Grape expectations

Lacking state-grown grapes, officials ask farmers to embrace viniculture

October 13, 2006|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,Sun reporter

Morris Zwick likes to say that he got into the wine business at the consumption end and worked his way backward.

That interest in wine, stretching back years, was in part what prompted Zwick and his wife, Janet Zwick, to begin growing grapes on her family farm in 2003. But the couple, who plan to open Terrapin Station Winery in Elkton in May, had no illusions when they entered the industry of just how difficult - and costly - this new endeavor would be. (In Maryland, the initial investment for labor, vines, trellises and other expenses for a vineyard is estimated to be between $10,000 and $15,000 per acre.)

"I've spent long hours in the vineyard crawling in the dirt, working with heavy equipment," said Zwick, who still hasn't quit his day job as an information technology executive. "It's kind of like sausage: You don't necessarily want to see the process, you want to see the end result."

In a state where winemakers have to buy nearly half their grapes from other states, industry officials are pushing to attract more people like the Zwicks and ease the hardships novices face. They will get a boost this year from a new state fund, with the inaugural $98,000 grant earmarked for research, marketing and education - including vineyard and winery seminars around the state. Another $150,000 will be available in the next fiscal year.

"We're looking for more people to get into the business of growing grapes," said Richard Penna, a grape grower and chairman of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Wine and Grape Growing. "Farmers who may want to devote some of their land from growing wheat or corn or soybeans or apples to growing grapes - that's what we're looking to do, to increase the number of acres in Maryland devoted to growing wine grapes."

While the number of Maryland wineries has doubled since 2002 to 22, grape and wine production have not kept pace with the region, according to a 2005 report by the Maryland Wine and Grape Advisory Committee. Pennsylvania and Virginia, for instance, produce more wine and grapes per capita and per square mile, the report said.

Wine and grape experts say the state has excellent climates and conditions for grape growing. Conditions on the Eastern Shore, for instance, are good for growing white grapes and red grapes harvested earlier in the season. The more mountainous areas of Maryland - with longer seasons, warm days and cooler evenings - lend themselves to growing red grapes harvested later in the season.

Growing grapes, however, simply hasn't caught on in a state where corn and soybeans are the biggest crops.

One consequence is that Maryland wineries are forced to import grapes from Pennsylvania, Virginia, California and Washington state, according to local officials and grape growers.

"That's unacceptable," said Bill Rohrer, president of the Maryland Grape Growers Association and a grape grower.

Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, said grapes are one of the highest - if not the highest - value crops in agriculture. Each acre produces three to five tons of grapes, and a ton of grapes sells for between $800 and $2,500, Atticks said.

But getting started can be costly. The $10,000- to $15,000-per-acre estimated investment does not include the cost of land. And it can take four to five years from the time rooted grape vines are planted until they produce a commercial crop. Over that time, the vines must be pruned and trained to climb onto the trellises.

The industry plans to use the state grant in part to help growers who are doing that work or are interested in the prospect. Some of the money will fund a survey of Maryland vineyards and how much fruit they grow. Some will go toward field assistance for farmers and promotional items for events and meetings. And some will pay for site suitability surveys so potential grape growers can look at a map to see where varieties of grapes grow best.

The new initiatives come at a time when more people are getting into the industry. Four wineries have received state licenses to operate within the past four weeks, and an estimated five wineries are expected to be licensed each year over the next four to five years, Atticks said. (Wineries can begin producing wine once they are licensed; it typically takes eight months to a year after that to open, Atticks said.)

That's a marked turnaround from earlier years. Between 1996 and 2002, no new licenses were issued.

Atticks believes the new wineries reflect a growing wine culture, with people more interested in wine tourism, wine travel and starting their own wineries, he said. The movie Sideways didn't hurt, either.

Take Charlie Daneri and his wife, Emily Williams. The couple, who have spent most of their careers in software development, became interested in vineyards and grape growing when they moved from Catonsville three years ago to Frederick, where they bought a vineyard.

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