Backing wine through the grapevine

Ehrlich shows support for industry by planting cabernet at mansion

April 29, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Today, Government House. Tomorrow, Chateau Ehrlich?

Surrounded by Maryland vintners, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. planted a single grapevine yesterday at his official residence in Annapolis as a symbol of Maryland's support for its small but growing wine industry.

"I've always been a fan of this industry," said the teetotaler governor. "I'm surrounded by wine drinkers -- the first lady, the lieutenant governor [Michael S. Steele], the Cabinet."

The vine the governor planted in a sunny patch on the side of the mansion is cabernet sauvignon, a Bordeaux red wine that is produced by most of Maryland's dozen wineries. The choice is in keeping with the preferences of the first lady, who according to the governor, insists on red wine.

The state industry sells about $5.6 million worth of wine each year -- a drop in the cask when compared with such giants as California, Washington and neighboring Virginia.

Ehrlich and other state officials said yesterday that they want to see that number grow. State Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said vineyards are comparable to horse farms as desirable neighbors and beautiful agricultural operations.

"The moral here is to drink wine at the Preakness," Ehrlich said.

Crop enthusiasm

Despite his personal abstinence, Ehrlich has been an enthusiastic supporter of Maryland's alcoholic beverage producers. He said yesterday that only Maryland wines and beers are served at Government House.

Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Association of Maryland Wineries, said Ehrlich last year became the first governor to attend the Maryland Wine Festival in Westminster and to present the Governor's Cup for the wine judged best of the year.

Atticks said he doesn't know whether the soil of downtown Annapolis is the proper terroir for cabernet, but added, "We're going to find out." He said Joe Altemus of the Government House staff has agreed to tend the vine, which even if it thrives will not bear a crop for two or three years.

"We'll hopefully eventually try to make some wine out of it," Atticks said.

Ehrlich was joined at the event by one of his best friends from his Capitol Hill days, Rep. George P. Radanovich, the U.S. House's only vintner-congressman. "I'll bring my pruning shears and I'll train the vine if we need to," the California Republican said.

The festive gathering under sunny skies also marked the public debut of Ehrlich's son Joshua, not quite 2 months old, who appeared in the arms of Kendel Ehrlich.

Growth possible

Dennis M. Castleman, assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts in the Department of Business and Economic Development, said that while Maryland's wine industry remains small, it has the potential of growing by another two to five wineries in the next few years.

Castleman, who called wineries a significant contributor to the tourism economy, admitted that Maryland trails Virginia significantly in encouraging growth of the industry.

He said that before the next General Assembly session, administration officials will be looking at ways to make Maryland wineries more competitive.

"The industry deserves to have a level playing field," he said.

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