Bring on the Grapes

Southern Maryland takes a step closer to becoming the California — at least the Virginia — of the Atlantic Coast, this fall, with a new grant encouraging farmers to plant vineyards.
    While Maryland wineries have burgeoned, Maryland grapes have lagged behind.
    In the first decade of the new millennium, Maryland wineries grew from a handful to 42. Eleven of those new wineries have grown up in Southern Maryland. Calvert County, one of the fastest-growing wine producing counties, is home to five of the 11.
    Now it’s time for grapes.
    In climate, sticky Southern Maryland is neither California nor France. Tobacco loved it here, making the colony’s economy and enriching costal farmers for 350 years. Until lawsuits against tobacco companies, a bad image and falling prices took too much out of farmers’ pockets to make farming tobacco profitable.
    “The market was slowly diminishing,” said Mary Wood of Forrest Hall Farm & Orchard, whose tobacco tradition went back over a century. “Most growers could see the writing on the wall. It was just a dying industry.”
    Maryland’s Tobacco Buyout Program gave money to farmers who switched from growing tobacco to anything else — for good.
    Meanwhile, the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission “identified a series of different kinds of things that would be lucrative for them. Grapes for wine was one of them,” said the Commission’s Christine Bergmark.
    Good idea. If farmers could get grapes to grow.
    “It’s such a hit or miss thing that I wouldn’t think of putting myself out there — at the mercy of the elements and the fickle weather that we have here,” said John Autrey, a self-made vintner of 15 years who started work on his own planting in 2009 in Calvert County. “That’s why I’m doing pears. Pears don’t need a lot of spring.”
    Scientists, however, say grapes will grow here.

Sara and Paul Cornette plant grape vines at Gray Wolf Vineyard in St. Mary’s County.

    Since 2003, University of Maryland Extension scientists have found 27 varieties of grape that will grow in Maryland.
    With one problem solved, others popped up.
    “The cost of wine production is one of the things,” said Wood, who has overcome her reluctance with state help. “You buy vines that basically look like sticks. You plant them, and you don’t get your first harvest for two to three years. That is really a barrier to growing that industry in Southern Maryland.”
    Putting in grapes is an investment, and an expensive one. The costs run upward of $10,000 per acre, according to R. David Meyers, County Extension director for Anne Arundel County.
    But there is hope in the long run.
    “The grapes are typically worth 10 times more when put in a bottle than when they’re hanging in a cluster,” said Meyers. “That’s the value side.”
    To jumpstart the new crop, the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission started a grant match program to cover half the cost of new vines and to provide training and assistance to farmers and vintners.
    This year, anyone with five or more acres of farmland has until December 2 to apply for grape grants.
    “The Commission buys half the grapes we plant next year,” explains Frank Cleary, owner of Fridays Creek Winery in Owings. “We’ve done this in the past. We purchased 2,000 vines, and they reimbursed us for a thousand.”
    Despite the help, grapes are not easy money.
    “It’s farming,” said Cleary. “It’s not high profit at all. It’s a lot of hard work and a little bit of money.”
    Brightening the future is the growing number of people who care about where their food comes from.
    “People are concerned about what they are putting into their body,” Wood said. “We share that with the consumers.”
    Added Cleary, “we’re seeing a lot of buzz about buy local and try to get your food within 50 miles of where it’s being grown. Of course being the local winery, we fit right in there.”
    The number of Southern Maryland acres where you can see trellises — hanging with fat, juicy grapes in September — rose from 12 in 2005 to about 55 acres in 2010.�