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Rainy summer in Carroll complicates grape growing, wine production

Sarah O'Herron, co-owner of Black Ankle Vineyards in Mount Airy said the abundance of rain this summer, likely the most rain on record for a season in her area, has resulted in a smaller than normal  harvest, albeit one of good quality.

Heavy rains have triggered flash floods, soaked the ground and closed roads in Carroll County this summer.

They’ve also complicated an already tricky grape-growing season for vineyards and wineries.

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“It’s been a difficult year for grape-growing,” said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association. “Every point of the year has been open to some type of damage.”

First it was winter frosts prolonging into spring, then record rainfall over the summer. These conditions were more prominent in central and western Maryland, Atticks said.

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If rain comes early it’s good, but once you get grapes on the vine, it’s bad news, Atticks told the Times.

Whereas grapes in the produce aisles of grocery stores are juicy and robust, yielding a watery taste, idyllic wine grapes are small, dry and strong tasting, Atticks said. “You want to have pulp and sugar.”

“We don’t have enough sunshine to dry out the crops,” said Diane Hale, owner of Galloping Goose Vineyards in Hampstead. “It’s been a very hard year.”

Sun influences how the grapes ripen, Hale added. Usually a good fix of sunshine and dryness in August and September boosts ripening, but “we haven’t had that this year.”

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The extent to which rain effects vineyards can depend on their location.

Grape vines absorb water through their roots, Atticks said, and vineyards are traditionally located on slopes with less absorbent soil so that water drains faster.

Black Ankle Vineyards in Mount Airy is lucky because it is located on a “very, very well-drained site,” owner Sarah O’Herron told the Times. The rocky soil and hillside help water dissipate quickly, she added.

Farmers were already worried that this growing season would be hampered by a cold, wet spring, and weeks of developing drought conditions. Now, they're trying to salvage what crops survived those challenges and have recently been drowning in flooded fields or afflicted with mold or disease.

But the conditions this year have decreased the size of the crops, O’Herron said.

It affects each vineyard differently.

Hale’s white grapes have been below par, she said. But O’Herron said her white grapes were impacted less than the red variety.

Some wineries may respond to the overly wet summer by leaving grapes out longer to dry out, Atticks said.

But the Maryland wine industry, he continued, has become adept at handling the challenges of operating in an area that experiences all seasons and most weather extremes: They still make good wine.

The last three years offered fantastic wine-making conditions, “we’re a little bit spoiled,” O’Herron said. “We know that where we are, the climate will be bad from time to time.”

There might be fewer grapes per cluster, and a smaller overall harvest, but as long as there are some good grapes, “our winemakers can make good vintage.”

And even if there is a slight impact on their wine businesses, which is unlikely, it won’t happen until a couple years down the road, Hale and O’Herron explained.

As owners of Local Homestead Products in Marston, Trevor Hoff, 26, and his fiancee Victoria Robinson, 24, have spent this week preparing for their second weekend selling the hydroponic produce they’ve been growing for eight weeks — lettuce, herbs, kale, Swiss chard and collard greens.

Grapes must be fermented. Each winemaker puts their own touches on the process.

“Even though it’s a very bad year for grape quality,” Hale said, “I don’t think it will affect us down the line.”

Some wines are marketed by the names of the grapes — like cabernet sauvignon — and wine enthusiasts know they’re going to taste a little different every year.

Varying grapes are part of the business, Atticks explained.

“One of the great things about enjoying wine is there’s a story behind it,” Atticks said. “It’s an agricultural process.”

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