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Maryland’s wines starting to see their time

ANNAPOLIS — When Annebeth Bunker opened her specialty wine shop, Annebeth’s, on Maryland Avenue in 1998, she had plenty of customers asking for Maryland-made wines.

Most of them, though, were tourists, looking to sample some local vino.

But things have changed in the last 13 years, she said. More of her customers are area residents, and they are coming in asking for wine made practically in their own backyards.

With Maryland’s first ever Wine Week kicking off this past Friday, Bunker said she hopes that trend will continue.

“We like to keep things as local as possible, and I think this is a part of that,” Bunker said.

Sponsored by the Maryland Wineries Association, Maryland Wine Week runs through Sunday. The association partnered with restaurants and wine stores across the state to coordinate wine tastings, wine maker dinners and other themed events.

In Annapolis, participating businesses include: Annebeth’s, Bay Ridge Wine and Spirits and The Wild Orchid.

Industry watchers say local wineries are popping up almost as fast as farmers can grow grapes. According to the 2010 Maryland Vineyard Survey, recently released by the Maryland Grape Growers Association, there’s been a 200 percent increase in the number of acres dedicated to planting grapes in the last decade.

“I think people are interested in where their products are coming from,” said Regina McCarthy, spokeswoman for the Maryland Wineries Association. “They like that they can go out there [to the wineries], touch the barrels.”

In 2008, Maryland wineries — there are 50 in all — purchased 1.25 tons of grapes from out-of-state growers for every ton that was produced in state. Last year, that figure tumbled to 0.89 tons, which met more than half of the state wineries’ production needs, the association’s survey said.

Maryland’s wineries grow around 700 acres of grapes, according to the Wineries Association. In 2009, they sold about 1.4 million bottles of wine.

Sales of Maryland wines were $17 million in 2010, an 11 percent increase from the year before.

“I think a lot of farmers are looking for a way to diversify their farms,” McCarthy said. “But it takes a while to figure out how to grow grapes well in Maryland. The product is getting better, and the education is getting better.”

Anne Arundel County’s only winery, Thanksgiving Farm in Harwood, has been selling its wine for five years.

The surge in the state’s wine production matches the growing popularity of wine bars in Annapolis — Grapes Wine Bar opened in the Clocktower Plaza last month, and Red Red Wine Bar is expected to open on Main Street this spring. Also new to town are Crush Winehouse and Vin 909, which is in Wild Orchid’s former location in Eastport.

“I think people here are surprised that you can get certain things much closer to home — you don’t have to go to all the way to California,” said Karen Wilder, who owns Wild Orchid with her husband, Jim.

Their restaurant has about six Maryland wines in stock now, and will be serving only local wines throughout Wine Week.

The sudden fuss over local wine follows years spent perfecting the product and making it resonate with wine drinkers, Wilder said.

“It takes time to get the right blends, especially with the humidity we have here,” Wilder said.

It still shocks some Marylanders to learn that they can buy wine made within 100 miles of their home, she said.

Phil Altherr, general manager of Bay Ridge Wine and Spirits, has about 50 Maryland labels in stock. He’ll be offering them at a discount “taster price” through Wine Week, and also will hold a wine tasting on Thursday.

Many Maryland wines tend to be sweeter, Altherr said, and that’s still a growing market for the wine industry.

Bunker, who will hold tastings from four different wineries throughout Wine Week, said wines from the state’s smaller vineyards often are overshadowed by bigger name brands.

“This will be great exposure,” she said.