WASHINGTON – Mike Fiore said this year’s grape crop is the worst he has seen in nearly 20 years of growing grapes in Maryland.
Grape growers struggled to keep diseases from ravaging their crops in a wetter-than-normal spring and summer that forced them to spray more frequently — as often as every three days — to protect the fruit from bacteria and fungus.
Fiore, who owns Fiore Winery in Harford County, said he lost about one-quarter of his chardonnay grapes in early September and that the spotty sunshine this year will likely result in grapes that are not as sweet as in past years — years in which Maryland wines started to come into their own.
Which makes this a bittersweet year for Maryland’s wineries.
“This is the year of the medals and the year of the rain,” Fiore said.
His winery won a gold medal this year in a national competition in San Diego for its 2002 vidal blanc and a bronze in international competition for its 1999 cabernet sauvignon. Other Maryland wineries have also been gaining national and international recognition: Boordy Vineyards, Basignani Winery and Elk Run Vineyards have all scooped up medals this year for past vintages, beating out hundreds of wines from states like California.
Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Association of Maryland Wineries, said these awards — and the recognition that comes with them — have been growing over the past decade.
That quality is being recognized locally, too.
Charleston restaurant, near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor East, offers more than 600 wines from around the world. But owner Tony Foreman, a sommelier for more than 20 years, said he will soon offer a 2001 chardonnay from Basignani as the house white wine.
“We’ve never done that with a Maryland wine before,” Foreman said.
Others said that while Maryland has produced some very good wines, the state’s 12 wineries run the gamut from amateurish to very good.
“There’s good stuff and there’s bad stuff everywhere,” said Emily Johnston, who owns a 6-acre vineyard in Westminster with her husband. The Johnstons, who sell their grapes to local wineries, are wine aficionados and members of the Maryland Grape Growers Association.
“What you can say is that there are a number of individual wines in Maryland that are definitely world-class,” she said. “I don’t think I would have made that statement 25 years ago.”
Michael Dresser, wine critic for The (Baltimore) Sun, acknowledged that recognition for Maryland wine is slowly increasing, but he also pointed out that the state presents hurdles to the industry that more successful states do not.
Compared to Virginia and Pennsylvania, for example, Maryland has relatively little of the “rolling” land that is ideal for growing grapes. Here, Dresser said, that land is largely limited to Frederick, Carroll and northern Baltimore counties.
Maryland’s “goofy” wine shipping laws prevent reciprocity with other states, he said, and limited tourism promotion limits exposure of Maryland wines to potential drinkers inside and outside the state.
But the greatest impediment to success is “just that people don’t know they’re there,” Dresser said.
Meanwhile, vintners say this year’s crop will make it harder — but not impossible — to match the quality of recent vintages.
The Fiore’s vineyard escaped Hurricane Isabel unscathed, save for a few leaning posts that were bent in the wind, said Mike Fiore’s wife, Rose. Last week, she said, the grapes were ripening normally and getting sweeter in the cool nights and sunny days.
The cooler weather is good news for grape growers, especially in the last two or three weeks of growth before harvest, said Joe Fiola, a Maryland Cooperative Extension specialist in viticulture. The red grapes should have more intense color and more of a bite than wine made from grapes grown in drier years.
But it will still be a “challenge to make good wine this year,” said Fiola, who predicts the skill of wine makers will be “much more critical” than in the past.
Mike Fiore said he is up to the challenge.
“We’re still going to make some pretty nice wines,” he said.