Cultivating Md. wine region

Vineyards: State officials and winery groups work to build a wine industry in counties once dominated by tobacco.

January 25, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Don Segal's vineyard, with its rows of bare midwinter vines and wood and wire trellises, sits on Annapolis' Harness Creek, a quiet nook where kayaks skim over glassy water. It bears the name of Segal's yet-to-be-unveiled boutique wine.

Segal's Anne Arundel County vineyard, which he hopes will be Maryland's 13th winery, is representative of the state's burgeoning grape-growing and wine-making industry, as well as a concerted effort by state officials to establish a cluster of wineries in southern counties such as Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Calvert - where tobacco was once king.

While many former tobacco farms have made the transition to crops such as Christmas trees and salsa tomatoes in recent years, winery owners and wine enthusiasts are trying to interest more landowners in grapes. The romance of such a venture - including visions of the wine chateaux of the Loire Valley in France and the golden hills of California's Napa Valley - makes for a soft pitch if not an easy sale.

"There is a big interest in growing grapes right now," said Joe Fiola, a viticulture specialist who was hired by the University of Maryland in 2001 to expand the local wine industry, which lags behind those in Pennsylvania and Virginia despite a $50,000 promotional campaign.

Still, there is proof of Maryland's wine-making potential. Last fiscal year, state wineries produced about 100,000 gallons of wine, up from 87,000 gallons the year before. Production has grown nearly 80 percent since 1996, according to the state comptroller's office.

Many of Maryland's newest grape growers - the number rose from 130 in 2000 to more than 200 in 2002 - are working professionals who have bought old tobacco farms.

"These people are a bit upscale," Fiola said. "They go to California or France or Italy and they see a vineyard and they say, `Oh, boy!'

"I get a lot of those calls," he said, referring to naive connoisseurs who have a vague idea of what it takes to make a good wine.

But Segal, a medical software entrepreneur who lives near Annapolis, is not a businessman looking for a hobby. He has committed 14 acres of prime real estate to chardonnay and merlot and hired a full-time manager. Only about 35 growers statewide, including Segal, produce grapes good enough to support Maryland's wine industry.

"We would jump on any source of superior grapes from Maryland," said Rob DeFord, president of Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore County, which has been in operation since 1945. Since then, he said, the winery has never had a failed crop - proof of what can be accomplished despite the state's humidity and warm nighttime temperatures. Many grapes need dry weather and cool nights to flourish.

"We are ready to embrace any new high-quality grower or winery," said DeFord, president of the Association of Maryland Wineries. Its members produced 500,000 bottles of wine in 2001. "More wineries are needed to build our industry as something that is recognized as a leader by wine drinkers."

Wines produced by local establishments such as Elk Run, Berrywine, Fiore and Woodhall must include 75 percent local grapes to qualify as Maryland wines. Although many wineries produce wines without the mark of Maryland appellation, Fiola said the industry needs more local grapes.

"Wineries have to go out of state to meet production," he said. "If we get a few more vineyards to help the existing wineries, it will be a self-perpetuating monster that will grow and grow."

Fiola spends his days helping people such as Segal, and his vineyard manager Ron Wates, a former landscaper, cultivate high-quality grapes. Wates is also a member of the Southern Maryland Vineyard Team, which is working with state officials to create a Napa-esque wine region south of Baltimore.

"There is a romance to that type of atmosphere where you have a lot of small or moderately sized wineries," said R. David Myers, an extension educator with the University of Maryland. Myers said that even a handful of farms could produce, within four years of start-up, enough wine to bring in $5.5 million in revenue to the state a year.

At Harness Creek, a working tobacco farm until Segal purchased the land seven years ago, Wates has spent three years experimenting with cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay grapes. His office, along with the winery's production and makeshift tasting room, is in a 70-year-old tobacco barn.

"This is headquarters," said Wates, a wine-making enthusiast who, despite his relative inexperience, has earned a reputation as one of the most determined and hard-working vintners in the state.

"The old saying is that wines are made in the vineyard," said DeFord. "But that is lost on people who think that all they have to do to produce a good wine is buy a lot of equipment or an expensive chateau."

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