Wineries' owners are raising their glasses to growth

On The Farm

July 30, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

Winemaking is still a tiny part of the Maryland agricultural scene, but it's growing as fast as those weeds in your backyard vegetable patch.

"We have had unbelievable growth the past two years," said Rose Fiore. "We have gone from 12 wineries to 22."

Rose Fiore operates Fiore Winery in the Pylesville section of Harford County with her husband, Mike.

She also serves as the industry's representative on the Maryland Agricultural Commission, a 27-member panel composed of a cross-section of farming that advises the Secretary of Agriculture on farm issues.

More wineries are on the way.

Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Winery Association, said that three other wineries have state license approval and are in various stages of development.

One, he said, would open this fall. The other two are scheduled to come in the next six to eight months.

It doesn't end there.

Atticks said five more are under development but have not yet received state licenses. He anticipates they'll open next year.

In some ways, opening a winery is like starting a Christmas tree farm. The product isn't available overnight.

It takes seven years before a newly planted Christmas tree is large enough to be sold. It takes three years for grapevines to begin producing fruit and two more years to reach peak output.

"As wine becomes more popular with consumers, more people are getting into the business," Atticks said. "For some folks, it's a lifestyle change."

Such was the motivation for Ed and Sarah Boyce. They worked as management consultants at Kaiser Associates, an international consulting firm, based in Tyson's Corner, Va.

"I didn't like being on the road three days a week and not seeing the kids," said Ed Boyce, who turned 43 this year. They have three sons, ages 3 to 15, and a 1-year-old daughter. "I got tired of traveling around the world, calling on Fortune 500 companies. Taking six planes a week takes a toll on a person."

They invested their savings in a farm outside of Mount Airy and began planting grapes. The farm, Black Ankle Vineyards, produced 200 cases of wine last year and expects to do 10 times that amount this year.

"We hope to be making 4,000 to 5,000 cases a year in a couple of years," said Ed Boyce. They are just beginning to design the farm store, which they hope to open next year.

"The farm has lousy soil," which makes it ideal for growing grapes, Ed Boyce said. If the soil is too rich and fertile, he explained, the vines produce lots of leaves but not much fruit.

Winemaking is not new to Maryland. The first recorded instance of winemaking can be traced back to 1648. This was 14 years after the Ark and Dove landed at St. Clements Island with the first European settlers.

It was nearly 300 years before the first bonded winery -- Boordy Vineyards -- opened in Baltimore County in 1945.

The industry struggled to get established. A second winery opened in 1962. It closed in 1992.

The third opened in 1974 and closed nine years later.

Mike Fiore, now 62, came to the United States from Italy in 1971. He brought with him a passion for wine, but took a job as a laborer with the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

He and Rose purchased a beef farm on Whiteford Road in 1975 and planted grapes. In the beginning, it was just a hobby.

They began selling their wine in 1987, and their limited production of 1,500 gallons sold out in three months.

This year they expect to sell 25,000 to 30,000 gallons, including assortments of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinnavo, Cabernet Franc, Maryland Merlot and Caronte, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese.

Most of their wines sell for $16 to $17 a bottle, but some cost $24.

Rose Fiore said the state wine industry might grow even faster if there were more grape growers.

"Everybody needs more grapes," she said. "We hope and pray a lot of people start growing grapes."

State Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said, "It's exciting to watch the wine industry's growth. We're still tiny compared to California, New York and other states, but it's a growing industry suitable for the kind of farms we have in Maryland."

He explained that grapes are a high-value crop suitable to small farming operations. Rose Fiore said that farmers "can make a decent living off growing just 10 acres of grapes."

Despite its small size, Maryland's wine industry has been attracting attention around the world. Boordy Vineyard's Veritas Port 2002 won a silver medal at this year's Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.

Last year, Fiore won 10 medals in national and international competition. Boordy won six. Elk Run Winery in Mount Airy won 11 medals; Basignani Winery, in Sparks, won three.

The industry received a big boost from lawmakers in Annapolis this year.

In the closing hours of the General Assembly, legislators passed a bill that allows wineries that produce less than 27,500 gallons of wine a year to bypass wholesalers and distributors and sell their products directly to restaurants and retail stores.

"Without the legislation, many of the wineries would have gone out of business," said Rose Fiore. Restaurants and stores would not likely take on new wines if they had to pay the higher price charged by wholesalers, she said.

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