Uncorked potential: Maryland's wine industry grows thanks to technology and collaboration

For The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland wine industry is getting better with age.

Ten years ago, the state’s wine industry was a small one that did not have a reputation for making high-quality wines. Today, however, the state boasts dozens of wineries — and some of them are turning out wines on par with the world’s top winemaking regions.

The local winemaking community attributes that change to a shift from being primarily events-oriented to a sharpened focus on making high-quality wines, fueled by the adoption of new technologies, research-based vineyard management and a collaborative spirit that inspires both new vineyards and old stalwarts.

According to the Maryland Wineries Association, there are 85 licensed wineries in the state of Maryland; last year, they sold about 2.3 million bottles of wine, which was a 12 percent increase over sales in 2015.

A decade ago, there were only about 25 wineries operating in Maryland, said Phineas Deford, vice president of Boordy Vineyards, one of Maryland’s oldest wineries.

Deford has been a judge in the Maryland Comptroller’s Cup, an annual wine competition, for years.

“Seeing the improvement in quality in the last five, six or seven years is remarkable,” he said, noting that many of the winning wines are created by young vineyards.

“They’re starting off on the right foot,” he said. “Of course they’re learning as they go, but they’re coming out of the gate with some really nice wines.”

Starting off on the right foot begins with site selection: New wineries seek out the right land, then think carefully about which grapes will grow best on which parcel. The result is a better crop, which makes better wine.

Ed Boyce and his wife, Sarah O’Herron, owners of Mount Airy’s Black Ankle Vineyards, were among the first of the new, better-informed winemakers to set up shop in Maryland. Before starting Black Ankle in 2001, they researched the land and climate.

“The most important thing is the soil,” said Boyce. “When you look at Maryland vs. other wine-growing regions, our temperatures are great and our sunlight is great, but we have more rain. If you plant a grapevine in really fertile soil with a lot of water, you get a huge grapevine with lousy grapes.”

Boyce and O’Herron identified a piece of land that is “a pile of rocks with a few minerals in it,” he said.

Soil also presented a challenge for Thomas Shelton, owner of Bordeleau Winery in Eden, just south of Salisbury; his vines sit just 8 feet above sea level. “Typically, you hear better wines are made from higher elevations, but I think we’ve demonstrated that’s not necessarily true,” he said.

Shelton, who grew up on a farm and conveys a deep understanding of the land, installed drain tiles that improve drainage, keeping the soil dry, so the grapes thrive.

Selecting the most appropriate grapes for the land and climate is another key driver of making good wine and an area where Maryland wineries have improved in recent years.

“Through research and trial and error, we have finally realized which grapes will be in our near-term future,” said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association. “We’ve got wineries exploring many new varieties.”

Those varieties vary somewhat by region, but typically include the red wine grapes Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec and the white wine grapes Albarino and Gruner Vetliner. Some wineries are also having success with Italian varietals, including Barbera, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.

“It’s a balancing act between finding a grape that does well in the area and a grape that people want to drink,” said Thea Hall of Broken Spoke, a winery in Earleville, Cecil County, that officially opened this summer and has already taken home a double gold medal from the Maryland Comptroller’s Cup for its Vidal Blanc.

“We try to focus on blends,” she said. “They’re a little more smooth and drinkable.”

The team at Black Ankle also embraces blends. “Almost all of our reds are blends of grapes,” said Boyce, explaining that blends help Black Ankle maintain a consistent level of quality by adjusting proportions from year to year, depending on the success of individual grapes.

Advancements in technology have also influenced recent improvements in local wine.

Historically, most of the tanks at Boordy Vineyards were outdoors and even those that were inside were difficult to manage in terms of temperature. In 2013, Boordy’s owners built a new winery with indoor tanks outfitted with sophisticated temperature control technology that can be monitored via smartphone.

“Having that system in place was a big difference for us,” Deford said. “Being able to turn the temperature up or down a notch, depending on if you’re trying to ferment a tank or stop fermentation, without fighting Mother Nature, is really important. We’ve seen a dramatic improvement in our wines because of that.”

Another recent upgrade at Boordy was the 2010 addition of a sorting table, where grapes are hand-sorted and any “matter other than grape” (or “MOG” in winemaking terminology) is removed and discarded.

Deford notes that for wineries opening now, tools like the ones Boordy has recently added are costs of entry to the industry.

“If you’re a winery and you’re quality-focused, these are things you have to have,” said Deford, adding that newcomers to the industry benefit from the experiences of others.

“They hire soil consultants and vineyard consultants and then when they’re up and running, they hire winemaking consultants,” he said.

Regina McCarthy, director of client services for relative newcomer The Vineyards at Dodon in Davidsonville, notes that some of Dodon’s success in the bottle has been a result of building on existing knowledge.

“We’re working with and utilizing research that already exists,” she said. “We work with fabulous consultants who have done a lot of research.”

McCarthy points to Dodon’s relationship with Lucie Morton, the vineyard’s viticulturist, a world-renowned vineyard expert who has worked with many regional vineyards, including Boordy.

Dodon also relies on research to inform sustainable and responsible vineyard practices. One of the techniques they use to protect the vines while minimizing use of chemical sprays is compost tea, or liquid fertilizers made by soaking compost in water, which has been studied by researchers at Penn State in conjunction with The Rodale Institute.

“We look at other forms of agriculture to see what they’re doing,” said McCarthy. “We’re using the information that’s available and fine-tuning it toward our site specifically.”

Mike Fiore, who produces an award-winning Sangiovese at 31-year-old Fiore Winery in Harford County, notes that ultimately, creating a top-notch wine requires understanding how the land and the grape work together.

He has been familiar with Sangiovese since he was a child in Italy. But when he first planted the grape in Maryland, he struggled.

“It took me 12 years to learn the trick,” he said. “Talk about being upset — I grew up with this grape and now I’m in America and can’t make a decent glass of wine with the grape and can’t figure out why.”

Fiore partnered with a team from Cornell University to study the grape, discovering that the trick to making a good Sangiovese in Maryland has to do with cutting some of the fruit at certain points during the growing process.

He has since shared his secrets with other winemakers. “Cornell has helped me quite a bit and what I know, I share with everybody,” he said.

That attitude toward information sharing is typical of the industry today, said Ashli Johnson, the estate director at family-owned Old Westminster Winery, which planted its first grapes in 2011.

“For so long, the industry was trying to figure out who we are and what we could do,” she said. “Now there’s this sense of excitement and collaboration and support in our industry, which is encouraging better quality and people searching for better quality.”

Even given recent improvements in Maryland wine, local winemakers aren’t content to rest on their laurels. Their next challenge? Bringing down prices.

“There are a number of wineries who are contemplating how to make a top-quality $9 bottle from local grapes,” Atticks said. “That, I think, is the next frontier.”

But even without the elusive high-quality, low-cost bottle, local winemakers are proud of the advancements they’ve made.

“For the longest time, we were like Rodney Dangerfield,” Fiore said. “We had no respect from nobody. Now, we’ve got a clientele who will buy our wine and enjoy it. We earned a lot of respect from a lot of people and I’m glad we did that. Finally!”

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