State's growing hobby: grapes in the back yard

Vineyards: More Marylanders are growing grapes for personal use or sale to wineries.

October 10, 2004|By Scott Waldman | Scott Waldman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

More Maryland homeowners are turning their back yards into small vineyards to fulfill a hobby or to earn a small profit by selling grapes to local wineries.

It's the latest boom in a real estate market that has enjoyed three years of unprecedented growth. Many consumers have taken advantage of record home appreciation and historically low interest rates to buy larger houses or land, to remodel or to build vacation homes.

Those who have purchased large plots to escape sprawl have looked for things to do with their property, including farming and other hobbies.

Vineyard hobbyists across Maryland are planting grapevines on their unused acreage. Some plant a few vines; others plant a few acres. Some are making wine; others are selling grapes to commercial vineyards for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Such gardening can cost thousands of dollars to get started and requires hours of time and patience, experts said. And such efforts often do not add value to a piece of property, area tax assessors say. Unless homeowners can sell their houses and properties to buyers who want to spend the time and money tending grapevines, the property's resale value is not likely to grow as fast as that of other real estate in the area, experts said.

Still, the number of backyard growers in the state has increased greatly in recent years, said John Pardoe, membership director for the Maryland Grape Growers Association, which has about 200 members. The group gets about 10 new members each month, he said.

"People are getting into it because it's romantic to grow grapes," Pardoe said.

Homeowners eager to turn their back yards into the next piece of Napa Valley might be surprised at the difficult work required, said Pardoe, who planted grapes on a half-acre of his 10-acre plot in Westminster three years ago.

He cautioned that first-time growers might find themselves watching helplessly as their vines shrivel and die from a fungus or disease they don't know how to eradicate.

"You need to plant 25 or 50 vines, maybe a couple of varieties, and start the learning curve," backyard grower Robert Scott said.

Wedding present

Learning that can be time-consuming. Twenty-five years ago, Scott's wife gave him 40 grapevines as a wedding present. He has expanded that to 1,600 vines over 2 1/2 acres.

Each week, Scott puts in eight to 10 hours taking care of his vines. That increases greatly during pruning season in February and harvest time in the fall, he said.

The least a backyard grower will need to purchase is the posts and wire for the vines to grow on, Scott said. Vines cost $3 or $4 a piece.

Pest protection

That is the bare minimum. Some growers will also need to purchase deer fencing or bird netting, and pesticides.

Growers should expect to spend $6,000 to $12,000 for every acre of vines they plant, said Joseph A. Fiola, a viticulture and small-fruit specialist at the University of Maryland's Western Maryland Research and Education Center. Fiola has helped a number of people with no agricultural background become successful small-scale grape growers.

The land's value will not necessarily increase if grapevines are planted on it, said Ron Tolson, supervisor of assessments and taxation for Baltimore County. If a plot of grapevines qualifies as a farm under Maryland state law, the worth of the land is based on a use value, which is less than market value, Tolson said.

Despite such hurdles, the number of people growing grapes on their extra land has increased considerably over the past few years, said Robert Deford, a co-owner of Boordy Vineyards, one of the state's top wine producers, in Hydes in northeastern Baltimore County.

Deford often supplements his harvest by purchasing grapes from backyard growers. He said small vineyards are as capable of producing high-quality grapes as the large growers are.

In recent years, commercial vineyards have been relying on small growers to help boost their output of Maryland wine, Fiola said. Classification as a Maryland wine requires that at least 75 percent of the grapes have been grown in the state.

"As of right now, if you grow grapes, there is a great, great demand," Fiola said.

Vineyards pay $650 to $2,000 a ton, depending on the type of grape, Scott said. This year, he sold three-quarters of a ton of grapes to commercial vineyards.

Scott is considering establishing a commercial vineyard but for now considers himself a hobbyist. He supplied the wine for the weddings of two of his children.

It's his way of taking a break from his other life as an orthodontist.

"It's the yin and yang of being with people and being outside," he said.

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