Demand growing for Maryland grapes
In less than a year, a Maryland law takes effect, adjusting requirements for on-farm wineries to sell their wine retail.
Passed in 2018 with support from the state’s wine industry and grape growers, the law requires Class 4 wineries — the designation that allows sales to the public by the glass or bottle — to have either 20 acres of fruit in the state under its control or produce its wines with 51 percent or more of Maryland-grown ingredients. The law takes effect in May 2022.
“For those who are striving to make wine from in-state fruit, we just wanted to make a priority, as an industry, for in-state wines,” said Kevin Atticks, founder of Grow & Fortify, which supports several value-added focused agriculture groups including the Maryland Wineries Association.
The requirement adds assurance that Maryland wines are indeed a local product, industry leaders said, and also presents an opportunity for farmers to consider grapes in their operation.
“There’s a huge opportunity for new growers because there’s a demand for Maryland-Grown grapes,” Atticks said. “We see demand continuing to increase, and we see that increase in traditional and non-traditional varieties.”
A 2020 survey of Maryland grape growers and winery owners by the Maryland Grape Growers Association found growers had intentions to plant 284 more acres of grapes. But the state’s wineries demonstrated an additional demand for about 630 tons of Maryland grown grapes, equating to an additional 150 to 200 acres.
While state wine industry leaders noted continued healthy demand for in-state grapes, they added it’s very important prospective growers be aware of the specific needs of the industry and what goes into starting a commercial vineyard.
“Our wineries are not just looking at the quantity of the grapes, but the quality, too, because you can’t make good wines out of bad grapes,” Atticks said. “That’s where the education comes in.”
Judy Crow, of Crow Vineyards in Kennedyville, Md., said the sustained demand for Maryland grapes presents a good opportunity for prospective growers but having a relationship with at least one winery to understand the quality aspects needed for winemaking is crucial. Quality is so important in winemaking and that comes from selecting the right variety for the land and practicing good vineyard management.
“I think everybody is starting to realize that this is an area where you need expertise,” she said.
To help growers meet the sustained demand, the industry has responded with new resources.
The Maryland Wineries Association developed a startup course for new grape growers with heavy emphasis on the financial components of starting a vineyard.
“The reality of growing grapes is that it’s a game of scale,” Atticks said. “There’s not a whole lot of revenue and profit at 3-5 acres. It needs to be 10-20, and it becomes even more enterprising with an associated winery.”
Atticks called the 9-lesson course that launched in May the “first of its kind” to prepare new growers what awaits them in building a vineyard.
“It’s been really well-received,” he said.
On the Lower Eastern Shore, a demonstration vineyard was planted on the University of Maryland Eastern Shore campus in 2019 to support growers in that region of Maryland, which lags in grape acreage compared to the rest of the state.
The UMES effort is designed to help both larger commercial and smaller backyard growers in getting started, said Naveen Kumar Dixit, Extension horticultural specialist at the university who is managing the vineyard. Along with the need for grapes, he said the area’s tourism industry could support additional wineries and be a help to its economically depressed areas.
“When you start anything in agriculture that will generate jobs and empower people,” Dixit said.
As some of the latest tools offered to growers, Atticks said they come in complement to the longstanding work in variety development and other resources from University of Maryland Extension viticulturalist Joe Fiola at its Western Maryland Research and Education Center. Fiola’s work was also praised in the MGGA survey.
“His ongoing trials, and the regularly scheduled tastings at the annual MGGA conference, and MWA’s cultivar tasting event in 2019, provide growers and winemakers an important opportunity to learn about a wide variety of grapes that have demonstrated potential, and success, in Maryland’s diverse growing regions,” the survey said. “The data collected through Dr. Fiola’s research helps the industry strategize and evaluate risk when introducing new grape varietals to local vineyards.”
Crow said along with new growers, another component in the industry that will need attention is developing internships and other routes to fostering people coming into the industry.
“We have to do more of that, bring people into the industry,” she said. “That would be the next thing that we all need to be thinking about.”