Ripening on the Vine

Late this summer, my son and I finished the fifth harvest from our vineyards in Southern Maryland. At the same time, Slack Wine and Vineyards also finished our second showing at the Maryland Wine Festival in Westminster, along with 39 other licensed Maryland wineries.
    Both events were deemed great successes. The 2012 grape harvest ranks as our favorite harvest to date, due to the extraordinary dry growing conditions and the lack of hurricanes. Last year’s Hurricane Irene and ensuing Tropical Storm Lee dumped 31 inches of rain on our 22 acres of vineyard in three weeks, virtually destroying our entire crop of Sangiovese, Barbera, Montepulciano and Cabernet grapes. It was a discouraging year for a young winery to sustain.
    Even as harvest remained the priority, our valiant team of Slack Winery volunteers helped us participate in the Maryland Wine Festival three hours north from our perch near the southern tip of St. Mary’s County. The unbounded popularity of this annual festival, now in its 29th year, proved to us that Marylander’s have a great appetite for wine.
    Five years ago, there were half as many Maryland wineries and less than half as many Maryland vines under cultivation. Today, with 62 Maryland wineries and over 200 acres of vineyards, almost every woman and man in Maryland is within an hour’s drive of a winery and an afternoon of tastings and sipping of good and increasingly better wines.
    Maryland wineries may be launching a quarter century behind Napa and Walla Walla and a decade or so behind neighboring Virginia, but it looks like we’re making up for lost time. As the spring winery awards were announced, a sideshow became the major act: Maryland wines won significant prizes, regionally and nationally.
    In the spring of 2012, my brother Mark orchestrated the planting of our first Italian and French vinifera grapes at Jubilee Farm in Southern Maryland. He and I tried to grow organically for one frantic month, then realized what Thomas Jefferson learned 250 years ago: This region is a hotbed for downy and powdery mildew, to say nothing of sour rot, black rot and a host of pestilence.
    To the rescue came Steve Purvins, president of our local chapter of the Maryland Grape Grower’s Association, and Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association. We’ve needed them ever since to help solve ever more baffling challenges, including crown gall and iron deficiency in the vineyard, bottling and blending decisions in the winery and the pricing and selling of wines.
    Their connections were as valuable as their advice, and the wide net of Maryland winery and vineyard professionals have leant us a hand, given us perspective and boosted our confidence to try again when necessary and to celebrate the small victories when possible.
    Every Maryland county has at least one vineyard, a reflection of Maryland’s rural character that provides every man and woman a quick and satisfying respite from the pressures of urban and suburban life. Many of Maryland’s wineries are open to the public for tastings and belong to one of the six wine trails organized by the Maryland Wineries Association.
    Almost half of Maryland’s current production is in red grapes and wines, especially Chambourcin, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But the landscape is changing, with new grape varieties planted annually — including Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Barbera, Albariño and Pinot Grigio — showcasing the versatility of Maryland’s grape growers and Maryland’s climate.
    It takes four to five years for newly planted vines to produce grapes that can be made into wine. So many Maryland wineries have had to import grapes and juice to meet the demand of a populace with one of the highest wine consumption interests in the country. In all likelihood, Maryland wineries will be chasing enough grapes to meet demand for years to come. This scarcity should serve to push the wine makers’ talents higher as each works to master the art of making every available grape into good wine.
    I’m delighted to see so many Maryland farms with a new purpose in the growing of grapes and the making of wine, knowing that the relevance of these farms is the best friend that rural preservation can have.

The former president of St. Mary’s College, chemist Margaret Jane O’Brien, adds to her resume writing about wine for Bay Weekly.