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Maryland Wineries Bottle Up Regional Taste

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By Eileen Murphy | Posted 5/24/2000

Bordeaux. Napa. Rapel Valley. The Rhone. Sonoma. Baltimore County? mOK, maybe Maryland doesn't yet have those cycle-the-wineries tours, and we don't have a local tasting room full of Academy Award memorabilia (à la California's Niebaum-Coppola vineyard). Maybe the state hasn't managed to transform its 10 wineries into international tourist destinations. Still, Maryland wines are taking their rightful place in the cellar.Free State wines are by no means a new idea. The Maryland Society for Promoting the Culture of the Vine was formed in 1829; Boordy, the state's oldest operating winery, turns 55 this year. With a burgeoning economy that allows upscale consumers to pursue increasingly refined tastes, and just-passed statewide legislation that will allow wineries to market their product more directly to consumers, Maryland wines are more profitable than ever. In 1999, the state's wineries produced more than 410,000 bottles of wine, with annual sales of nearly $3 million, an increase of 14.3 percent over last year's sales.

Such growth is part of a larger trend. According to Rob Deford, owner of Boordy and the newly elected chairman of the American Vintners Association, Americans in general are drinking more wine and gravitating toward better varieties. "They start with the gateway wines--blush and flavored wines--and then leave sweet wines behind," Deford says. "Eventually they turn to dry wines that go well with food."

That transition occurs as drinkers learn more about wine, and local vineyards have positioned themselves to teach the masses. Maryland's wineries make much of their money through public events--summer concerts, festivals, wine-tasting dinners--that bring consumers to their facilities and provide an opportunity to sample new varieties in a casual, festive setting. The state's wineries participate in two major festivals--May's Wine in the Woods in Columbia and September's Maryland Wine Festival in Westminster--as well as on-site activities at their own vineyards. Boordy alone takes part in 52 events annually, including a summer concert series at its winery in the Long Green Valley countryside.

Shawn Cunningham, a wine consultant at Wells Discount Liquors in North Baltimore, says all of these wine activities have the desired effect on his customers. "[Sales] go up dramatically after the wine festivals. People go to the festivals and discover new wines," he says.

The challenge for Maryland winemakers is to convince these newly adventuresome consumers to treat their more sophisticated palates to local wines. It's a tough sell in some cases; many Maryland wines are more expensive than their California or Washington state counterparts, and they can be hard to find in some areas.

There's also the issue of snob appeal--how can anything grown here at home be that good? Deford has an approach that appeals to most wine-drinkers' inherent Francophilia. "In Europe, people drink regional wines," he says. "In France, you'd be shot if you drank a Bordeaux in the wrong region. Good local or regional cuisine calls for good regional wines."

But Maryland cuisine--crab cakes, fried chicken, just about anything with Old Bay--doesn't generally lend itself to wine drinking. You'd get laughed out of your neighborhood crab feast if you showed up with a nice bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Wells' Cunningham considers himself "a very big proponent of matching food with wines," but he doesn't suggest Maryland wine to accompany traditional Maryland cooking. He's more likely to recommend it for the quality--"There are a couple of Maryland wines that have done well in terms of reviews and awards. If a Maryland wine has won an award, we'll recommend it along with a Napa." In addition, Cunningham says, many people buy Maryland wine for its souvenir value: "It's a good out-of-state gift. People ask for recommendations for Maryland wines" when they visit folks in other parts of the country, he says. "You want to show your brother-in-law."

"The wine industry is an entertainment industry," says Joe Fiola, a specialist in small fruit and viticulture at New Jersey's Rutgers University. "Local wineries rely on ethnocentrism, a pride in your region, the desire to support agriculture in your region. When you have that local pride, you want to share local wines with your friends."

Fiola comes to discussing Maryland wines through his role in a cooperative formed by scientists working in East Coast universities. By drawing on the talents of a Rutgers viticulturist, an Eastern Shore grower, and a research liaison at University of Maryland's extension center in Garrett County, the cooperative helps farmers find practical uses for research-based information.

The cooperative promotes agriculture, and Fiola says wine grapes can be "a most profitable agricultural enterprise." Besides, as farmland is gobbled up by developers, vineyards co-exist more easily with suburban development than traditional farms, allowing agriculture to flourish amid rolling hills and grand houses. You never hear wineries' neighbors complaining about the smells emanating from the fields.

The East Coast isn't the only region that's happened upon this sort of open-space compromise; according to the Deford, there are more than 2,000 wineries in the United States, and North Dakota is the only continental state without a winery. However, the mid-Atlantic states are particularly well-suited to wine agriculture, thanks to their climate and soil. Maryland has four geographic regions within the state, and three--Piedmont, Blue Ridge, and Coastal--are conducive to grape cultivation. Each provides a microclimate that creates the ideal environment for a specific variety of wine grapes.

"To me, the major advantage on the East Coast is the diversity of wines. You can go to most local wineries and find any kind of wine you'd like," Fiola says. "We have the traditional varieties--the Cabernets, the Reislings--and have the added advantage of creating diverse varieties. We can do dry to semidry to sweet to dessert to sparkling to fortified to fruit wines."

Fiola admits that being a jack of all trades has its limits. "We can't do as great a job on some of the fine varieties. Periodically we come up with some great Cabs," he says, but the quality fluctuates from year to year. "In good vintages, we can compete with or approach the best California Cabs."

Deford says Boordy comes up with a "great Cab" only one year out of 10. Conveniently, he says, 1997 was such a year, and Deford is currently promoting his '97 Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The price is steep for a casual wine consumer ($27 a bottle), but the appeal lies in the wine's quality and local identity.

"Wine should be regional, and regions are different," Deford says. And he offers a culinary comparison: "If you go to the Southwest, you try Tex-Mex. If you go to New Orleans, you try Cajun." And if you're in Maryland, you drink Maryland wine. Cheers.

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