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Drought is hurting Md. grain producers, but winemakers could have a banner year

The Baltimore Sun

While grain farmers witness the damage to their corn and soybeans from the lack of rain, grape growers and winemakers are looking at a possible banner season.

"We are celebrating a fantastic year," said Rob Deford, president of Boordy Vineyards in the Hydes section of Baltimore County.

This could be a reserve year for winemakers, Deford said, those rare occasions when the critical weather factors come together to produce a wine of such quality that it sells for twice its normal price.

Winemakers in other parts of the state echo Deford's enthusiasm.

"We expect a very, very good grape crop this year," said Ken Korando, owner of Solomons Island Winery in Lusby, Calvert County. "The grapes look real good. The quality looks good."

Grape vines fair better than stalks of corn in the field during periods of drought because the vines have longer roots, Deford said.

The roots of corn plants penetrate only about 8 to 10 inches below the surface, but a mature grape vine will go down as far as 40 feet.

Hot and dry conditions are a welcome contrast to years marked by abundant rain, which tends to dilute the flavor of the grape.

"I tell my customers that when their grass is brown and the shrubs in the yard are dying, it's a great year for the grape industry," said Korando, who got into the winemaking business three years ago.

Drought conditions produce smaller, lighter grapes with increased sugar.

"They are richer and more flavorful," Deford said. "All of the flavor is there. It is not diluted by water."

The dry weather also has helped temper diseases, such as downey and powdery mildew, that can destroy up to 30 percent of the crop, Korando said.

The one downside is that production in a drought year is much lower.

But for 2007 to turn into a reserve year, the weather pattern of the past two months must continue, he said.

"It is still our hope to get a reserve-quality wine," he said. "I've only made four in the past 27 years, the latest being 2005."

Consumers pay for the better quality product stemming from a drought. Red wines benefit most during a dry year. A bottle of Cabernet that normally sells for $15 will bring $30 if it is from a reserve year.

The "perfect storm" for the wine industry starts with spring rains and the absence of a late frost that could harm the crop, Deford said.

The summer must be warm but not too hot, with plenty of sun and breeze and, of course, little rain.

Fall would bring mild temperatures and clear skies.

There is still time for things to go wrong, Deford warned, before growers harvest their crops in September and October.

"Growing grapes is like a horserace," he said. "It is where you stand at the end of the season that counts. You can have a good crop destroyed by rains, hail or a hurricane in the last two weeks of the season."

There are 27 licensed wineries in the state, said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association. There has been a flurry of winemaking activity in recent years. In 2004, he said, there were a dozen wineries in Maryland.

Compared with California, the nation's leading wine-producing state, production here is tiny. Last year, Maryland wine sales totaled $10.6 million, while California sales topped $10.2 billion.

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