Courtesy Old Westminster Winery & Vineyard

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Spain’s famed white wine albariño may be what puts Maryland’s wine industry on the map. The hearty grape thrives even in unpredictable winters and oppressively humid conditions. No matter what nature throws at it, it will grow. Similar to Virginia’s focus on viognier, a varietal that grows well in most parts of the state, signature grapes can drive revenue and traffic for a growing wine region. 

Weather is one of the biggest challenges for Mid-Atlantic wine professionals, and albariño is exactly the kind of fruit Maryland grape growers love. Word of mouth is the primary way that Maryland’s wine industry has grown in the last two decades, and consistently producing enough of a quality product is what makes people tell their friends and return to buy more.

Boordy, the state’s oldest winery at 72, won Maryland’s top honor last year—the Governor’s Cup—for its first-ever release of the Spanish white. Co-head winemaker Jose Real hails from Spain’s Jerez region and was instrumental in producing Boordy’s initial limited bottling, which sold out in three months. The Baltimore County winery’s 2016 albariño just received a gold medal at the prestigious Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, and this time they made four times as much.   

Black Ankle, which first planted albariño in 2004, used to sell out of its stock in a matter of days. Demand sparked new planting, and in 2015 the winery produced two different bottlings—a bolder version made from grapes grown in lots of sunlight and a more delicate offering made from grapes that saw more shade. It also marked a winemaking shift: The winery was finally able to make enough juice to experiment with new techniques.  

Success with the grape revealed several challenges, and changes, in the Maryland wine industry. As it nears 100 wineries, the state is attracting talent and investment from around the world. With that comes growing pressure to regularly produce and showcase more refined wines, despite challenging weather with extreme temperatures.

But Maryland’s mostly moderate climate allows winemakers to produce rich, ripe red wines, like barbera and petit verdot, and the topographical landscape boasts elevated areas ideal for capturing breezes that retain freshness in wine.

Growers are scrambling to keep up with demand, but it’s expensive. Lucie Morton, a global viticulture consultant, says some estimates put the price tag at $25,000 an acre, and that’s if you already own the land. The state has about 1,100 acres under vine, compared with neighboring Virginia, which has three times as much and also can’t keep up, and many Maryland wineries are still forced to bring in juice from across state lines.

Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, explains that Maryland has funded about $500,000 in projects over the last 12 years to support and grow the industry, which he estimates contributes $90 million to the state’s economy (a new study is coming out this fall). 

By comparison, neighboring Pennsylvania spends around $350,000 annually on promoting and supporting its 200 wineries. And in Virginia, where wine agritourism is a $1.37 billion business, the commonwealth’s wine board boasts a budget of nearly $2 million to support its 285 wineries.

But it’s not a grapes-to-grapes comparison. Though the areas are very similar geographically, growth in the Virginia industry has been building for 40 years. Before the Maryland Winery Modernization Act of 2010 and direct shipping rules that passed shortly after, the state only had 40 wineries. In seven years, it has more than doubled, and there is now winemaking in every county in the state.  

“Maryland is a microcosm of Virginia,” says Old Westminster Winery & Vineyard founder Drew Baker. “But Virginia has put a lot of effort into stimulating growth in wine, driven from [the] top down. In Maryland we are just starting to taste what that’s like.”

Baker’s sister Lisa Hinton is the winemaker, and this year the Carroll County winery will crack 2,500 cases under 17 labels. Demand is so strong that they recently purchased a 117-acre site in Montgomery County and will develop it over the next decade.  

Joe Fiola, the state’s lead viticulturist, started in his role with the Western Maryland Research and Education Center in 2001 when there were just 11 wineries in the state. Things started to take off in 2005, and he now works to connect the state and regulatory entities with growers as well as to educate potential new business owners. He believes that the variety Maryland offers—from sweet, fruity wines to dry reds—is a cornerstone of its success.

“We want to be a premium winemaking area, and we have wineries making the best wine they can,” Fiola says. “But it’s not all high-end wine. Some people just want to be entertained and support the local industry. Others want $30 to $100 bottles.” 

Several wine professionals cite efforts by Atticks and Fiola as going a long way to growing the industry, but they also say more state investment is needed. Fiola, for example, is also responsible for overseeing other fruits grown in the state, and Atticks splits time with the Brewers Association of Maryland. 

Youth and innovation are on Maryland’s side. Emily Ye Yang, the state’s only solo female winery owner—and at 26, its youngest—toured the world before buying Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in 2014. She plans to open Sugarloaf’s second tasting room nearly 7,000 miles away in her hometown of Hohhot, a city of 1.4 million people in Inner Mongolia, China, in the next five years.

“People my parents’ age in China only know American wine as Napa Valley,” she says. “I want them to get to know Maryland.”

Melissa Aellen, assistant winemaker at Linganore Winecellars in Mt. Airy, was drawn back to Maryland at age 24 after working in wineries in New Zealand, Oregon, and California. It wasn’t just about family—she grew up at the vineyard owned by her father and uncles—she also wanted an opportunity to make a professional mark.

“In Napa and Willamette Valley [in the Pacific Northwest], it’s already decided what wine is going to be made,” Aellen says. “Maryland is still young and getting a name for itself. There’s no ‘Maryland must make’ anything.”

Big Cork winemaker Dave Collins, who has decades of experience working in Virginia, says it’s key that wineries are focused on growing what works best for the state and thinking outside of the “sauvignon blanc box.” He believes regulatory support is even more important than state investment for growth and that businesses have to take it upon themselves to market and produce good wine. His winery, located in Rohrersville, 30 minutes from Frederick, offers fun events like yoga and music to help attract guests. 

“It’s exciting to be a leader and see a new area emerge,” Collins says. “We feel Maryland is on the cusp of something big.” 

At theVineyards at Dodon outside Annapolis, tastings and tours are by appointment only and offer a more personal feel. Wine club members and other guests spend nearly two hours in small groups tasting, exploring the property, and speaking with the owners and winemaking staff. 

The winery is housed on a solar-powered, 550-acre working farm in Davidsonville and only uses grapes grown on the property, whose soil is rich with clay and decomposing shells. Adding the commercial vineyard in 2010 allowed the property to remain intact and for owners Polly Pittman and Tom Croghan and their families to live and work on site, which doubles as an equine training center.

“We’re in an amazing phase of growth, from quantity of acreage planted, the number of wineries, and quality of the wine,” says Regina Mc Carthy, Dodon’s director of client services. “Maryland is America in miniature.”

Further north at Crow Vineyard, located in Kennedyville near the Eastern Shore, owners Judy and Roy Crow also added winemaking to keep a 365-acre farm from being broken into pieces. They added a small bed and breakfast, turning the farm into a wine-stay, and they also keep a herd of cattle that provides beefy snacks for the tasting room. Crow offers vidal blanc as a still, sparkling, and dessert wine, and the vineyard is preparing to welcome a new winemaker, Michael Zollo, who brings four years of winemaking experience from California to rural Kent County.

Morton, who consults internationally and has worked with several of the state’s top wineries— including Dodon, Boordy, Sugarloaf, and Black Ankle—echoes calls for more research and viticulture support but is heartened that Maryland winery owners are undaunted by the challenges growing the industry poses.

“This is wine I’m happy to take anywhere,” Morton says. “Maryland has pretty unlimited potential.”

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