University of Maryland Extension

Can Maryland Become the Next Great Wine State?

Image Credit: 
John T. Consoli, Megan Blair

In the mountains of Western Maryland, a world away from the Chesapeake Bay that dominates so much of the state’s industry and culture, is a man on a mission to change Maryland’s signature drink.

Lowbrow Natty Boh beer paired with bushels of blue crabs or chugged at a local bar? Forget it.

Joe Fiola Ph.D. ’86 wants you to drink Maryland wine.

But you might think: Does Maryland even make wine? (Yes, in every county.) Is it any good? (It wins gold medals.) Why should I try it? (To save the environmental costs of shipping your preferred Australian or French wine, and to make good on that locavore pledge.)

“We can compete with anyone in the world,” says Fiola, principal agent and extension specialist at the Western Maryland Research and Education Center (WMREC). “Taste the wines. There’s the proof.”

Despite having a similar climate and latitude as traditional wine producers like Spain, Italy and France, Maryland never had much of an industry. In 1662, Gov. Charles Calvert planted 200 acres of European grapes along the St. Mary’s River, only to see the vines wither within a few years. It wasn’t until nearly 300 years later that Boordy Vineyards opened in Baltimore County.

What held grape growers back? A combination of archaic laws, dating back to Prohibition; lack of interest and support from the state government; the dominance of crops like tobacco and corn; and a dearth of knowledge about the types of grapes that could be grown in the state’s four distinct growing regions, ranging from cooler, dry mountains in Western Maryland to the wet, flat plains of the Eastern Shore. Local wine also suffered the reputation of being sweet, since inexperienced winemakers tended to add sugar to compensate for varietal shortcomings.

But since he arrived in 2001, Fiola (below) has helped Maryland’s wine industry expand dramatically, from just 11 wineries to close to 70 today, and from 450,000 bottles to more than 1.7 million sold in 2013.

Read the rest of the article in the Spring 2015 issue of TERP.

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