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In Southern Maryland there are seven wineries and numerous vintners with varying acreage devoted to viticulture. As the demand for locally produced wine increases, more sources are popping up in Southern Maryland, but not without some struggles.

Grapevines may be one of the hardiest, most environmentally friendly plants, according to some in the grape growing industry. Still, vintners in the area are struggling with Mother Nature to make the best wine they can in their vineyards.

Weather takes its toll

It’s no surprise that Southern Maryland doesn’t have the favorable weather of California that makes vineyards so popular. Ideally, explains Ben Beale, the University of Maryland Extension director for St. Mary’s County, there would be very low humidity, a small amount of rain, sunny days and cool nights for the grapes grow to perfection. “But that doesn’t happen here very often,” he said with a chuckle.

Instead, the region’s grape season — which runs from March to September and sometimes into October — endures a wet spring, a dry and humid summer, and a rainy August and September, creating a difficult environment for grapes.

Much of the season is spent trying to balance the amount of water, heat and sun exposure to ensure the grapes ripen and have the ideal sugar level when it comes time for harvest in October.

“This year was a pretty unique year, and the jury is still out on the heat’s effect on the grapes,” said Charles Murphy, who planted his own 2-acre vineyard in Bryantown in 2008.

“Heat is actually pretty good” for grapes, explained Frank Cleary, the owner of Friday’s Creek Winery in Owings. “It gets them riper quicker, but humidity is never good,” because it can lead to mildew. The constant high heat and humidity of the region are conducive to powdery, downy mildews that rot leaves and grape clusters.

“Once it gets going, it keeps going and going and going,” said Dean Jones, who began his own vineyard in Huntingtown in 2009 and is the president of the Southern Maryland Wine Growers Cooperative Port of Leonardtown Winery in Leonardtown.

If the foliage is infected with mildew, photosynthesis may be slowed and the grapes’ ripening could be suppressed, according to Timely Viticulture, a series of documents produced by Joseph A. Fiola, an extension specialist in viticulture.

The fruit, the report states, becomes immune to the infectious mildew within four weeks of blooming, but the vines remain vulnerable to defoliation — jeopardizing the crop yield and increasing the danger of winter damage.

In the winter, “vineyards like to be put to bed,” Beale said, explaining that vines go dormant during the fall.

According to Timely Viticulture, vines “need to experience a certain period of time of temperatures around 40 degrees to satisfy their ‘rest.’” Then in January and February, the vines wake up during the alternating warm and cold weather.

In the last couple of years, the region has had mild winters with little snow and mildly cold temperatures that may affect the grapes, but at this point, Beale said, the concerns about the warming trend are still “up in the air.” A concern in the industry, he said, would be if Southern pests begin migrating north.

Because of a mild winter, Murphy explained, grapeviness will bud about two to three weeks early, leaving them defenseless to a late freeze. Cleary said that if there’s a hard freeze in about the first week or so of May, there probably won’t be a crop.

At Todd Connick’s vineyard in Hughesville, one or two of his 1,000 vines were “nipped by frost and didn’t produce any grapes” this year, but the vines should be fine next season, he said.

“We’ve never once had frost damage, but that’s just luck,” said Harold Grube-O’Brien, owner of Slack Winery in Ridge, which has 17 acres of vines.

Grapevines don’t like wet feet

There is a fine line between just enough rain to keep the plants active, and too much, which dilutes the grape’s juice and could cause the grape to burst.

“Dry weather makes for a really good growing season,” explained Murphy, adding that there are “a lot of farmers suffering from the drought right now.”

Grube-O’Brien said he, too, feels for the grain farmers who are suffering, but that when the “East Coast gets a drought year, it should be a great year” for vintners.

Jones explained that grapevines thrive in the dry season because their roots go about 20 to 30 feet into the ground and will “pick up the water they need.” That keeps the grapes from being diluted and their sugar levels from decreasing on the Brix scale, which is used to measure sugar levels in fruit.

“Grapes are fairly drought tolerant,” Cleary said. “Industrywide, you want dry weather toward the end of the process. If you do get rain at the end of the season, the grapes need time to dry out” before they can be harvested to guarantee the juice isn’t diluted.

“Last year was horrendous for us,” he said, adding that of the last 45 days at the end of the season, it rained for 33 of them. “We had a bunch of vinegar-split grapes and bacteria getting into the split skins. It wasn’t good.”

Last summer’s Hurricane Irene, Cleary said, “blew all the leaves off the vines and shook a few grapes off.”

But other vintners weren’t so lucky when Hurricane Irene hit. “It waled us,” said Grube-O’Brien. “It affected us a lot. I couldn’t imagine a more extreme weather year than last year.”

Slack Winery got at least 15 inches of rain from the hurricane alone, leaving a “total loss,” he explained. One of his grape varieties did last, though he said.

Jones said he wasn’t able to begin harvesting his grapes until mid-October last year because of the late season hurricane and the rainy fall that followed.

At Port of Leonardtown Winery, where Jones is president of its cooperative, the hurricane flooded one of the storage buildings that sits on a creek, ruining some of the wine bottles and crates stored there.

Murphy, vice president of the cooperative, said at his vineyard there was at least 25 inches of rain, causing grapes to burst. He lost one grape variety altogether, he said, and had an overall 30 to 40 percent loss. He called that “pretty typical” for vintners in Southern Maryland.

When water begins to rot the root, that’s where the more severe problems come into play, Jones said. There are a lot of vintners he knows, he said, who have problems with standing water in their vineyards because the soil doesn’t drain as well, or the lay of the land is prone to puddles.

“Grapes don’t like their feet wet,” Cleary said, adding that in his 11-acre vineyard a portion near a tree line is inclined to puddles. “They won’t grow as fast and their growth rate is retarded.”

The June derecho storm didn’t cause damage to many vineyards, but Cleary said he was thankful it was early in the season. “If it came through now, it’d be bad,” he said, adding that it would push back his harvesting by a couple of days, as well as many other vintners’ harvest in the region.

Prevention means protection

The University of Maryland Extension provides educational programs and problem-solving assistance to citizens based on the research and experience of land grant universities such as the University of Maryland.

Its seasonal series of Timely Viticulture reports are “designed to give those in the Maryland grape industry a timely reminder on procedures or topics they should be considering in the vineyard,” the series states.

Topics of the series are broken down by stages of the season ranging from pre-bloom to post harvest and the beginning and end of dormancy.

In addition, the extension in collaboration with the Maryland Grape Growers Association, publishes weekly reports about the weather, what bugs and pests could be expected and a fungicide and pest spraying schedule.

“But it’s all on a bell curve,” Cleary said of the weather and pests. “It’s not an exact science,” but the schedules aren’t usually too far off.

He added that the university utilizes weather stations throughout the state that keep track of the number of rain days and number of growing degree days.

One thing the vintners seem to agree on is how beneficial it is to have various grape varieties and hybrids in the vineyard to make certain there will be a crop at the end of the season.

Beale explained that at four of the extension’s seven research venues, grapes are currently being grown to “develop and evaluate different varieties of grapes that work well here,” in Maryland.

There are three main types of grapes in the industry — the American, native to the U.S.; the Vinifera, native to Europe; and hybrids of the other two.

“Typically for wine,” Beale said, “Vinifera is sought most, and the hybrid.” He said four do well in Maryland: Vidal, chambourcin, chardonel and traminette. In the experimental fields, the extension is currently evaluating several other grape varieties, including merlot, petite manseng, and vignoles among other to see how they fare in the Maryland environment.

The MGGA is a nonprofit organization of growers and winemakers that promote Maryland’s winegrowing industry with the main goal of providing “our members with the necessary information that will allow them to ‘grow’ premium wines,” its website states.

The organization provides field days and workshops to discuss viticultural issues, information sharing among growers, a cooperative pesticide purchase program, pruning clinics and a quarterly publication, The Maryland Grapevine, that features articles written by local and national experts in viticulture and enology.

The fungicide spraying schedule is the next most important, if not most important to some of the local vintners, when it comes to protecting vines.

This season, Connick explained, “we stayed on top of the spray program” and didn’t have any problems with mildew. “Literally, if you spray every like two weeks, it seems to take care of it.”

Beale said the extension urges growers “to not use the same product over and over again,” because the mildew, and pests, can build immunity to the product, but it’s also important to use the right product at the right time.

Pruning the vines to allow airflow and sunlight through to the grapes and vines is another way to combat the weather and diseases.

Vintners use different pruning methods. Grube-O’Brien switched from cordon pruning, trimming branches coming off the trunk, to cane pruning, clipping the smaller branches that come off the cordons. He said he made the switch because it results in less wood overwintering, less bacteria and thus less rot and mildew.

“A grapevine left alone just goes wild,” Murphy said. “You’ve got to have the proper canopy care during the summer heat to protect the grapes” to keep them dry and still allow enough sunlight.

The natural typography and laying out the vineyard in the proper manner is also important in fighting the elements.

Jones said his vineyard is laid out so that the sun will come up on one side in the morning, giving the grapes just enough sunlight to continue growing and dry any excess water, and then trees on the other side protect the grapes from overexposure. The slight hill his vineyard rests on, he said, also allows for a natural draft through the vines to allow them to stay dry. A few years ago, Jones said he had to install a trench and a drain, because the soil wasn’t draining very well.

“If you can get ‘em dry once a day, you’ll never have a problem,” Cleary said.

How the wines finish

Last year after Hurricane Irene swept through the region, Slack Winery and Friday’s Creek Winery didn’t fare too well.

It would have cost more money for him to harvest the rotted grapes, Grube-O’Brien explained, than the winery would have made on “good, clean wine” sold. “There was no good wine from my own vineyards,” he said. “We didn’t feel we could make good wine, so we didn’t bottle it.”

Rotting and burst grapes on the vines hurt Friday’s Creek.“We don’t have a 2011 vintage of a lot of things” due to last fall’s rains, Cleary said. He added that three or four years from now “they won’t be there, but we have other products that may take their place.” He also said that there is some blending the winery has been doing in order to get a consistent flavor across years.

And, because he said he hasn’t found the weather in the region to be conducive for zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon grape varieties, he imports those grapes from California.

Connick, too, said at his vineyard in Hughesville, the rainfall from the hurricane alone left him with only one-third of the yield he was expecting.

“One of five years, you get exceptional wine; two of those five years, you get great wine; and the other two of the five years are compromised,” Connick said he has noticed of the region.

Most vintners said this year was a great year for them, but because of the heat, Murphy said he’s not sure yet. “We won’t know until the wine is made four, five, six months from now,” he said.

aharrison@somdnews.com