Maybe a hobby, maybe a livelihood

Friday, Feb. 22, 2008

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Staff photo by DARWIN WEIGEL
Rich Cleary checks on a new red wine in process at Fridays Creek Winery in Owings.

Paul Cornett thinks grape growing would be an interesting hobby that could make him some money.

To make sure, the Avenue soybean farmer attended a grape-growing workshop last week sponsored by various local and state agricultural agencies in Hughesville.

Educators from the Maryland Cooperative Extension taught participants about the basics of starting a vineyard or winery — costs, profits, ground preparation, equipment and supplies needed, varieties of wine, and canopy, vineyard floor and pest-management techniques — in hopes that they might capitalize on the growing agritourism and the wine industries, and keep available land in agriculture.

The Governor’s Commission on Grapes and Wine and the Maryland Grape Growers Association subsidized the workshop’s cost, bringing it down from $135 to $25 for the 91 participants, who included former and current farmers, young entrepreneurs, retirees and land inheritors.

Grape production ‘‘fits the bill” for a diverse array of people, including a ‘‘new influx of farmers” between 35 and 55, Joseph Fiola, viticulturalist for the Cooperative Extension, said. ‘‘We want to make sure people make an informed decision. Yes, there’s the romantic part of drinking wine, but this is also an agricultural business.”

Southern Maryland temperatures are good for grape growing because of its situation between the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, which moderates the winter. And its historic and agricultural roots make wineries a component of tourism in the region, Fiola said. ‘‘There’s no better draw than wineries. We’re confident that it could work in many areas. There’s great potential for growing grapes in Southern Maryland,” Fiola said.

And Southern Maryland farmers, particularly those who have worked with tobacco, are good candidates because they’re experienced in farming an ‘‘expensive, labor-intensive crop,” Fiola said.

While there are 27 licensed wineries in the state, there are only 23 separate commercial vineyards and not enough grapes to supply wineries’ demands for grapes grown in-state. For every 1 ton grown, Maryland wineries import 1.2 tons from other states’ vineyards.

Maryland’s acreage of grapes more than doubled from 1995 to 2006, to 520. Wine production has tripled in the state since 2000 to nearly a quarter million gallons of wine.

Nationwide, the market for wine is also growing. The United States is fourth behind Italy, France and Spain in wine production — now producing 550 million gallons a year. Wine sales have steadily grown in the country — which saw 1,700 wineries sprout up last year — particularly among baby boomers and the 20-something generation. Wine consumption of bottles in the $15 to $45 range has also increased. ‘‘They’re a very important group right now in terms of marketing,” Fiola said. ‘‘The market in the U.S. is extremely good right now. You put grapes in the ground and you’re going to have people coming to you to buy them.”

Not everyone is interested in starting a winery. Cornett wants to see how the vines he’ll grow on an acre and a half turn out first. ‘‘I plan on starting out as a hobby,” said Cornett, who plans to plant the vines in April. ‘‘It helps to keep the property in agriculture. You might as well grow something that will make you money. I’m making a little wine on my own at home but that’s about it.”

Frank Cleary took advantage of an opportunity to grow grapes in 2000. It was ‘‘a hobby gone wild,” he said, noting he now has 7,500 vines on eight acres with plans to plant 1,000 more this year at his winery in Owings, called Fridays Creek.

‘‘I’m here because you can always learn something, especially in pesticides and safety issues. You can’t know it all,” he said.

Because his winery is run with the help of family members, consultants and neighbors, his experience has been smooth so far, Cleary said.

‘‘It’s not difficult. If you keep the right soil, get out of their way because by God, [the vines] will grow,” he said.

The advantages to growing in Southern Maryland are the quality of the soil, which is mostly sandy, and moderate winters. But challenges include little or no slope on most farms. Slope allows sufficient air and water movement that’s essential for healthy grape vines. The region has a long growing season but its high humidity and heat in the summer can prevent grapes from developing sugars and flavors overnight. When choosing a site to plant, people must also test its depth and water-holding capacity in addition to keeping harmful pesticides away from their crop.

‘‘The quickest way to get into grape production is the slow way,” Fiola told participants.

Startup costs for vineyards run about $10,000 to $15,000 on average with labor costs running about $10,000 per one to two acres each year, said Dave Myers, a Maryland Cooperative Extension educator. That is assuming land is already owned, operating and machinery expenses are borrowed at about 9 percent interest and vineyard management is excellent.

The amount of cash flow largely depends on the variety of grape and how many tons can be planted on each acre. For example, the average expected return on chardonnay vineyards at four to six tons per acre is about $6,000 to $8,000, according to workshop leaders. Fixed costs stay around $2,000 from the second year on as cash flow increases. It takes seven to 12 years for a vineyard to become profitable and 15 to 30 acres to make the most efficient use of capital purchases.

The most popular wines by consumption are merlot, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, and they are what Fiola calls ‘‘chateau cash flow” because they are less expensive and most popular. Producing such grapes allows growers to start profits coming while experimenting with more expensive varieties. While red grapes are more difficult to grow in the region, they earn higher prices.

Fiola said while the work to get a vineyard and winery started is strenuous the returns can be worth the work. ‘‘You’re saving the land. When it’s done and done right it’s really rewarding for us and for the growers. People with a passion usually make it work despite the effort and cost,” he said.