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Local wine industry flourishes in Maryland

People enjoy outdoor seating at Romano Vineyard & Winery in Brandywine. (Submitted photo)

People enjoy outdoor seating at Romano Vineyard & Winery in Brandywine. (Submitted photo)

When Joe and Jo-Ann Romano planted their first vineyard in 2007 and began making and selling their own wine, they were the first and only winery in Prince George’s County.

Now there are four, and they are linked via a newly formed “wine trail,” a group of wineries that promote their businesses jointly.

On the other side of Baltimore, in Mount Airy, one of the oldest vineyards in the region is undergoing something of a renaissance.

Loew Vineyards, started in 1982, is planting more vines than ever, hosting private events, participating in more wine festivals — and attracting more visitors.

The flourishing of these two wineries is hardly unique. Across central Maryland the local wine-making business is evolving and, in many ways, booming.

“The Maryland wine industry is growing,” said Jim Bauckman, communications manager at the Maryland Wineries Association. “The size of the industry and the maturity of the industry are both developing in front of us.”

The Maryland Wineries Association lists 70 wineries in Maryland, scattered across 20 counties. The list includes three in Anne Arundel County, four in Baltimore County, two in Carroll County, three in Harford County, six in Montgomery County and a whopping 13 in Frederick County.

The association also lists 10 wine trails, from the Frederick Wine Trail that Loew Vineyards is a member of and the state’s oldest, to the Legacy Trail that Romano Vineyard and Winery is a member of and the state’s newest.

The wineries themselves are nourishing and noticing the changes in both obvious ways, holding more tasting events, attracting bigger crowds, and in subtle ways, seeing more savvy customers.

“Twenty-five years ago, people would come in and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know you could grow grapes in Maryland,’ ” recalled Lois Loew, who co-founded Loew Vineyards with her husband, Bill. “That doesn’t seem to be a common comment anymore. Wine is becoming more of a food beverage for people, just something to enjoy and to celebrate with.”

Deep roots in the industry

Loew’s roots go back centuries and stretch across thousands of miles.

Bill Loew’s grandfather was making wine in central Europe in the mid-1800s, and his father and uncle followed in his footsteps. A Holocaust survivor, Bill emigrated to this country after World War II, where he met and married Lois.

In the 1980s, eager to connect with Bill’s wine-making roots, the Loews bought a 37-acre parcel of rural land on Frederick County’s Liberty Road and set to work ordering and planting grape vines. They sold their first bottle of wine in 1986 and have been making and selling wine ever since.

But in the past few years, they’ve picked up the pace, in part due to the influence of their granddaughter. Rachel Lipman, now 26, has been working in her grandparents’ vineyard since she was 18. (She sold her first bottle on her 18th birthday.)

Since graduating from college and spending a summer in vineyards in France, Lipman has become a full-time employee and pushed her grandparents into trying new ways of winning over customers, such as making new wines and starting a wine club.

While the Loews intend to remain a small operation, their granddaughter’s “youthful energy is kind of dragging us forward into the 21st Century,” Lois Loew said. “It’s getting us to open up a little more to new ideas, new methods, more marketing.”

One thing more customers are looking for is the story behind the wine or winery, Lipman said. “People want an interesting story, especially in my demographic,” she said. She’s begun sharing her grandfather’s story with customers, she said, and the customers are responding to that.

At Romano Vineyard and Winery, co-owner Jo-Ann Romano has noticed some of the same trends. More and more people, especially millennials, are interested in the experience of going to a winery, tasting the wine, understanding what it is they are drinking and how it’s made.

“Also, there’s the move for local,” she added. “People are interested in buying something where they can see it grown, talking to someone who’s grown it.”

Trying their hand

When Joe and Jo-Ann Romano bought their 18 rural acres in southern Prince George’s in 1999, they had no plans to open a winery. But a few years later, after their children had grown, they decided they wanted to try their hand at growing something.

They did some research, learned there was a shortage of wine grapes in Maryland, and decided to give it a try. They had their first harvest in 2010 and for a few years made wine in their garage and hosted tastings in their house. Over the years, they expanded the operation, adding a new building for their wine production and tastings and a lot more vines.

Their growth, Joe Romano said, has pretty much mirrored the growth in interest of Maryland’s wine industry.

“I think people are looking for a destination to go out to, and have a good time,” he said. “We get a lot of people from D. C. and even Baltimore now, people who realize that they don’t have to go to Virginia for wine, that there are wineries in Maryland that make good wine.”

It’s a lesson that more and more wine drinkers — and winemakers — are learning.

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