WASHINGTON- Most Maryland farmers are reeling from a yearlong drought and high summer temperatures, but not winemaker Micheele Fiore.
His crop, and those of other grape growers in the state, is one of the best he’s had.
“It’s sad. We’re desperate for rain, and I can sympathize with my neighbors, but it has done wonders for our grapes,” he said.
The drought has caused grapes to be smaller than usual — “midget grapes” Fiore calls them — but also more potent. Because they aren’t diluted with lots of water, they have a higher sugar content and less acid. Sweeter, more flavorful grapes means better wine.
“We just got some in from the Eastern Shore that made my heart sing,” said Rob Deford, owner of Boordy Vineyards, and president of the Association of Maryland Wineries.
Boordy Vineyards produced 30,000 gallons of wine last year, and Deford plans to take advantage of the high-quality grapes to push production to 34,000 gallons this year.
But not everybody will be making more wine. Because of the “midget grapes,” yield is down — between 20 and 30 percent according to Joe Fiola, grape specialist for the state. Clusters of grapes that weighed one pound last year now weigh only three-fourths of a pound.
Fiola said the state has been able to keep pace with last year’s wine production of 100,000 gallons because of an influx of new vineyards, especially on the Eastern Shore, where grape growing has lagged behind the Piedmont Plateau region. Fiola knows of at least 20 new growers.
That is in addition to the 200 members of the Maryland Grape Growers Association, who farm most of the 300 acres devoted to grapes statewide.
The higher quality of their grapes doesn’t always mean higher prices for the growers, though.
Buyers and growers set contracts months ahead of time, and growers are generally paid the same amount per ton regardless of quality.
That’s the case for Bill Kirby, who has been growing grapes in Talbot County since 1984. His yield this year is 75 percent of normal, by weight, so he gets $1,500 less for every acre than he would in an average year.
“That’s farming, and most people don’t realize that the wine industry is based on farming,” Kirby said.
But the industry is also based on reputation. In another of Kirby’s contracts, he is paid more when his grapes have a high sugar content.
Such favorable contracts only come to growers who have been in the industry for years and have developed a track record of producing high-quality grapes.
The drought has been most stressful for newcomers who just planted their crop, Fiola said. Young vines, with a less developed root system, cannot tap depleted water tables like established vines, which have roots that can reach as deep as 60 feet.
“You get a drought on top . . . (the roots) go right through those rocks and suck up all the moisture,” Fiore said. “A neighbor farmer came by and said `It looks like you got the only green spot in town.'”
But if the drought persists, the water table could fall so low that even the oldest vines would not be able to reach it.
The drought “is a gift, but it’s a very costly gift,” Fiore said.
The return on that gift will not be felt until at least next year. Many of the white wines will be ready by spring, but it will be at least a year, sometimes three or four, before the reds begin to debut.
“Keep an eye out for 2002 on the label,” Deford said. “It should be unforgettable.”