Maryland Wineries Embrace Local Grapeness

by Michael Cullison

Home Grown

New legislation means Maryland wineries must grow most of their own fruit

News from Annapolis

As we sip Maryland-made wines, it’s important to remember that each glass is very much a product of local agriculture. With this in mind, House Bill 972 was introduced and passed into law in 2018. The new law will require that by May of 2022, all Class 4 wineries (those allowed to have tasting rooms and sell wine on premises) grow at least 20 acres of grapes or ensure that at least 51 percent of the ingredients in their wines are grapes or fruit grown in the Old Line State.

Most Maryland wineries (just under 100) are Class 4, typically located in rural areas and have a vineyard, a farmhouse and a tasting room where visitors can taste and purchase the wines produced there. Class 3 licensees are production wineries, generally located in warehouses. They can use grapes, juice or even concentrate from wherever they wish to make wine. However, they don’t have an affiliated tasting room or sales area. Maryland has only four wineries designated Class 3.

According to Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, the bill was initiated by wine makers in response to the legislature’s concerns that the industry might stray from the original intent of the farm winery concept. “We wanted to ensure that the industry members who are Class 4 were truly interested in—and committed to—growing grapes and making wine from local fruit,” Atticks explains. The law, he says, is a way for the industry to recommit to the notion of a farm-based winery with fruit grown onsite.

Over the years, Atticks says, laws have been loose. But as the industry matures and advances with regulations and legislation, the argument for locally grown grapes began to crop up. Many believe that wineries should be treated like other farms. After all, he says, “Wineries are allowed to attend farmers markets and have event licenses and sell from their tasting rooms under the definition of being farm wineries.”

As for the determination of 51 percent or 20 acres, Atticks explains that even while most wineries already produce well over half of their portfolios from local fruit, the association wanted to make its intent clear. A survey of wineries to learn more about the industry’s production and future plans found that 20 of the state’s 99 wineries were just under the 51 percent mark, with a number of wineries around 40 percent when it came to Maryland grapes. The 51 percent mandate was an easy bar for most wineries here, he says. “Most are already meeting the intent of the law.”

The law’s larger purpose is for individual wineries to make an investment and a commitment to Maryland agriculture, Atticks adds.

And what happens if a winery isn’t able to make the adjustment? Those significantly under the required 51 percent or 20 acres, Atticks says, acknowledge they are not in the Maryland grape business and will be redesignated as Class 3 wineries to operate as production facilities. To continue operating a tasting room and offer retail sales, he says, “They would have the option—as some have done—of getting a local liquor license, which is a whole separate process.”

Wineries have until May of 2022 to adjust to the new requirements, and to help them along, the Wineries Association has started a commercial vineyard initiative. Joyce Rigby, a viticulturist who has worked with wineries up and down the East Coast, has been retained to help figure out how to get more than 200 new acres of grapes into the ground by 2022. She has also researched the grape varieties the local industry needs, how much of each is required and what wineries are willing to pay. Based on Rigby’s research, the association will begin to offer seminars to encourage new vineyard investment, says Atticks.

I wondered about years like 2018, when many wineries reported a loss of up to 80 percent of their crops due to the extreme weather. According to Atticks, the new law gives the Secretary of Agriculture the ability to review and exempt certain circumstances. So if all of the fruit on my farm was lost I might get an exemption. Or maybe it was just a bad year for pinot grigio, due to a virus. The new law ensures that Maryland wine is properly defined as a local agricultural product. So when we enjoy that glass of home grown vidal blanc on a warm summer afternoon we can be just as proud as we are of the Silver Queen corn and Chesapeake seafood on our tables.

Mike Cullison’s many years in the beverage industry have included gigs as beverage supervisor for a hotel, wine shop owner, salesman for a distributor and manager of a local winery. He shares his passion for local craft beverages hosting the “Thirsty Maryland” podcast.

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