Perfect wine year


Mike Fiore cuddled a cluster of golden Chardonnay grapes in his hand and with a slight Italian accent exclaimed: "So pretty. That's a blessing from God."

The president of Fiore Winery, near Pylesville in northern Harford County, said the weather has been nearly ideal for growing grapes for wine this year.

"The grain farmers could use a little more rain," he said, "but it was a great year for grape growers."

He examined a single grape with a refractor meter, an instrument that looks something like a compact telescope, and then exclaimed: "Twenty to 21 percent sugar content. That's super."

As he walked through the chest-high arbor, Fiore noted, "You don't get into this business to get rich. You have to love it."

The tiny Maryland wine industry is still struggling for respect and recognition. Fiore Winery is one of only 11 in the state. Their combined sales last year were about $3 million.

Fiore and his wife, Rose, built their winery and vineyard from an old beef cattle farm on Whiteford Road they bought in 1975.

In the beginning, they made wine only for their own use, Rose Fiore said.

They began selling to outsiders in 1986 and their limited production of 1,500 gallons sold out in three months.

When Mike Fiore, now 57, came to the United States from Italy in 1971, he took a job as a laborer at the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., and stayed 30 years until his retirement two years ago.

He liked his job at BGE, but wine is his passion.

"What I don't like about it is that you are always subject to the whims of Mother Nature," Fiore said.

The drought years of 1997, 1998 and 1999 were great years for wineries. "Last year was not that good. Too much rain," he said. "But this year has been great. God created this land to grow grapes."

Despite some good grape-growing seasons, Maryland wineries have struggled in recent years, according to Valerie M. Gonlin, administrator of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Agribusiness Development Program.

"A few years ago, we had 13," she said, "but then we dropped to 10 and now we're up to 11."

She blamed the fluctuation on tough times in the industry, including an inability of wineries to make money. "They have had a hard time getting the word out about the quality of Maryland wines. People weren't buying it."

Mike Fiore said Maryland's wine industry is experiencing the same growing pains that California went through decades earlier.

Md. needs time

"The average Joe," he said, "used to think that if a wine did not come from Europe, it wasn't any good. It took California many, many years to gain respect among wine buyers. And it will probably take another 10 years for Maryland wineries to get the respect we deserve."

He pulled a bronze medal from a shelf and proudly boasted that his Chardonnay won it at the Los Angeles County Fair last year.

Basignani Winery Ltd. in Sparks brought back a bronze medal from the same event, said Steve Himmelrich, a spokesman for the state's wine industry.

Himmelrich said Maryland wineries produced 86,954 gallons of wine last year, up 2.5 percent over the previous year. In 1996, production was 56,366 gallons.

He said that Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, the oldest and one of the largest of Maryland's wineries, produced 11,000 cases of wine last year.

1.5 million cases

By comparison, Kendall Jackson Winery in Santa Rosa, Calif, corked 1.5 million cases of wine last year.

Fiore and other industry officials say that wine production in Maryland is limited by the amount of grapes grown in the state.

"Wineries can't expand because they can't get enough grapes," said James Russell, a spokesman for the Maryland Grape Growers Association.

"It's a vicious circle," he said. "It takes three years to develop a vineyard and the wineries can't guarantee the growers that there will be a market for their grapes at that time. They can't see that far ahead."

The state is seeking to break the circle. Gonlin said the Agriculture Department, in cooperation with the University of Maryland, has established a test vineyard at the school's tobacco experimental farm in Upper Marlboro.

She said the department is using a $19,000 grant from the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland to increase the knowledge of grape growing and to link grape growers with winery operators.

Gonlin said that grapes could prove to be an alternative to growing tobacco in Southern Maryland. "At this time we grow only about half of the grapes that Maryland wineries need."

50 commercial growers

According to Russell, the state's 50 commercial grape growers harvest about 600 tons of grapes a year. He said half of it goes to wineries and the remainder to amateur wine makers.

"Wine is still a small business in Maryland," said Mike Fiore, "but, hopefully, as we get more attention and more respect, it will grow."

State wineries will have the chance to show off their products this weekend at the Maryland Wine Festival being held at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster.

The two-day event will give visitors the chance to sip Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Blush of Bel Air wines made in Maryland and see how they compare with products from New York, California and Europe.

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