Reds, Whites and the Blues

Rainy weather dampens hopes for grape crops among state's winemakers.

October 22, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Maryland's wine grapes have had too much to drink.

The responsible bartender weeks ago would have stopped serving them water, but that alone might not have turned the tide running against state winemakers. The grapes still would have needed more sun and warmth to develop flavor and to curb vineyard diseases advanced by this year's cool, cloudy, wet weather.

At last word, Maryland winemakers were holding out hope for the late harvest, which mostly consists of red-wine grapes. With some luck, they might be a saving grace in a season where occasional good news has been overshadowed by low yields and disappointing juice quality. This year has seen improved sales and marketing effort, but 2003 does not promise a vintage the relatively young Maryland wine industry can brag about.

"It's been a very challenging year," says Bill Rohrer, president of the Maryland Grape Growers Association, whose members raise about 350 acres of wine grapes used to make most of the wine made in Maryland.

Rohrer's description represents the understated view.

Bill Kirby, who has been raising wine grapes on the Eastern Shore since 1984, says, "This is the worst year I've ever seen in my life. ... It's just been intolerable and impossible to raise a good quality under these conditions."

Jack Johnston, who raises 6 acres of vines at Copernica Vineyards with his wife, Emily, in Carroll County, puts it succinctly: "Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong."

Tropical Storm Isabel seems to have been the least of the trouble, although the winds did blow down some vines here and there. The culprit is too little sunshine and too much rain.

At Linganore Winecellars in Mount Airy, the state's largest wine producer with 40 acres of grapes, the owners were set to begin picking white Cayuga grapes on the morning of Sept. 23. They were a couple of weeks behind the usual schedule. Isabel had blown through days before, they'd lost their power for a spell but the damage was not bad. Their mechanical grape harvester - the only one in the state - was ready to go.

Then something like "Isabel II" hit, dumping nearly 4 inches of rain on parts of Frederick County. Winemaker Anthony Aellen and his brother, Eric, the vineyard manager, whose parents established the vineyard in 1972, decided to wait a couple of days, to let things dry out a bit.

Early on the morning of Sept. 25, the Aellens were out with crew member David Bowers.

The vineyard rattled with the sound of their 10-foot-high harvester rolling at a walking pace over the vine rows, its mechanical arms beating the vines, Cayuga grapes falling into a trough on the harvester to be conveyed aloft, then dumped into crates drawn by a tractor alongside.

Several tons of grapes that day were harvested and dropped into the stainless-steel press, the juice pumping at the rate of 45 gallons a minute into 20-foot-high stainless-steel holding tanks.

As juice rained from the press into a metal trough, Anthony Aellen set a few tiny cups atop the press. Time for a sip.

It comes to this, of course. The winemaker's skill matters, but what comes out of the vineyard matters much more. Even the most brilliant craftsman cannot turn poor grape juice into fine wine.

"It's actually really nice," said Aellen. "I'm surprised. I was expecting the stuff to be really flat, but it's not."

The Cayuga will appear on the market late next year as White Raven, one of some 20 wines put out by Linganore, which makes roughly 60 percent of the wine produced in Maryland.

Relatively warm and sunny early October days promised to improve whatever grapes still remained on the vines in a harvest that has been two, three and more weeks late. Winemakers will tell you that the grape-growing season is not unlike a race in which a strong finish can redeem a poor start.

At Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore County, for instance, Rob DeFord had harvested almost none of his 40 acres as of the second week of October, playing a game of viticultural chicken with the ever-present threat of a severe frost. Such a frost could kill the leaves, which then would mean that the grapes would ripen no further.

With another couple of weeks of warmth, DeFord figures, "It'll be a good crop. I wouldn't say a great year, but a decent year."

For some growers and winemakers, however, October's warm overture was too little too late.

Paul Roberts, winemaker and co-owner of Deep Creek Cellars in Garrett County, found the sunshine with temperatures in the low 70s downright painful. A week before, a freeze killed his entire 5-acre crop, which was out later than usual because of the summer's cool and wet weather.

"It really is a dagger in the heart to look out there and see it," says Roberts, who says a freeze also wiped out his grapes last year. "I think if I just could have gotten past last Thursday."

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