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Maryland wineries hope to bottle growth trends

Denise McClosky and John Wilkerson, owners of DeJon Vineyard in Hydes, MD.

Denise McClosky and John Wilkerson, owners of DeJon Vineyard in Hydes, MD.

Maryland wineries are growing in number around the state, as the fledgling industry attracts more entrepreneurs.

In 2010, six more wineries opened, an 8 percent increase to bring the total to 49, according to the Maryland Wineries Association. Sales at Free State wineries totaled $15.4 million in 2009 — the most recent sales figures available — a 2.9 percent increase from 2008. The industry had been growing at about 18 percent annually the past six years, but that growth fizzled largely because of the recession.

Despite the still-sluggish economy, interest in Maryland’s wine industry is growing, said Kevin Atticks, director of the Maryland Wineries Association. The group has been hosting winery startup seminars around the state, which have been picking up more and more attention.

Part of the reason is because new legislation passed in the General Assembly last year is allowing wineries to start without the owners needing to file permits and keep track of sometimes conflicting laws in different counties and jurisdictions.

Watch how the DeJon Vineyard owners makes their wine

John and Denise Wilkerson, co-owners of DeJon Vineyards, faced a number of issues when starting their winery last year. Baltimore County regulations had required any place that serves food to have a septic system. That law had contradicted a state law that doesn’t classify wine as food.

DeJon Vineyards has sold 950 gallons of wine since it opened last fall. John Wilkerson said he worried he’d sell out and would need to start making more sooner than he expected.

Maryland wineries, which Atticks said have a total economic impact of more than $40 million on the state’s economy, are becoming popular draws for tourists and an important source of jobs in rural areas. The industry is poised to grow with clearer direction about what wineries can and can’t do. Many winery owners have launched operations as side work to supplement their full-time income. Others who have inherited or bought farms see the trade as a way to make money off otherwise unused or rented land.

Joe Romano will soon bring Prince George’s County its first winery. Romano, a civilian employee for an Army unit, hasn’t yet sold his first bottle of wine but has been selling grapes for a couple of years. Romano started growing grapes on his land to generate some income on the few acres in Brandywine he normally rented to other farmers for soybean and corn.

“I think there’s a big desire and a big following out there for local wineries,” Romano said.

While the industry brings in good money, vintners say the startup costs are high — the business isn’t for those looking to make a quick dollar.

Kevin Mooney, who owns Forest Hill-based Harford Winery, first started planting grapes in June 2003. He was officially licensed in May 2009, and has only recently started to see the money come in.

“We’re still figuring out our market,” Mooney said. “But we’re a lot further along than what we were.”

Mooney, who plans to expand the business into a full-time operation, works for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. as a field technician. He spent more than $145,000 constructing a building for the winery as well as buying a tractor and crop sprayers. His one-time cost for paying for the grapes and working the field totaled almost $100,000 for his 7-acre farm.

“We have folks looking into as a second career of a retirement project,” the Maryland Wineries Association’s Atticks said. “But we have so many new wineries that there is a need for some branding and awareness just to get the word out.”

To bring more attention to the newer wineries, the association created a passport of sorts for winery fans. Oenophiles can hop from one winery to another and have their passport stamped. Consumers with enough stamps can get deals and specials on winery offerings.