Under gray skies on a hillside in northern Carroll County on Saturday morning, three seasonal workers from Mexico picked the last of the 2017 grapes that Bert Basignani, one of Maryland's veteran vintners, hopes to turn into a cabernet for sale in 2020.
It is harvest season at the state's 70 vineyards, including one of the oldest, Mowbray — established in 1964 in the Silver Run Valley, just a few miles from the Pennsylvania line, by a wine-loving, Cambridge-educated research psychologist.
G. Hamilton Mowbray was a pioneer of Maryland wine-making, one of the first to prove that classic European grapes could be grown in the Mid-Atlantic. He was only the second American to receive the French Croix de Chevalier de Merite Agricole for his contributions to the craft.
In the years before his death in 2001, Mowbray passed along his knowledge to other aspiring winemakers along the East Coast.
One of them was Bert Basignani.
"Ham Mobray was my mentor," said Basignani, who established his winery on 10 acres off Falls Road in Sparks in Baltimore County in 1986.
To produce between 4,000 and 5,000 cases of wine a year, he grows and harvests fruit from three vineyards besides the one at his winery. That includes the Mowbray hillside, an important part of Maryland's wine-making heritage.
The grapes Basignani's workers picked Saturday will likely end up as cabernets, or cabernet blends, bottled and labeled in August 2019 and offered for sale the following winter.
As a grape year in Maryland, 2017 has been rocky, Basignani said. The ideal growing season is marked by average rainfall and hot summer days, with a flavor-concentrating, fruit-ripening dry spell in August and September, heading into harvest.
"This year we had a lot of rain and not a lot of heat," Basignani said. "But we had heat and a dry spell at the end. September saved it for the fruit still hanging. If that hadn't happened, I would have said it was a poor year."
Whatever the conditions, the grapes need to be harvested when taste tests, instinct and a little science say they are ready. That's why Basignani sent his three grape pickers to finish the harvest at the Mowbray vineyard. The men lifted the netting that keeps birds away from the fruit and snipped off bunches of cabernet grapes, filling plastic containers in a matter of minutes.
Across Maryland, the grape harvest has been underway at vineyards in 19 counties — from long-established operations, such as Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore County and Elk Run Vineyards in Frederick County, to three new ones that opened this year — Robin Hill Farm and Vineyard in Brandywine in southern Prince George's County; Broken Spoke Vineyard and Winery in Earleville, Cecil County; and Chateau Bu-De Vineyard and Winery in Chesapeake City, also in Cecil County.
Chateau Bu-De opened with a spacious tasting room and a view of the Bohemia River, making it an attractive new destination for wine lovers, says Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association.
Atticks noted that newer wineries, such as Big Cork in Washington County and Old Westminster in Carroll County, have been successfully marketing their products and their facilities — modern tasting rooms and banquet space, monthly events — to millennials. Adults in that demographic are interested in supporting local agriculture, and that includes wines.
"Millennials represent the biggest uptrend in Maryland wines," Atticks said.
Sales have increased, he said, even as more brands appear on store shelves and at wine festivals, creating a level of competition never seen before.
More than 467,132 gallons of Maryland wine — about 2.4 million bottles — were sold during the 2016 fiscal year (from July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016), according to the wineries association and data from the state comptroller. That represented a 12 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. Atticks said Maryland wines now account for more than 3 percent of all wine sales across the state.