State's vintners found to trail Pa., Va.

Panel says Md. has 15 wineries, while two neighbors have scores

It recommends several steps to close gap

February 08, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A task force created by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. contends that Maryland is a laggard in cultivating a robust wine industry and recommends new laws and government help to make the state a more attractive place to plant grapevines and operate wineries.

In a report released yesterday, the Maryland Wine and Grape Advisory Committee proposes more than 50 remedies that include dropping the state's ban on mailing or shipping wine to private buyers.

The report is the most extensive study the state has ever commissioned on its tiny wine industry, which is made up of 15 wineries and about 200 acres of vines and contributes about $7 million a year to Maryland's economy.

"It's something we've been dreaming about for years," said Rob Deford, a panel member and owner of Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore County - the state's oldest winery.

The panel concluded that there is "compelling evidence" that the state trails others - particularly Virginia and Pennsylvania - in grape and wine production.

"Maryland is behind the national curve in the expansion of its wine industry," the report adds.

The committee is recommending that the General Assembly modernize Maryland's liquor laws, many of which date to the repeal of Prohibition in the 1930s, to make the state a more attractive place to plant grapes and make wine.

The report, entitled "Maryland Wine: The Next Vintage," also urges additional spending by the University of Maryland to hire scientists who specialize in growing grapes and winemaking.

"The experience of other states has shown that where states invest modestly in their wine industries, the return in the growth of that industry as measured in volume of wine grapes produced, gallons of wine produced, economic return to the states, and tax income has been substantial," the report says.

Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, said the idea of setting up a task force originated with state Sen. Donald F. Munson of Hagerstown, who was interested in encouraging grape growing as a way of preserving farmland in Washington County.

Munson, an influential Republican, took the idea to the Ehrlich administration. At Ehrlich's direction, Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley named a panel of lawmakers, winery owners, grape growers and agency officials to examine the industry.

The 46-page report was delivered last week to Riley. Suzanne K. duPont, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman, said the secretary will review the proposals and make recommendations to the governor.

The study focuses on the wine industries in Virginia and Pennsylvania, the two Mid-Atlantic states with the greatest climatic similarities to Maryland.

Where Maryland has 15 wineries, Pennsylvania has 88 and Virginia 94, according to the report. "Even when calculated on a per capita or a per-square-mile, basis, Pennsylvania and Virginia out-produce Maryland in grapes and wine," it says.

According to the report, Maryland's neighbors invest far more in providing technical help to grape growers and winemakers through their state university systems.

The study also found that Virginia and Pennsylvania offer potential winery and vineyard investors more favorable licensing laws, more help in marketing and research and fewer restrictions on promotional events.

Probably the most controversial of its recommendation is the repeal of the Maryland law that makes it a felony for wineries - whether based here or out-of-state - to ship directly to customers. The law prevents Maryland wineries from shipping to states that allow shipments on a reciprocal basis.

The powerful retail and wholesale liquor industries vehemently oppose direct shipment and have successfully fought past efforts to repeal the restriction. The committee notes that the state comptroller's office, which collects liquor taxes, doesn't support its recommendation.

Atticks said the group has no plans to push for a direct-shipping law in the legislature's current session. He said the industry would wait to see how the Supreme Court rules on several pending cases dealing with the issue.

But Atticks said the industry will support at least two wine-related bills this year sponsored by the legislators who served on the committee, Munson and Del. Virginia P. Clagett, the Anne Arundel Democrat. One would dedicate a small percentage of the state's wine-tax revenues to fostering the in-state industry.

Some of the recommendations - including a directive that state agencies pour Maryland wine at all functions where the beverage is served - are within the governor's power to implement on his own. Others would require legislation. They include:

Exempting Maryland wineries from local laws limiting in-store tastings.

Removing a state cap on permits for winery events, now limited to 12 a year. The report noted that Virginia allows events 365 days a year.

Allowing wineries to open restaurants on their premises and retail outlets around the state.

Permitting Maryland wineries to share winemaking facilities and to sell each other's wines in their tasting rooms.

The report also urges the state to develop a statewide map of land with the soil types, climate, slope and other characteristics suitable for vineyards.

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