State hopes startup fund ferments more grape growing

The Baltimore Sun

For Marylanders who have fantasized about getting into the wine business, the time may be, well, ripe.

The state has launched a program that pays farmers to grow the grapes needed to produce more made-in-Maryland bottles of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot and other wines.

The Vineyard Capital Assistance Program will reimburse growers between $2 and $2.50 for each grapevine planted next spring. The program is funded by a $147,000 grant from the Governor's Advisory Commission on Maryland Wine and Grape Growing.

"Our wineries need more grapes," said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association. "We need a lot more grapes."

He said the industry's growth has been limited by the supply of grapes.

All of Maryland's 26 wineries could benefit from more grapes, said Rose Fiore, who operates Fiore Winery in the Pylesville section of Harford County. The winery grows 10 acres of grapes, about half of what is needed, Fiore said. The rest come from as far away as New York and California.

Although Maryland's wine industry is tiny compared with that of California or New York, it has been winning its share of accolades at national and international competitions in recent years. But only a limited number of the bottles of wine produced by the state's 26 wineries are labeled "Maryland."

Under an industry requirement, a bottle cannot be labeled "Maryland" unless 75 percent of the juice in the wine comes from state-grown grapes. For each ton of Maryland grapes used by state wineries, one and one-third tons are shipped in from other states.

The grant program is designed to change these numbers, state officials said.

"The goal of this program is [to] fund startup operations," Atticks said. "We want to help a number of 2-acre and 3-acre operations get started and hope they later expand to 10 or 15 acres."

Yet the program is open to everyone, even those who are already growing grapes, Atticks said.

A vine is a single plant and a typical farm might have 800 to 1,000 vines per acre, Atticks said, adding that a 100-foot row would likely be made up of 16 to 25 vines.

5-acre minimum

To be eligible for the grant program, applicants must own, or be a co-applicant with the owner, of at least 5 acres on which agriculture is permitted by local and state regulations.

The program would fund a maximum of 3 acres per applicant, Atticks said.

A vineyard could produce three and 10 tons of grapes per acre, said Fiore, who also is the viticulture representative on the Maryland Agriculture Commission, a 27-member panel composed of a farming cross-section that advises the state agriculture secretary. Prices for grapes range between $800 a ton and $2,100 a ton, depending on type and quality.

Winemaking is not new to Maryland. The first recorded instance of winemaking can be traced to shortly after the Ark and the Dove landed at St. Clements Island in 1634 with the first European settlers.

But wine did not catch on as tobacco did. It was nearly 300 years before the first state bonded winery - Boordy Vineyards - opened in Baltimore County in 1945.

The industry continued to struggle. A second winery opened in 1962, but closed 30 years later. The third opened in 1974 and closed in 1983.

After a rough start, the Maryland wine industry has shown promising growth in recent years.

Wineries increase

Since 2004 the number of wineries has increased from 12 to 26. Three others are in the process of obtaining permits, Atticks said. By the end of the decade, he anticipates that 44 wineries will be scattered throughout the state.

Wine sales topped $10.6 million in Maryland last year, according to the industry's trade association.

Wine is a much bigger business in other parts of the country. Nationwide sales totaled $11.4 billion in 2005, according to a congressional study done this year.

California accounts for 90 percent of the nation's wine production. New York and Washington State account for 3 percent each.

Information on the state's Vineyard Capital Assistance Program, or to obtain an application: Karen Fedor, Maryland Department of Agriculture, 410-841-5773.

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