State wonders if idea will bear fruit

VINTAGE POINT

Potential: Agency explores notion of converting tobacco land to grape-growing country.

June 06, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

Rob Deford, the owner of Boordy Vineyards, was a bit skeptical when he started hearing talk about converting tobacco land in Southern Maryland to vineyards.

But when he took a drive down that way, he was surprised by the landscape. Deford, who has developed vineyards in Baltimore and Frederick counties, said he could see some potential in the rolling hills.

"Yeah, they beckoned. I was driving down the road and they called to me a little bit," he said. "It's not dead flat, which means there's a potential for some well-drained soils."

Deford and other Maryland wine producers are by no means sold on the notion, now being explored by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, that Southern Maryland has bright prospects in the grape-growing business.

But they're intrigued by the idea. Plagued by a dearth of locally grown grapes and too often forced to import fruit, they would love to see new vineyards developed. And with the state paying Southern Maryland farmers to abandon tobacco-growing, there will be thousands of acres of prime agricultural land in search of an alternate crop.

Wine grapes, in fact, are one of the few agricultural products to offer per-acre yields similar to tobacco. That has piqued some interest among farmers, who will have to keep their lands in agricultural use for 10 years to qualify for the tobacco buyout.

But many questions have to be answered before Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties can bid to become the Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino of the East.

Nobody knows how well grapevines fare on land that formerly supported tobacco, a crop that is known for sucking up nutrients from the soil.

Nobody knows where the best potential vineyard sites are, though experts can make some educated guesses.

And nobody knows which grapes are best suited for the climates and soils of Southern Maryland. Unlike the Piedmont country north and west of Baltimore, there is no track record of producing high-quality vinifera (European) grape varieties. Even the information on French-American hybrids is sketchy.

We know that Southern Maryland has one big advantage over other wine-growing parts of the state: warmer temperatures. But it also has higher humidity, which can promote fungus infections. Will the extra costs of spraying negate its edge in ripening grapes?

There are human factors at work, too: Can tobacco farmers, accustomed to a payout every fall, get used to a crop that doesn't produce commercially until three or four years after planting? Can they adjust to the demands of wineries that they limit quantity to improve quality?

Maryland is attempting to resolve some of these questions with the aid of a grant from the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland. In April, state agricultural officials established a test vineyard near Upper Marlboro and have planted it with more than two dozen varieties of grapes.

They have also been conducting seminars on grape-growing for tobacco farmers, according to Valerie Gonlin, the state Agriculture Department's liaison to wineries and grape growers.

The state's efforts are admirable but may be off the mark. It's doubtful that the test vineyard will provide answers as quickly as the tobacco farmers will need them. It will be about five years before we have any sense whether those test-vineyard plants will produce high-quality wine. Even then, what does a test plot in Prince George's County (admittedly in the tobacco-producing part) tell about grape-growing conditions near Point Lookout in St. Mary's County?

What the state is doing right is fostering a dialog between the state's winery owners and tobacco growers, for these are likely to lead to collaborations that will teach more than any test plot.

Where the state could be a big help is in offering low-cost loans to let wineries and growers collaborate on small-scale commercial production in various microclimates in the region. Each one would be a leap of faith, but the same could be said of every vineyard ever planted in this state.

One man who has taken such a leap is Steve Purvins, who has been growing hybrid vidal and chambourcin on three acres near Leonardtown in St. Mary's County. Last year he sold his fruit to the Woodhall and Cygnus wineries in Northern Maryland.

"I see a lot of potential for hybrids down here," Purvins said.

The wineries can surely use these grapes, but the prices wineries pay for hybrids fall far short of growers' dreams. For that reason, Purvins has also put in a small test plot of vinifera, which offers the prospect of a higher payout.

Al Copp, owner of Woodhall Vineyards in northern Baltimore County, thinks Southern Maryland will be a very good area for vinifera.

It's fascinating to speculate, but the only way to learn for sure is to do it. Let's hope some tobacco farmers give it a try, and go on to found wineries. Who knows? What used to be Tobacco Road could someday be the Patuxent Wine Route.

Hey, it beats growing subdivisions.

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