By Drew Baker
There is a debate in the beverage industry today surrounding one simple question: What qualifies a product as “local”? Is it the origin of the ingredients or the place of production? What proximity or percentage is acceptable? This question can be for the mid-Atlantic brewers using hops grown in Oregon, distillers using rye grown in South Dakota, or winemakers using grapes grown in California.
To maintain my credibility, I will speak only to grape growing and winemaking – a topic I can cover from experience.
I believe that the origin of the ingredients and the place of production should match. For example, a Maryland wine ought to be made by a Maryland winemaker from Maryland-grown grapes. This may strike you as stating the obvious, but the fact is that there are wines being marketed as local that are grown, produced and bottled elsewhere.
Maryland law requires a wine to be made from 75% Maryland-grown grapes to be bear the “Maryland” appellation. If it is made from more than 25% grapes grown out-of- state it can be labeled as “American” or bear the disclaimer “for sale in Maryland only” on the back label. Like it or not, that’s the extent of the law. The onus is on conscientious producers to educate consumers on a product’s origins and to differentiate truly local products from pseudo-local products.
If a producer makes no local claims about foreign grapes – and their customers don't care – that's one thing. It's misrepresentation that's a larger problem. And misrepresentation isn't unique to the wine industry. See investigative reporter Laura Reiley's findings on farmer's markets and farm-to- table restaurants.
The best wines made in Maryland are made from Maryland-grown grapes. There is an idea circulating that east coast wineries can buy grapes from California and make equal or better wines than what we can grow here. My personal experience says otherwise. California grape growers aren’t loading their best grapes into tractor-trailers bound for the east coast. If you want the best grapes – the singular ingredient of great wine – your best bet is to grow and manage it yourself.
In our first year of production at Old Westminster Winery, our home vineyard was not yet yielding a crop. So we purchased grapes from local growers like Links Bridge Vineyard in Frederick County and also from growers in Virginia and California. It was the perfect experiment. These small lots of grapes from numerous sites and regions proved to be an excellent learning experience; it honed our skills, began to reveal our personal style, and exposed that premium wine grapes can’t be purchased from the other side of the country. You guessed it: the best wines we made that first year were from grapes grown in Maryland. Since then we have committed to making the best wines Maryland has to offer from grapes grown here.
The only prerequisites for great wine are a good vineyard site, meticulous farming and personal commitment. The rolling hills of Maryland offers just the right mix of elevation, sun, breeze, and rocky soils to grow grapes fit for remarkable wines. Purchasing grapes from California isn’t a long-term solution – we need more farmers to recognize the potential to grow beautiful grapes in Maryland. It’s the only way to produce world-class wines that are truly local and uniquely Maryland.
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