Grape growers find slimmer pickings

September 12, 1994|By Capital News Service

Frederic and Marjorie Bowers' friends and family will travel from as far as California, Michigan and New Jersey to help harvest wine grapes in the couple's small vineyard near Westminster this weekend and next.

They'll cut bunches of grapes among vines hung with grape-decorated flags and bright bird-frightening balloons, and in the evening they'll share a large meal and a campfire.

The couple expects a good time. But their crop will be off about 20 percent -- the fault of Maryland's unusual 1994 weather.

Other wine grape growers in the state are suffering as much as a 35 percent loss due to the harsh winter and frequent rains in August.

The harvest will be "spotty," said James L. Russell, spokesman for the Maryland Grape Growers Association, and a Germantown grower.

Colder parts of the state, such as Western and Northern Maryland, lost grapes because the buds were frozen by January's below-zero temperature.

Growers lost still more grapes due to mold and fungus that grow more readily when grapes are damp from humidity and rain.

"Chardonnay is in very short supply," said Mr. Russell, because the cold weather did its worst damage to tender varieties bred in the Mediterranean, including chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and riesling.

Maryland has 10 commercial wineries, according to Michael Fiore, president of the Maryland Wineries Association.

Mr. Fiore, "born and raised on a vineyard in Italy," was introduced to winemaking at age 11, and made wines in Italy, France and California before starting his vineyard and winery in Maryland in 1986. He is philosophical about this year's crop losses.

"Mother Nature has its ways of aggravating the farmer and this is one of them," he said. "Last year's harvest was good. Even this, a 30 percent loss, we can be happy . . . about it because it was not a 100 percent loss. Nevertheless, it's still a loss."

Mr. Fiore has a 14-acre vineyard and winery about a mile south of Pennsylvania in Harford County. He sells all of his roughly 7,000-gallon annual production within a 10-mile radius of where he produces it.

Though Mr. Fiore's vineyards are in a warm microclimate created by the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay, the winter's cold weather cost him his merlot crop. He removed the immature grapes in the spring to protect the vines' health.

Mr. Fiore's harvest began a week ago and will last one or two more weeks.

Wine grape growers say while quantity is down, they are ensuring that quality remains high.

Mr. and Mrs. Bowers, who sell their grapes to Catoctin Winery near Olney in Montgomery County, and Woodhall Winery north of Baltimore, have watched the sugar content carefully to pick the grapes at the right time.

They sort out imperfect bunches by hand.

Mr. Fiore is doing the same.

"Whatever little bit I can produce out of this, I want to be able to produce a good quality wine," Mr. Fiore said.

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