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Turning tobacco fields into vineyards

  • Charles County,St Mary's County,Calvert County
  • By

Leonardtown, MD - When tobacco died as a cash cow after more than 300 years, farmers participating in Maryland's buyout during the early part of the 21st century wondered what would ever replace it.

The crop once used as currency in colonial times is now only grown by Amish and Mennonite families and a few farmers scattered throughout the region who refused the state’s buyout.

Some fields that once yielded tobacco crops are now harboring vineyards for the region’s expanding wineries that have sprouted up throughout Calvert and St. Mary’s counties.

Mark Flemming and John Behun of Perigeaux Winery in St. Leonard searched for years before finding soil with the right Ph balance to grow Zinfandel grapes.

After seeking just the right type of soils to grow the persnickety grapes, they settled on eight acres between St. Leonard Creek and the Patuxent River after a four-year search that took them all over the Mid-Atlantic region.

At this juncture, Perigeaux is the only winery in Southern Maryland that grows Zinfandel grapes for its wine.

Winemaking has become the new niche for agriculture following tobacco’s demise, but it is not an industry for the faint of heart.

Grapes can cost as much as $18,000 an acre to plant and it takes five years before they produce their first harvest.

Investors have to be patient if they’re hopeful of ever getting a return on their initial investment.

“It is one of the industries really beginning to come on,” said Dr. Christine Bergmark, executive director for the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, part of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland.

She said SMADC provided grants for many of the wineries as they were starting out.

Of those, only one, Port of Leonardtown Winery, exclusively uses Maryland-grown grapes for its products.

Except for initially importing Virginia grapes its first year out of the blocks, Port of Leonardtown uses grapes from its own growers, eight in St. Mary’s County, two in Calvert, one from Charles and another in Kent County.

Port of Leonardtown has another distinction separating them from other wineries--it is one of only two cooperative wineries operating in the United States. And they have been immensely successful since opening in 2010.

The Southern Maryland Wine Growers Cooperative initially formed in 2006-07. Many of the organization’s members were looking for another direction after tobacco’s future went south.

“A small group of growers in St. Mary’s County planted vines going back to the early 90s,” Port of Leonardtown Cooperative President Charlie Murphy said. “I think a large part of it was a result of the tobacco buyout.”

The resulting cooperative effort has put the winery in a position to “create our own market,” he noted.

Twelve growers in Maryland now provide the grapes.

“In order to be labeled a Maryland vintage wine you have to have at least 75 percent grapes of Maryland origin,” Murphy explained. “With ours, it’s more like 98 percent.”

Weather is always a concern, he admitted, noting that an overly wet summer or errant hurricane can destroy a season’s work.

“It’s challenging,” he said.

Perhaps not as challenging as when the cooperative first formed, however. Working with St. Mary’s County Government, the Town of Leonardtown and Maryland, the group was able to procure the old State Highway Administration building at the corner of Route 5 and Newtown Neck Road. The only problem was, because of oil and fluids that leaked under the building when it was a state roads equipment garage, soil removal and remediation had to take place at great cost just to make the structure inhabitable. Most of the work was funded through grants and town and county help.

“It didn’t hurt that the town was already considering making a park there anyway,” Murphy stated.

After occupying and renovating the space, the cooperative has thrived following its 2010 opening and their wines have made headlines ever since.

“We’ve won well over 200 awards since we opened,” Murphy said.

McIntosh Run, POL’s fruit wine named after the creek that runs past the winery, has just won the top award for fruit wine at the 27th Annual Maryland Governor’s Cup. It was the sixth straight year in a row McIntosh Run has won.

A lot of the credit goes to winemaker Patrick Isles, Murphy said, a member of the cooperative since its inception who grows Barbera, Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, Dolcetto, Malvasia Bianca, Marechal Foch, Norton, Petit Sirah, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Vidal Blanc and Viognier grapes at Summerseat Farm in Mechanicsville.

Isles has produced award-winning wines year after year at POL, but Murphy said winemaking is a full-time job.

“Patrick has decided to step back, because he already has a full-time job,” he added.

Lauren Y. Zimmerman, a Canadian transplant to Southern Maryland who has made wine in New Zealand and worked at Slack in St. Mary's County, has joined the team as winemaker and is already up to her red hair in an abundant grape harvest.

At 12 members, the Southern Maryland Wine Growers Cooperative shows no signs of slowing down.

Being one of two cooperatives in the U.S. is a plus, Murphy agreed.

“Obviously, the cooperative allowed us to get off the ground,” he said. “The other wineries in the area have grown, but we use only Maryland grapes and we pride ourselves on that.

“We’ve had experts tell us it couldn’t be done,” Murphy concluded. “Eventually, we proved them wrong.”

Contact Joseph Norris at joe.norris@thebaynet.com

Photos courtesy Port of Leonardtown Winery

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