabernet Blanc will appeal to many, but a touch of bitterness will put off some tasters.

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