ANNAPOLIS – A patchwork of county alcohol regulations continues to frustrate Maryland’s winery owners, but that has not stopped newcomers from joining the state’s growing wine industry.
Advocates like the Maryland Wineries Association are working to help the industry by making the licensing process easier for new owners.
Kevin Atticks, executive director of the MWA, has helped new wineries get off the ground and hopes the Maryland General Assembly will pass legislation next year to address some of the regulatory inconsistencies across the state.
“It will bring the entire state to the same legal standard and bring all wineries on par with each other,” said Atticks, of the proposed legislation. “We’re trying to change decades old, out-of-date alcohol laws. These are not radical things; it’s confusing why one winery can charge for a sample of wine while others cannot.”
Permission to attend farmers’ markets and sell food along with wine are two rules the MWA would like to see across the state. They would also like to have a winery defined as an agricultural building rather than a factory, for zoning purposes.
“We have to find ways to remove obstacles but respect county and local requirements,” said state Sen. Edward R. Reilly, R-Crofton. “The benefit of a winery is to provide an alternative crop for small parcels of land, create jobs and slow down development.”
The difficulty stems from the fact that Maryland is the only state in the nation that does not have a uniform alcohol policy. After prohibition ended in 1933, the federal government gave each state the right to regulate alcohol. Maryland decided to pass that right down to the counties. Today, some counties have very strict alcohol laws, while others are in the alcohol business themselves.
“It’s not a bad system, just confusing for people getting into the business,” Atticks said. “If we could make opening a winery in Frederick consistent with opening a winery in (Prince George’s) County, you would lose that confusion and uncertainly.”
Maryland’s wine industry continues to grow in spite of the legal hurdles. The 41 wineries in Maryland are more than three times the number in 2001 according to MWA data. Sales of wine in Maryland during fiscal year 2008 were up 18 percent and surpassed $15 million in sales.
In fact, Maryland wineries are opening up so fast, vineyards across the state cannot produce enough grapes to keep up. According to Atticks, it takes four or five years for newly planted vines to produce fruit. If the current rate of planting continues, he predicts the supply of Maryland grapes will not meet the state’s demand for at least another six years. Many wineries import grapes from Virginia or Pennsylvania to make up the difference.
“Our goal is to get to 100 percent Maryland fruit, we want every bottle to be grown in Maryland,” Atticks said.
Rob Deford has seen the Maryland wine industry quadruple in his 29 years as president of Baltimore County’s Boordy Vineyards, the oldest family-owned winery in the state. Besides the noticeable increase in wine quality, Deford believes social trends are also a factor.
“General improvement in the quality of Maryland wines is the main energy behind our growth,” Deford said, “but another big difference is the interest in locally produced foods is high right now.”
“Farmers’ markets are more popular, people are thinking about what they put in their mouth and where it came from,” Atticks said.
Serpent Ridge Vineyards in Carroll County officially opened for business in spring of 2009. Owner Greg Lambrecht does not have an answer for the sudden interest in Maryland wine but he has been excited to see a wide variety of customers.
“The public has developed a lot more of a palate for wine not just from Maryland but throughout the country,” Lambrecht said. “The demographics are amazing to me, everyone from your younger 20-something to your more experienced wine drinker. I’m very excited to see young people with an interest in wine and I’ve been surprised with their knowledge and palate.”