Outside the bottle

Md. vintners add tours, tastings, music to increase business

November 01, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

When Harford County's newest vintners went shopping for land, they brought along a shovel. They found soil nearly ideal for growing grapes, on a property sloped to catch the right amount of sun.

Almost as important, Peter and Mary Ianniello settled on a spot with sweeping views of the Chesapeake, near Havre de Grace and just minutes from Interstate 95's supply of potential sight-seers. Their Mount Felix Manor winery advertises the growing conditions in the vineyard - and the ambience of a 19th-century mansion.

Just as farmers have discovered the benefits of school tours, corn mazes and hay rides, winery operators know there is more to their business than what's in the bottle.

"Any kind of extra activity that you can add will only add to your business," said Chris Kent, winemaker at Woodhall Wine Cellars, in Parkton. Woodhall has a restaurant and regularly puts on concerts, featuring a range of music.

Kevin M. Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, said the Ianniellos "have the perfect match of history and location. Wineries are finding themselves to be outposts for tourism."

At Mount Felix Manor, the owners are scheduling tours, tastings and receptions and making plans for a "School of Wine" that would allow connoisseurs to blend and bottle their own vintages.

A stone patio that runs the length of the circa 1830 Georgian mansion lets visitors relax, take in the view and savor a glass of chardonnay, merlot or zinfandel. A large swing hanging from a towering tree that the owners say predates their house affords the best view of the 15-acre farm.

Their refurbished guesthouse in a wing of the manor and a wine and gift shop off the portico will help "visitors to experience Mount Felix as well as the wine," Mary Ianniello said.

Havre de Grace's location along the Susquehanna River is ideal for grapes, said Joseph Fiola, a specialist in viticulture at the University of Maryland's Research and Education Center in Keedysville.

"There are a lot of good areas in Maryland where you can grow high-quality grapes, but the good air movement off the water and the moderate winters make Havre de Grace one of the better sites," Fiola said.

While their vineyard matured, the Ianniellos renovated the property's original barn and installed equipment to ferment and bottle wine. They recently bottled a portion of last year's harvest.

State growers harvest 800 tons of grapes annually and sold nearly 1.2 million bottles of wine last year. Wine sales reached nearly $13 million in 2007, four times the sales volume of a decade ago, and are increasing by nearly 20 percent annually.

Maryland's 35 wineries had more than 600,000 visitors in 2006, and those numbers continue to rise, said Margot Amelia, state tourism director.

Wineries are showing off their vineyards and how their wine is made, said Rob Deford, owner of Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, which was among the first in Maryland to make a winery a Sunday destination in the country. The attractions have grown to include Saturday night dances and fall festivals.

"All our wineries are seeing increased traffic," said Karen Fedor, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture and adviser to the governor's wine and grape commission.

The Frederick County wine trail - which offers a visitor's guide to six wineries - has proved such a success since it started last year that other areas, including Harford and Cecil counties, are trying to replicate it, she said.

"The more wineries we have the better," said Mike Fiore, who founded a winery in Pylesville 25 years ago.

Fiore Winery, which sells about 40,000 gallons of wine annually, welcomes as many as 100 families a weekend, many of whom bring a picnic basket and linger over lunch under the arbors, Fiore said.

The Ianniellos can splash family history and local lore into visitors' experiences. He can speak of a tradition begun by his grandfathers, who made wine from family vines brought from Italy. She can share the story of a home with deep ties to the area where one of America's first vineyards flourished and caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson, who requested its root stock for Monticello.

The family has harvested the crop for next year's wines, knowing many factors in the soil, air and water must converge to make a fine wine.

The Mount Felix label - a reproduced painting of the manor house by a guest who was inspired by the view - marks several vintages from the 2007 crop, all with names tied to local history.

Adlum's First, a dry red, honors John Adlum, a pioneer in American viticulture, a former Havre de Grace resident and the first person to write a book on wine in America. O'Neill's Bravado, a sweet red, pays homage to Havre de Grace resident John O'Neill, who single-handedly defied the British moored in the harbor during the War of 1812.

The whites are Matilda's Devotion, named for O'Neill's daughter, who successfully pleaded for her father's life, and Mitchell's Manor. That's a nod to agriculturist John Mitchell - who built Mount Felix.

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