Volume 14, Issue 30 ~ August 3 - August 9, 2006

Maryland Wineries Ripen on the Vine

Wine festivals get local wines in local glasses

by Ralph Camardo

Maryland wineries competed with the better known vintages of France, Australia, California, Oregon, New York and Virginia to woo drinkers at the Great Grapes Festival at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Crownsville last weekend.

“Like great art or great poetry, people think good wine has to come from somewhere else,” said Rob Deford, president of Boordy Vineyards for the past 25 years. His Baltimore County vineyard, Maryland’s oldest, is out to change this misconception.

Love has to start somewhere, and festivals like this one work like speed dates. For $20, you can sample every wine at the event. Like one, and you can buy a bottle and drink to your heart’s content.

Joining Boordy Vineyards at the festival were four other Maryland wineries: Basignani Winery of Baltimore, Woodhall Wine Cellars of Baltimore County and Cove Point and Solomon’s Island Winery of Calvert County. These Maryland vineyards rivaled 30 out-of-state wineries at the festival.

When 38-year-old Annapolitan Susan Miller thinks of wineries, she says she thinks Washington, Oregon or California. The veteran wine festival-goer said that she hardly knew Maryland wines. “There’s not enough marketing,” she said.

Miller sampled Solomons Island and Basignani, and the ice was broken.

Other festival-goers were also starting new relationships with Maryland wine. Not very was the common response of festival-goers about their familiarity with Maryland wines. Casual wine drinkers associated wine with California or France. Only a couple of people out of three dozen with whom Bay Weekly spoke had immediate enthusiasm about Maryland wines.

“We love Maryland wineries,” said Carol Lichinger of Pasadena. Two companions agreed. “We often give Maryland wines as gifts,” Lichinger said.

“You don’t think of Maryland as a wine-producing state,” said Robin Newhouse, 50, of Annapolis. She was, she said, “delighted,” to meet Maryland wines at her third wine festival.

Kevin Atticks’ job is turning Maryland into a wine-producing state.

“We need to be like California, where you find signs for wineries everywhere you drive,” said the head of the Maryland Wine Association.

With 19 wineries and four about to open — including Fridays Creek in Owings this weekend — Maryland still lags behind not only dominant California but also other East Coast states, like New York and Virginia.

Twenty-five years ago, Maryland and Virginia had roughly the same number of wineries. Virginia has matured to 110 wineries, while Maryland’s growth has lagged until the 21st century.

Finally, Maryland’s wine market is exploding, Atticks said, with wineries “selling everything they produce.”

About one and a half percent of wine sales in the state are Maryland wines, Boordy’s Deford reports. Competition is good for business, he said, so the more wineries the better. More grapevines means more open spaces, more land preserved for agriculture — not converted to highways, condominiums and shopping malls.

Maryland wineries are growing faster than Maryland grapes. Boordy adds fruit to many of its wines, and Tim Lewis of Cove Point Winery in Calvert County is following suit. He’s purchased 500 pounds of peaches and 240 of blackberries from a farm in St. Mary’s County.

He said he expected his peach Chardonnay to be a “big crowd pleaser,” because of the stifling heat. His reckoning was right. After the two days of the festival, he had only half a case of Chardonnay unsold. Overall, he’d sold or sampled 30 of the 40 cases he brought. Even red wine was popular, though temperatures soared.

The scorching heat did not keep festival-goers from sampling many wines, strolling the fairgrounds and listening to live music. Jazz music filled the humid air, while people stuck heads — or as much of themselves as they could fit — under water spigots. Others relaxed on lawn chairs or blankets to take in live music with their wine, bread and cheese. Others sat on the grass within the cooling embrace of any shade possible.

Despite the heat, festival-goers got to know wine and Maryland wine in particular. First-timer Frank Downs of Centerville learned to recognize a wine’s bouquet, finish and nose.

Eric Elston of Annapolis finished a bottle of apple-flavored Boordy wine. “I would definitely purchase this wine again,” he said.

Manny Decia — carrying a case on his shoulder and chewing a cigar — said he was “not very familiar,” with Maryland wines. He and wife Mary, both of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said their speed date with the Cove Point Pinot Gris was “excellent.”

That’s the kind of response Cove Point’s Lewis longs for. He uses festivals like this to introduce his wines to new areas where few stores carry his bottles. He says he’s so small — he makes his wine in his home — that he hasn’t made much of a push into retail, even in neighboring Anne Arundel County.

Even much larger Boordy has to rely on festivals to bring in new customers, Deford says.

Great Grapes was the first wine festival for 25-year-old Megan Wilson of Edgewater. But she already supports Maryland wines, often checking labels when shopping with the intention of purchasing wine from a Maryland winery.

Robyn Fisher, 48, of Glen Burnie, who says she has toured most of the Maryland wineries, agrees. “If you don’t put money in,” she says, “they can’t grow.”

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