In the parched summer of '99, Rob Deford casts his gaze across his 16-acre vineyard. This is the driest year he can remember, he says, since his parents set him to pulling leaves off grapevines in 1965, when he was 14.
"These vines are in beautiful balance," he says, giving an affectionate tug to a clump of cabernet sauvignon grapes. "It's looking like a wonderful year."
As most farmers watch crops shrivel and line up for disaster aid, vineyards are shaping up as the silver lining to Maryland's agricultural catastrophe.
"We're almost a mirror image of other kinds of farming," says Deford, 48, president of Boordy Vineyards in the northeast Baltimore County community of Hydes. "They have all my sympathy, but we're doing very well."
With roots that can extend 40 feet down, grapevines do not suffer except in the most extreme and extended droughts. Lots of sunshine and little rainfall produce small, sweet grapes with unusually intense flavors. Drought keeps foliage trim, reduces weed growth and cuts down on disease.
"I expect this to be our third super vintage in a row -- because the last two years were dry, too," says Emily Johnston, who operates Copernicus Vineyards, north of Westminster, with her husband, Jack. "Our vines are 12 years old, and they long since learned we're not going to water them."
"The corn is scorched all around us," says Rose Fiore, who runs Harford County's Fiore Winery with her husband, Mike. "These poor farmers are going to be completely wiped out. But it should be another great year for wine."
Jim Russell, 79, a veteran grape grower who lives in Germantown, is often consulted by fellow members of the Maryland Grape Growers Association. He's hearing good news.
"I haven't heard anybody complaining," says Russell, who planted his first vines in California a half-century ago. "We aren't close to having any problems yet."
Though the phrase "Maryland wine" can draw a snicker or raised eyebrow from California connoisseurs, grape growers and winemakers in the state are beginning to change that.
Maryland wineries produced a record 82,022 gallons of wine in the year ending June 30, said Mike Golden, spokesman for the state comptroller's office. Boordy produced about 24,000 gallons, though Deford tries to keep his perspective: "I'd be a puddle in the bottom of one of Gallo's tanks," he says.
But some Maryland vintages are earning excellent notices. Wine guru Robert Parker declared a recent Boordy vintage "impressive enough to be matched with the best from Europe and California."
This year's relentless sun promises to generate more raves. But Deford is not gloating.
"We're at the complete mercy of nature," Deford says. He remembers the grim year of 1996, when steady rains wrecked the crop.
In that year, the damp produced all the fungal diseases that afflict grapes. Chief among them are "powdery mildew," which stops the ripening process and leaves grapes with a bad aroma, and "bunch rot," which attacks the soggy clumps of grapes before harvest.
That gives him insight into how growers of other crops must feel.
"They are in the position I was in in '96 -- complete helplessness," he says. "For them to wake up every day to a dry, clear sky is just like it was for me to wake up every morning to the sound of rain on the roof."
Some of Boordy's agricultural neighbors in Long Green Valley say that's a sound they'd love to hear this year.
"We've cut back our planting already, almost to nothing," says Wink Rupprecht, vice president of Pinehurst Nursery, a landscaping contractor. "We've put extra people and money into watering. We've lost plants. The new trees we planted in March are not growing."
Rupprecht says it's the worst year he can recall in 30 years in the business.
Louis C. Hoffman III, who has grown peaches and apples near Boordy since 1968, says his fruits are much smaller than usual.
"The trees aren't wilting down like the vegetables," Hoffman says. "But they're not wilting down because to protect the trees, the trees are sacrificing the fruit."
Peaches that ordinarily average 2 3/4 inches in diameter are barely more than 2 inches this year. His apples -- some destined for Boordy's Apple White dessert wine -- also promise to be undersized. "It really cuts your volume," he says.
Because Maryland winemakers often can't buy enough local grapes to meet their needs, they lobby farmers in the state to add vineyards to their repertoire. But the response, says Emily Johnston, has been "tepid."
Deford says that's understandable, because of the long-term investment required to produce a decent crop of wine grapes. He knows about that; in 1980, when his family bought the state's oldest winemaking operation, he rushed home from his winemaking courses at the University of California at Davis to convert a cattle barn 2-feet-deep in cow manure to a winery. Only after several seasons did the wine become respectable.
"It takes quite a few years for the wines to get interesting," he says. "The roots go deeper and get into more varied soils and minerals."
But Maryland's farmers might have been better off if they insured themselves against a drought by planting grapevines.
"If they had listened to us, they'd have some income this year," Johnston says. "The trade-off is that a year that's bad for corn is good for grapes -- and vice versa. So you don't have to put all your eggs in one basket."
Pub Date: 8/06/99