State toasts `golden year' for wine

But as festival starts, grapevine is full of sobering predictions

September 16, 2000|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

The state's winemakers have much to celebrate at this year's Maryland Wine Festival.

Sales of local wines are on the rise. Among the wines being uncorked this weekend are vintages from 1997, 1998 and 1999, which state vintners say are among their best ever.

"If there were ever a golden year of wine in Maryland, this is it," said Rob Deford, owner of Boordy Vineyards, one of the state's largest vineyards and a participant in the festival, which begins today at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster. Hot, dry summers and just the right amount of rain in 1997 and 1998 made for excellent red and white wines, he said.

Just don't ask area winemakers to celebrate this summer's weather. Too much rain and unseasonably low temperatures created a less-than-stellar grape-growing season.

"It's been a mixed bag," said Deford, who expects to produce 30,000 gallons of wine this year, about average. "Three weeks ago, I would have said the season was just terrible. Now we're having a dry fall. I think things are going to be OK."

"If you're going to have rainy weather, it's better to have it at the beginning [of the season] than at the end," agreed Bert Basignani, president of the Association of Maryland Wineries and owner of Basignani Winery in Sparks. "If you have a good spray program and do proper maintenance of the vines, you can still bring in some decent grapes."

The 17-year-old festival, which lasts two days, draws about 20,000 people - serious and not-so-serious oenophiles who come to sip cabernets and chardonnays, talk to winemakers about their craft and soak up the scenery.

Ten wineries, 30 food vendors and 50 craft vendors will participate in this year's festival, which also features a grape-stomping contest, live music and the sale of local artists' works.

Most of the state's 11 wineries grow at least some of the grapes they use to make wine. Grape growers in Maryland produce about 800 tons annually, with half being sold to commercial wineries and half to amateur wine makers, said Jim Russell of Kingshill Vineyards in Germantown, spokesman for the Maryland Grape Growers Association.

Winemakers in Maryland use the grapes to make a variety of wines including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, Seyval and Chambourcin, Basignani said.

During the fiscal year that ended June 30, 85,082 gallons of Maryland-made wine were sold in the United States, according to Michael Golden, a spokesman for the comptroller's office, which regulates the wine and beer industry. By comparison, 71,7051 gallons of Maryland-made wine were sold the year before.

Growing grapes in the East is a tricky business, according to vineyard owners.

If it's too wet, grapes absorb too much water and their flavor becomes diluted. Excess rain also interferes with growers' ability to spray grapes, which can lead to fungal diseases such as bunch rot, which attacks soggy clumps of grapes before harvest, and powdery mildew, which stops the ripening process. Last year at this time, many Maryland grape growers were crowing about how their grapes thrived during the hot, dry weather that hurt so many other farmers. Then Hurricane Floyd arrived and put a rainy, windy end to what was supposed to be a banner season.

In 1996, steady rains damaged many grape growers' crops.

This year, in addition to the rain, there have been other acts of nature that have damaged grapes.

Emily Johnston of Copernicus Vineyards outside Westminster said her grapes were doing well until a hailstorm in mid-May stripped 90 percent of her and her husband Jack's crop of grapes from the vines. "Normally, our harvest would be 16 to 17 tons," she said. "This year, I'd be surprised if we had three."

Still, she remains optimistic, saying that because of the weather, this year's crop wouldn't have been that great anyway. Johnston said she's looking forward to next year. "Hail never strikes twice in the same place," she said.

Even though many vineyards had problems, owners say it's too soon to pronounce judgment on the season. Many vineyards are just starting their grape harvest and won't know until they finish making wine in December how their year was. "The one thing that drives a winemaker is hope," Deford said. "Wine isn't over until the last grape is picked. We're just starting."

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