"Wine is just too fancy for Maryland," explained Rob Deford, the owner of Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore County, as he discussed the local wine industry's challenges. "We eat crabs here; we drink beer."
The audience at this year's Drink Local Wine conference chuckled in agreement. Blue crabs and Natty Boh are iconic in the Old Line State, but few think of premium wines.
Rob Deford and a handful of other vintners are trying to change that, working to raise the profile of the local wine industry -- and increase wine's popularity among consumers -- by raising the quality of Maryland's wines.
They're quickly gaining traction.
While the state had just 11 wineries in 2001, it's now home to 62. And an increasing number of vintners are moving away from the fruit wines and non-European grape varieties that have long plagued the East Coast to produce wines that can compete on the world stage.
Just one hour west of Boordy Vineyards, Ed Boyce and Sarah O'Herron have gained a reputation for producing stunning wines at Black Ankle Vineyards. The husband-and-wife team purchased the 145-acre farm in 2002 and promptly turned the property into an estate winery, selecting grapes well suited to the property's soil and climate. In 2011, Black Ankle ranked fifth on Wine Business Monthly's annual list of the nation's "most exciting" wine brands.
Just a few miles north from Black Ankle, Old Westminster Winery is about to release its inaugural vintage. Led by three siblings -- Drew, Lisa, and Ashli, who manage the vineyard, winemaking, and marketing, respectively -- the wines are already generating quite a buzz.
The list of exciting producers goes on.
This year's Drink Local Wine conference was held in Maryland, and over two days, I tasted dozens of local wines. The wines from Black Ankle and Old Westminster lived up to the hype, and the offerings from Boordy, Knob Hall, Slack, and Big Cork were also quite impressive.
Optimism is clearly in the air. As Drew Baker of Old Westminster Winery explained to Frank Morgan, a popular wine blogger, "Maryland has great potential and I believe that the quality bar is rising quickly. Soon, poorly made wines will be the exception in an otherwise great region."
Baker's promotion of Maryland wine -- rather than just his own offerings -- isn't unique. Even though Maryland's wine industry traces its roots to 1648, the state's winemakers see themselves as part of something new, making wine together in unchartered territory. During the two-day conference, it was a struggle to get vintners to talk about their own projects. Every winemaker I chatted with seemed more interested in promoting the industry as a whole than talking about herself.
Here, Maryland is taking a page from California's playbook.
Today, no one doubts the Golden State's ability to produce world-class wines. But until 1976, few wine critics took California seriously. That year, a British wine merchant named Steven Spurrier organized a wine competition in Paris, where he pitted California's best Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons against the best wines that France had to offer. Everyone assumed that France would win, as the nation had been making wine for thousands of years and was widely regarded as the world's top wine region. But with both the whites and the reds, California won.
That competition -- now known as "The Judgment of Paris" -- transformed California's wine industry. It helped accelerate Robert Mondavi's efforts to tout California's wines as being on par with Europe's best offerings. California winemakers continue to credit Robert Mondavi for putting the state's fledgling industry on the global wine map -- and one can find California wine at restaurants and retailers across the world.
Maryland's wine industry still faces a number of challenges. For such a small state, Maryland has a wide range of climates and a number of different soil types, so viticulturalists are still figuring out which grapes work best, where. But without question, the future is bright for Maryland wine.
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine (PalatePress.com).
Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine (http://palatepress.com/archive/terroirist/)