A vintage era for the Md. wine industry


February 04, 2007|By Ted Shelsby

It has been said that a glass of red wine each day can be good for your health. A recent congressional study says it can also be good for the nation's economic health.

Winemakers and grape growers contribute more than $162 billion annually to the U.S. economy, according to a study conducted for the Congressional Wine Caucus, a group of 182 senators and representatives from states with an interest in wine.

Although tiny compared with those in some states, Maryland's wine industry is growing and becoming an increasingly important part of the agricultural economy.

Wine sales topped $10.6 million in the state last year, according to the Maryland Wineries Association. That's more than the sales of apples and peaches combined, and bigger than hog farming, according to state agriculture officials.

"When we made our predictions five years ago, our dream was to have 25 wineries in Maryland by 2006," said Rose Fiore, who operates Fiore Winery in the Pylesville area of Harford County with her husband, Mike. "Now we have 26 and there will likely be 31 in the state by the end of the year."

Rose Fiore represents viticulture on the Maryland Agriculture Commission, a 25-member panel composed of a cross-section of farming that advises the state agriculture secretary and the governor on farm issues.

"Five years ago, we only had 13 wineries in the state," said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Winery Association. "And there had not been much growth the previous 10 years."

Atticks said the industry benefited greatly from some changes in state regulations initiated in 2001, including allowing wineries to hold wine tastings and to sell wine by the glass. The new regulations also permitted wineries to take their products to non-winery events such as the Harford County Fair or a book club meeting in Baltimore.

"These changes created something like a tourist destination," Atticks said. "People began visiting wineries in the state. They would come and spend the day. We were able to effectively market our products."

People get into the business for a variety of reasons, Atticks said.

"For some it's just a love of wine," he said. For others, it's a matter of economics. A family farm might not be able to generate enough revenue to survive growing 100 acres of corn or soybeans but could produce just as much revenue from growing 10 acres of grapes, he said.

Atticks estimates that a newcomer to the industry could start of small winery producing about 2,000 gallons of wine a year for an investment of about $50,000.

"You can make a good living from a small winery," he said.

The findings of the congressional study, which was released last month, include:

The number of U.S. wineries increased 70 percent between 2000 and 2005, to 4,929.

Wine sales nationally totaled $11.4 billion in 2005.

The industry spends $80 million a year on advertising.

The industry paid $17.1 billion in taxes in 2005, including $9.1 billion in federal and $8 billion in state and local governments.

Employment in the industry is equivalent to 1.1 million full-time jobs.

There are 23,856 farmers in the nation growing grapes on 934,750 acres.

Wine-related tourism is a $27.3 million-a-year business.

California accounts for 90 percent of the nation's wine production. New York and Washington state account for 3 percent each.

In Maryland, one barrier to the growth of the wine industry is a shortage of grapes. The Fiore Winery grows 10 acres of grapes and buys about 50 percent of the grapes it needs from California, New York and Oregon.

To address that issue, the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension is sponsoring a one-day grape-growing workshop from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 Feb. 15. The session will be held at Deaf Independent Living Associates Inc., 806 Snow Hill Road (Route 12), in Salisbury.

The first of two parts, the session will focus on planting a vineyard. The second workshop, to be offered later in the year, will focus on the basics of starting a winery.

The cost is $20 for those who register Saturday and $30 after that. For information or to register, call Laura Hunsberger, at the university's Worcester County extension office, 410-632-1972.

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