The Good News Magazine

Growing Grapes on the Eastern Shore

Growing grapes for making wine, known as viticulture, is an up and coming business on the Eastern Shore. With a single acre, one can experiment. With a five- to 10-acre vineyard, one can turn a tidy profit.

Golden Run Vineyard, near Sudlersville, offers beautiful, purple Sangeovese grapes, as well as other varieties, on the 14-acre site.

According to Shannon Dill, Talbot County extension agent, good planning and planning ahead are keys to success in the vineyard business. An ideal site for a vineyard is one with good air circulation, a bit of slope facing southwest summer breezes, with some protection from the north, lots of sun, and good friable soil. Climate, topography and soil that make up each vineyard or portion of a vineyard contribute unique flavors to grapes grown in that particular spot, a phenomenon that the French refer to as “terroir.” County extension agents have soil maps and soil test bags and will perform site visits to help those interested. Shannon may be reached at 410-822-1244 and recommends visiting

In Western Maryland, the Maryland Cooperative Extension, which is a branch of the University of Maryland, has a research center where Dr. Joe Fiola experiments with viticulture, working with cultivars from all over the world and making wine. He is considered the state expert in the field and will advise when he can. Dr. Fiola may be contacted at 301-432-2767 or

After a likely location for a vineyard is found, preparing soil becomes the primary concern for grapevines, which are a perennial crop living decades and sporting roots that can grow up to 30 feet. Soil test results will identify any need for amendment in acidity or nutrients. Occasionally nematodes, nasty little worm-like creatures, may infect soil or burrow into grapevine roots. If the soil test yields a positive for nematodes, a preliminary crop of sudan grass, mustard or rapeseed can be planted to deter them. Finally, plowing the ground to rid it of weeds, improve soil texture and contour for drainage is critical. Time and love for the grapes are needed at this stage! But, an all out effort will only improve the chances of yield for years to come.

St. Michaels Winery

The primary investment in starting a vineyard is in the vines, which run around $3.50 each, and the fencing on which to grow them. The state of Maryland has just instituted a program to help subsidize the cost of new vines. Posts for grapes are set in two to three foot deep holes, six to 10 feet apart, and end posts are then braced with diagonal supports to counteract the enormous weight of grapes on the wire trellises strung between the posts. When posts are lined up in neat parallel rows and wires tightened adequately, the probability of the whole arrangement “going haywire” decreases as the vines take off and grapes grow heavy. Little grape vine seedlings grow very fast! After three or four years, the grape grower can begin to sell the crop.

According to Mike Emmon, at the St. Michaels Winery, there is a huge demand for Maryland grapes right now. Currently, only 50% of the desired tonnage is being met. For a wine to be sold as “Maryland Wine,” the percentage of grapes from the state must equal 75%. Maryland wineries currently produce more than 240 different wines, and of the 450 acres of grapes grown in Maryland, 120 acres are grown by the wineries.

In the Mid-Shore region, Bill Kirby, who began growing grapes in 1984, says there are now around 90 acres in grapes and most vineyards here are between one and 10 acres. When one decides to grow grapes, there are two factors to consider in choosing varieties of vines: the right plant for the right spot and demand by local wineries for particular grapes. The names are seductive - sangiovese, pinot grigio, tramainette, vignole, vidal blanc – but one must remember that the magic is in the end product and practicality comes first.

Grape growing is an intensive labor agriculture that requires a particular mindset. The patience to prepare the soil and  keep it weeded, to tie up the growing vines and keep them “hedged” towards the wires, to check for grape diseases and treat on a weekly basis, and to wait until the right moment to harvest all require a real gardener with an eagle eye and a meticulous bent. When those characteristics come together in a vineyard, there are few sights more beautiful than a well-kept plot burgeoning with grapes.

Hans and Jenny Schmidt sited their 14-acre Golden Run Vineyard, near Sudlersville, on a slope that flows from a crest near the railroad track, down past a conservation planting toward a large pond that helps warm the grapes and can be used for irrigation, which, so far, has never been necessary. The posts in their vineyard are stalwart and mown grass paths run between rows. Wires are decked with dangling CDs and holographic tape to help deter birds, deer and other varmints. The CDs move in the sun and the tape radiates rainbows.

In August, thick clusters of pale green, green-purple and purple grapes hang below the trimmed grape leaves. Despite a drought, vines seem to be thriving. The Schmidt farm is large and sells hay, vegetables and other crops. As a third generation farm, changes in market have affected changes in crops, and the vineyard is only five years old. The grapes are Jenny’s domain and she has planted eight varieties, including some experimental ones that Joe Fiola gave her. In one acre, there are around 700 vines, and Jenny clearly has her eyes on all of them. In addition to managing her vineyard and raising a family, Jenny is president of the Maryland Grape Growers Association.

Bloomingneck Farm has many first year grape vines that were planted one at a time by Holly and Mac McCoy.

Bloomingneck Farm is a fourth generation Harris family farm, located near the mouth of the Sassafrass River near the Elk, the Susquehanna and C&D Canal. Holly Harris’ grandfather and great-grandfather, both leaders in Maryland agriculture, farmed the land. Her grandfather studied agriculture at the University of Maryland and Cornell, and Holly’s father was one of the first farmers to try out no-till farming. Traditions of conservation and agricultural experimentation live on in Holly and her husband, Mac McCoy, today. Their land is high and oriented for prevailing summer breezes. In winter the waters of the Chesapeake Bay warm it. Mature trees protect the land from winter wind.

When Holly moved back to the farm she grew up on, and on which her mother still lives, she and her new husband decided to grow grapes in addition to more traditional crops. With Joe Fiola’s advice, they selected a location for a vineyard and Mac began to work the soil three years ago. Their beginning acre sits high with posts running in the direction of the river. Mac has worked the soil to a light loam that springs when trod upon and drains perfectly, partly due to his careful contouring. Holly and Mac both have ingeniously employed non-standard materials to solve problems. For example, weeds between plants are kept at bay with rectangles of a water resistant, plastic covered cardboard that Mac discovered at a farm auction. And, lower portions of vines are encircled with large cups that Holly discovered were cheaper and worked as well or better than the usual method for protecting plants. Bloomingneck Farm’s vineyard is full of sprightly new vines that Holly and Mac planted one at a time between torrents of rain last spring. Their approach has been well researched and is meticulous, and their new vineyard is beautiful to behold.

The McCoys are proud of their new vineyard at Bloomingneck Farm.

Harvest season for grapes is in September and October when tons of grapes are taken directly to wineries for processing. Wineries on the Mid-Shore include the St. Michaels Winery, Tilmon’s Island Winery, near Sudlersville, and Little Ashby in Easton. St. Michaels Winery sports a tasting room for their wines that is open every day after noon. Call the St. Michaels Winery at 410-745-0808. Tilmon’s Island Winery is open Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. and can be reached at 443-480-5021. Little Ashby is open by appointment only at 410-819-8850. The optimum opportunity for trying out the products of Maryland’s viticulture might be the 25th annual Maryland Wine Festival in Westminster at the Carroll County Wine Museum on September 20 and 21. The business of grape growing and wine making on the Eastern Shore is just getting started and promises to be a solid addition to Maryland agriculture. | | 410.476.5883 | P.O. Box 360 | Easton, MD 21601
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