Maryland winemaking industry in battle for livelihood in wake of recent state order


March 19, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

Maryland may never be California or New York when it comes to winemaking, but farmers here at least would like to stay in the game.

But the Maryland industry suffered a blow recently when the state comptroller's office issued an order forbidding winemakers from selling their products directly to restaurants and retailers.

The move came on the heels of a Supreme Court decision last year that struck down state laws barring direct shipments of out-of-state wines to customers if the state allows those shipments from in-state winemakers. A June 1 deadline has been set for Maryland wineries to find wholesalers or distributors to market their products.

"We're in a battle for our lives," Rose Fiore, who runs the Fiore Winery in northern Harford County, said of Maryland's small but growing industry.

The decision could force as many as 15 of the state's 22 wineries out of business, said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association.

Fiore and her husband, Mike, started the Pylesville winery in 1980.

"We struggled for 20 years to build up the business," she said. "It was 10 years before I paid myself a salary."

The Fiores attribute the winery's survival to their ability to pack cases of their Maryland Merlot, Blush of Bel Air and other wines in their car and take them to restaurants and liquor stores.

"We sell about 60 percent of our wine to stores and restaurants," Rose Fiore said.

"It's the way we get the customer's attention," added Rose Fiore, who also is the viticulture representative on the Maryland Agricultural Commission. "A distributor might be selling 30 or 40 lines of wine. How much attention do you think they are going to give to little wineries like we have in Maryland?"

Atticks worries that the 20 percent to 30 percent markup on wines by distributors could price state wines out of the market.

"That's a pretty hefty fee for a delivery service," he said.

He said it does not make sense for wineries to sell their products through a distributor unless they are a large operation or their wines are popular.

Maryland wineries posted combined sales of about $7 million last year, Atticks said. He expects sales to total about $9 million this year.

Meanwhile, state officials will be scurrying this week to seek a solution. State Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who chairs the Finance Committee, has introduced legislation that would allow wineries in Maryland and other states producing 40,000 gallons of wine or less a year to do their own marketing.

However, he hopes that the bill will not be needed, preferring to get affected parties -- winemakers, wholesalers and retailers -- together to work out a compromise.

"We have an industry that's in its infancy, and we want it to survive and grow," Middleton said.

He said that if an agreement is not reached this week, he would push his bill, expressing confidence that he has the votes needed for passage.

The toll of deer

Yes, they may be adorable and charmingly docile, but deer do not rank high on many farmers' list of favorite things.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture reported last week that wildlife took a $10.5 million bite out of field crops last year, with deer accounting for the bulk of the damage.

Farmers in Maryland lost about $8.8 million in potential crop production income last year because of deer, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's statistics service office in Maryland.

The assessment was based on a survey that included nearly 1,500 farm reports.

Deer were blamed for 83.8 percent of the loss, far more than geese, groundhogs, bears and other wildlife combined.

Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said that aside from weather, wildlife damage is the largest uncontrollable cause of crop loss.

He said that farmers expressed much concern about the topic in the months leading up to the recent Governor's Agricultural Forum, during which they asked for extensions on the hunting seasons for deer and geese as a way to reduce damage.

Jonathan Kays, a University of Maryland regional extension agent based in Washington County, said there are some farms in the state, particularly those near parks or forests, where deer do so much damage that it does not pay for the farmer to plant.

Moreover, damage to residential properties could be even greater than the loss of crops, Kays said, although he added that no solid statistics are available.

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