Harford winery looking to add specialty spirits

As tastes grow more specialized, a local vintner plans to branch out with distilled beverages

October 14, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to the sun

While it won't be confused with its counterparts in California or New York anytime soon, the relatively young Maryland wine industry is showing signs of coming into its own.

In the past decade, sales have crept up steadily, and state-produced bottles are a growing presence on package store shelves. Wineries are being started each year, and legislators have passed laws intended to help the business grow.

Now, the Maryland industry is taking a step in a new direction with the capability to operate distilleries that vintners can use to make grappa - brandy from grapes - that is used in specialty beverages such as port wine.

The first vineyard to undertake a distillery operation is Fiore Winery in Harford County. After two decades of making a name for himself producing wine, operator Michael Fiore sees a distillery as a way to expose Maryland wine aficionados to uncommon types of beverages.

"I want to do some new things to bring a little bit of Italy to Maryland," said Fiore, 63, an Italian immigrant who owns the Pylesville winery.

Industry officials say consumer interest in such beverages is part of a broader trend, the growing popularity of specialty food and drink items in recent years.

"There was a renaissance of wine, then bread, and now there is a renaissance of spirits," said Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute, which promotes the craft distillery industry, which includes smaller-scale operations. "People want handcrafted items. They want things that are locally made."

Using a copper still that cost about $12,000, Fiore is embarking on small-scale testing before purchasing a larger system that would cost about $100,000, he said. He makes about 40,000 gallons, or 200,000 bottles, of wine per year, using grapes that he grows in his 13 1/2 -acre vineyard.

Fiore plans to distill three specialty spirits: grappa, the brandy made from wine byproducts; port wine, a mix of wine and grappa; and limoncello, a lemon liqueur made from grappa and organic lemon peels. He selected the beverages because of their growing popularity in the United States, he said.

Fiore said grappa's popularity has grown, much like that of wine, among Americans in the past couple of decades. The beverage has evolved from a common favorite of farmers and the working class in Italy before World War II to an upper-end spirit in demand in the United States, Fiore said.

"When I asked people [years ago] what wine meant to them, they would say it was something that a dog does when it is in a lot of pain," he said. "The same thing happened with grappa. Years ago, people didn't know about grappa; now it's the yuppie drink of choice."

Fiore's grappa and port wine will cost about $30 a bottle, the limoncello a little more, he said.

The door opened for distillery ventures in 2005, when the General Assembly passed legislation permitting distillery operations at wineries.

Fiore led the effort by Maryland winemakers to lobby for the law, overcoming legislators' concerns that craft distilleries would affect the business of the state's large distilleries.

"I had to convince the Maryland legislators that I was not going to make the same drinks and would not take away [the large distilleries'] business," Fiore said.

The law limits the amount of beverage that can be produced to 200 gallons, far less than the 4,000 gallons a typical craft distillery produces, Owens said.

But the importance of paving the way, if only in a modest way, for new vineyard products cannot be overestimated, industry officials say.

"Wine drinkers are the winemakers' market, but it's important to make products that give the wine connoisseurs new products that are also made from grapes," said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association.

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