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Vineyards Provide Sweet Harvest for Maryland Farmers

For centuries, the best wines came from France, or Italy, or Germany. Recently, American wines have been winning awards and market share, and many American farmers -- like Steve Purvins -- are switching from grains to grapes.

The 49-year old farmer also grows hay and leases out land for grain crops. But as he maneuvers his tractor around the 2 dozen or so trellises covered with grape vines on his small vineyard in rural St. Mary's County, he says getting into the wine business was a good decision. "The main reason I got into this was the market was so good. There's a tremendous shortage [of] wine grapes." And that's made growing grapes to make Maryland wine a lucrative operation, almost from the beginning.

Mr. Purvins grows a hybrid wine grape. "They're French American crosses," he explains, "and one of their attributes is they're very vigorous and since this soil here was fairly fertile, they all grew really well. We harvested our second year and have been harvesting since. Last year was our best year. We got a total of about 14 tons. At the current market, there's a pretty good demand for it. I'm getting close to $1,000 a ton for my grapes."

The story is the same throughout the country. There are vineyards now in every state except Alaska. The state of Maryland -- with 15 wineries -- is actively encouraging the industry. It funds an experimental vineyard where agricultural scientists are testing many varieties of grapes. "We planted 27 varieties 4 years ago," says Ben Beale, "and since then we've taken 10 of those varieties out and have replaced those with another 10 … trying to find that variety that's going to do well here. And we're looking at other parts of the country and seeing what successes they're having, and other parts of the world where the climate is very similar to what we have here."

So far, two varieties of grapes are doing well in southern Maryland -- hybrid and vinifera. Steve Purvins' hybrid grapes are used in Vidal, a white wine, and in Chambourcin, a red. Maryland's wineries produce some 140 varieties, and Bob Pippin stocks a good selection at Pip's Liquor Store in Chestertown. "The demand is there," he says, but he admits, "it's hard to get people to try them because they have this pre-conceived notion that if it's from Maryland, it can't be any good. But once you get 'em to try them, they'll come back and buy it again."

Mr. Pippin especially likes the Chardonnay from Boordy Vineyards, the state's oldest family-run winery, and recommends it to his customers. He says Maryland wine is "very comparable to California wines. They have the earthiness in the reds and a nice clean crisp in the whites."

Maryland's first wine was a passable red, made in 1756. And although vineyards were overshadowed by the state's tobacco and cornfields, vintners continued to grow and improve their grapes.

Walter Deshler has been growing grapes and producing wine with his friend, Norton Dodge, for 35 years, as a hobby. He describes it as "an enthusiasm." Mr. Dodge's beautiful estate on the Patuxent River includes a small vineyard and private winery. Wine bottled here is labeled with the name of the estate, Cremona Farm. Mr. Dodge says it all started under a mulberry tree. "I'd acquired this place, and saw an awful lot of mulberries cascading out of trees and thought there must be some way of using that." He laughs as he recalls that all he produced was some vinegar. "Walter said 'Why don't you grow grapes?' So we decided we'd get some of the shoots you start with. So we started up and got in a couple of acres. It's all for our consumption and our friends."

Mr. Deshler adds, "In years of good production, we sell grapes to people who want to make wine." Steve Purvins sells his grapes to a commercial winery a couple hours away in the central part of the state. He says he wants to expand his own vineyard and build a winery on his farm.

State agronomist Ben Beale predicts that as more farmers plant vineyards, more wineries will appear. He sees it happening all around the country, bringing economic benefits to the local communities. "Along with the vineyards and wineries come(s) … the tourism industry. People love to come down and tour a vineyard, do a wine tasting, come to a wine festival. Those kinds of things really attract a lot of people and, of course, when they come, they spend money and that's certainly an economic boost to the agricultural industry and the county economy as well."