Maryland's Taste of the Grape
Jan 20, 2014 10:52AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Gallery: Maryland's Taste of the Grape [11 Images] Click any image to expand.
With the exception of his beer drinking years at the University of Maryland, Morris Zwick has “always been a bit of a wine person” (perhaps an inherited trait from his Italian mother!). So it may not come as much of a surprise that 10 years ago, Zwick and his wife, Janet, turned their “hobby grown out of control” into a livelihood and opened their Elkton-based Terrapin Station Winery.
What may be a surprise, though, is how many other folks are following suit, joining one of the state’s most rapidly growing industries. Currently, there are 62 wineries throughout Maryland (not all are open to the public). “The industry is certainly in a growth phase,” says Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, who points out that in fiscal year 2011, Maryland wineries sold 345,599 gallons (approximately 1,744,275 bottles) of wine, an 11.6- percent increase over 2010. That translated into annual sales of approximately $24.4 million.
That’s a far cry from when Anthony Aellen’s parents planted their first grapes in 1972, officially opening Linganore Winecellars in Mt. Airy four years later. Today, Linganore— the oldest continuously owned, family run winery in the state—produces 160,000 gallons of 30 different wines, from white and red dinner wines to semi-sweet grape, fruit, and honey wines. But when the family first began commercial operations and sought advice on what kinds of grapes to plant, they were met with blank stares. “Wine in Maryland?” Aellen recalls. “No such thing.”
Of course, that wasn’t quite the case. The earliest recorded instance of Maryland winemaking dates back to 1648, and the longest-running winery (Boordy Vineyards, in Hydes) opened in 1945. But it’s only been in the past two decades that Maryland winemaking has taken off, from the establishment of the Maryland Grape Growers Association and the Maryland Wineries Association in the 1980s to the rise of popular wine festivals such as Columbia’s Wine in the Woods—now only one of many wine festivals and wine trails throughout the state. (For more information, visit marylandwine.com.)
But it has been the legislative changes made since 2010 that have most affected the growth of winemaking in Maryland. That year, the Maryland Winery Modernization Act was signed into law, allowing wineries to sell the bottles at farmers' markets and clarifying other things a winery can and cannot do—like what foods can be served in a fashion room.
“Our legislative efforts have been focused on clearing obstacles so wineries can better market their products,” Atticks says. “Allowing wineries to attend farmers’ markets, for example, is major progress, since markets attract customers who are already locavores. Our goal is to make them locapours!”
Bruce Perrygo, coordinator of the Maryland Grape Growers Association, is also happy about the new changes. “The laws regarding the wine industry in Maryland—which stemmed from the days of Prohibition—were very restrictive,” Perrygo says. “The changes have made a huge difference.”
Along with the more relaxed wine-related laws, Maryland offers winemakers a wide variety of microclimates in the state, which means that no matter where you live, if you want to grow wine grapes, you can. It’s just a matter of finding the right grape for the right climate, Perrygo says, acknowledging, however, that Maryland’s grape growers are still learning what grows best where. “In Europe, they’ve had thousands of years to figure that out,” he says. “We’re still new at this!”
The biggest climate-related challenge for Maryland winemakers (not to mention the rest of us!) is our legendary humidity. Perrygo explains that many grape varieties do well with hot days and cool nights. “As a rule, we only have half of that equation,” he chuckles. Grape growing makes sense for farmers for a number of reasons, according to Perrygo. In the first place, the increasing number of wineries in the state means an increasing quantity of grapes needed. (According to the Schmidt Vineyard Management Company in Sudlersville, only 50 percent of the tonnage of grapes needed is being produced in the state.) In addition, Perrygo says, grape growing requires only a small amount of acreage, uses very few pesticides, and creates jobs throughout the agritourism industry.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Eastern Shore—once known for, first, its tobacco farms, which over time gave way to grain farms—is one of the emerging grape-growing regions of the state. “The soil on the Shore is similar to the soil in some areas of the Bordeaux region in France,” Perrygo explains.
In addition to vineyard management companies and trade associations, vintners have other sources to turn to for assistance, such as the University of Maryland Viticulture Science Center, directed by Dr. Joseph A. Fiola, who works with existing vineyard and winery owners to increase production and improve quality, and with new vineyard owners to expand the industry in Maryland.
For the Zwicks, who were not formally trained in viticulture (the science of wine making), turning their winery into a successful venture has required both the advice of experts like Fiola, as well as extensive research and experimentation on their own. There also have been the challenges of increased competition and reluctance of retailers to carry wines their customers may not be familiar with. “Consumers tend to fall back on what they know,” Zwick says.
That’s not necessarily true for all Maryland wine drinkers, though. Crofton resident Lynn Daue enjoys California and Oregon wines, but she has her local favorites, as well, such as St. Michaels Winery’s Gollywobbler Pink, especially in the summer—“The sweet blush is refreshing when served chilled on the back deck!”—and Linganore Winecellars’ Medieval Mead, a fruit wine served at the Maryland Renaissance Festival (in goblets yet!). “It’s a sweet treat that pairs well with a roasted turkey leg and a jousting bout!” says Daue, who adds that when drinking Maryland wines, she gravitates toward blends instead of single-grape varietals.
The good news for local winemakers is that the image of Maryland wine is changing, Atticks says, as more wineries are producing top-quality, highly competitive wines. “Our Maryland Wine Week—held every June—is designed to encourage local restaurants and wine shops to try Maryland wine again,” he says. “The industry has evolved so much in the last decade.”
Though, as wineries go, Terrapin Station is on the small side, producing 2,500 cases a year of such wines as Traminette, Cabernet Franc, and Five Rivers Rose, the wines are garnering critical praise and becoming more widely available—at the winery's own tasting room, on its online store, at wine festivals, in retails stores, and in several restaurants.
The Zwicks also have created a niche with alternative packaging in the form of a box. The wine industry has seen a substantial growth in alternative packaging, Zwick says, which has long been popular in other countries, where wine drinking is not reserved for special occasions as it traditionally has been in the U.S. “If you’re taking wine to the beach, like you do in Australia,” Zwick says, “you don’t want to carry it in a bottle; you want it in a bag or a box.”
Alternatively packaged wine also is less expensive to transport, he says. A case of wine bottles weighs 42 pounds, while a case of wine boxes is only 22 pounds. That not only makes financial sense, but is environmentally responsible, reducing the carbon energy required to package, ship, and store wine, says Zwick (who pledges some of his profits to efforts that protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed, preserve the state’s agricultural heritage, and save the Diamondback Terrapin, a native of the Chesapeake Bay and the state reptile).
Though the Zwicks hope in time to grow their business, they want to do it in a financially sustainable way. “This is an expensive business to get into so we want to go about it sensibly,” Zwick says. “But we’re poking away at it!”
For Anthony Aellen, the growing number of wineries in Maryland, such as Terrapin Station, is not cause for concern, as his competition comes not from other vintners in the state but “from the store shelf.” “Maryland is responsible for approximately 400,000 of the 11 million gallons of wine produced throughout the world,” Aellen says. “There’s no way a small winery like ours can compete with pricing from the larger wineries.”
What Maryland wineries like Linganore can offer, Aellen says, is the personal contact that he believes customers are looking for. “People want to know where their food—wine included—comes from,” he says. “With our wine, they know who makes it; they know our family.”
The continued success of Linganore Winecellars—which is distributed in 1,200 stores throughout Maryland, Delaware, Washington, D.C., and now moving into Virginia and West Virginia—means doing what the Aellens have done since they opened: listening to their customers. “We don’t introduce any new products until we’ve talked to the people who buy our wines,” he says. “We put our own ego aside and make what they like, as they’re the ultimate judges.”
What Americans, in general, prefer, Aellen says, are sweet wines (“we’re brought up on sugar here!”), but while wine drinkers in Europe—who are brought up with table wine at dinner from the time they are children—prefer a dryer wine with meals, Aellen tells customers, “Everyone’s taste is different and nobody’s taste is wrong. “At the end of the day, it’s all just old fruit juice!”