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Maryland wine: California of the East?

COLLEGE PARK — Maryland’s wine industry, while not a powerhouse in the world of vino, has seen tremendous growth over the past decade, and the state has the potential to become a major center of wine production in time, experts said.

Sarah O'Herron and Ed Boyce

Black Ankle Vineyards founders Sarah O’Herron and Ed Boyce.

But to realize that potential, the state has a number of challenges to overcome — competition from better-known wine-producing states, the perception that Maryland produces low-quality wines and the impact of a changing climate on grapes.

“If you look at California and where they were, say, 40 years ago, it looks a lot like what it does [in Maryland] now,” said Chris Kent, the winemaker at Woodhull Wine Cellars in Baltimore County, which has been in operation for 30 years. “It’s fun to think the next generation could be something like California became.”

Maryland wineries have increased sales every year since 2001, jumping from $6.1 million to $24.4 million by 2011, according to an analysis of bottle sales by the Maryland Wineries Association. The number of wineries throughout the state has ballooned as well, from about a dozen in 2000 to the 64 currently operating in the state. People inquire about opening wineries daily, said Briana Berg of the Maryland Wineries Association.

“[There’s been] a significant growth in a short period of time,” Kent said. “You can’t help but think that people are more aware of the local wine scene just because there is so much out there.”

Unlike Virginia — which has extensive backing from the state tourism industry, prestigious festivals and awards to draw interest to state-made wines and lots of private investment — Maryland is still attempting to find its footing in the wine world.

Staking a claim within the national market is especially difficult. California wines dominate both domestic wine sales and the public’s idea of American wine.

Simply put, when consumers think Maryland, they think crab, not wine.

“It’s a very local market primarily based on the day traveler coming in for the weekend and getting a bottle or two,” said Antonio Busalacchi, an advanced sommelier at consulting company Vino Veritas and a climate scientist at the University of Maryland. “It’s very much at the cellar door.”

Ed Boyce, a relative newcomer to the Maryland wine scene, began exploring the option of opening a winery along with his wife in 2001. It took another seven years to actually produce a bottle of vino.

Their winery — Black Ankle Vineyards — is located in Mount Airy in the heart of Central Maryland. Producing red and white table wines, Black Ankle tries to make the best possible wine out of the grapes that they grow, Boyce said.

“We could be a really famous wine region,” Boyce said of Maryland. “[But] we’re racing against development. The question is, can we get our industry going fast enough to get that land?”

This is especially relevant to wineries — or people interested in opening a winery — looking at using the land in Central Maryland and surrounding Baltimore, where developable land is at a premium, Boyce said.

Another challenge presents itself in the form of climate — different regions throughout the state have vastly different growing requirements. Many naysayers of Maryland wine cite the region’s humid, rainy climate for its inability to produce wine at the same level of California.

Excess humidity and rain can cause fungus to grow on the grapes and thus ruin the harvest, Busalacchi said.

“These grape vines are so picky and responsive, you could almost move 20 feet and get a different wine,” Boyce said.

Maryland has four distinct climate regions: the Piedmont Plateau in Central Maryland, the Eastern Shore, the southern plain and the western mountains. Each region presents its own set of challenges related to climate, and some grapes grow better in one region than in others.

“With the diverse climate that we have in Maryland, regionally, whether you’re on the Eastern Shore or down [in Central Maryland], you have to be concerned about what you grow in that area and the temperatures,” said Carol Wilson, owner of Elk Run Vineyards.

Combine these issues and you get a region that’s hard to establish as a wine powerhouse.

But long-term winemakers in Maryland say that a quiet movement is underfoot, one in which Maryland wine is making a play for national and international recognition — and some are getting it.

Elk Run Vineyards, owned by Fred and Carol Wilson, opened in 1980 and was the first winery to plant vines similar to the ones grown in California.

While they are best known for their reds, Carol Wilson said, their Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Syrah have been getting attention at both national and international competitions. The winery has won more than 600, Wilson said.

This is not necessarily the norm for many Maryland wines, but experts say it could be in the future.

“It has its challenges, but I wouldn’t move anywhere else,” Boyce said.