Local Gourmet Restaurateur Offers Marketing Insight to Grape Growers

CALIFORNIA, Md. - A cool room with low lighting is where the best grapes end their days. That is a certainty to Rob Plant, owner of Blue Wind Gourmet known for a large assortment of quality wines, many from small, lesser-known wineries.

Whether the farmer who grew those grapes reaps $3,000 or $10,000 per acre for those grapes has a lot to do with his customers. As Maryland matures into a grape-growing and wine-producing state, growers need to know what is going to sell to undertake the four-year investment needed to produce a crop.

The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission enlisted Plant to help growers learn. From vine to customer is the subject of dual seminars Plant will be offering April 17 and 30 from his Lexington Park wine shop and restaurant. The seminars are sponsored by the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission.

It's a two-step dance, according to Plant, that Maryland agricultural and legislative interests are scrambling to orchestrate for a growing interest in vineyards and wineries in the Mid-Atlantic region. While there are numerous initiatives to promote the Maryland winery as an industry and to attract new growers to invest in vineyards to supply them, there are really only two relevant business questions, according to Plant: What grapes grow best in Maryland? And what type of grape handling will net the best return for Maryland growers?

Plant was not just a "natural choice" to conduct the seminars, said Christine Bergmark, executive director of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, he was something of a catalyst. "What better way for the farmers to hear about the market than from someone who both knows the product and the customer," Bergmark said.

Plant's restaurant just outside Lexington Park is known for its wide selection of quality, eclectic wines and Plant is not shy to share what he has learned. Plus, he admitted, he is an ardent supporter of buying fresh local produce, sees the demand for more grapes grown in Maryland, and as importantly, he sees the need to match the kinds of grapes grown to market demand.

It's not that Bergmark and the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission haven't been working on just that. The Commission offers grants to split the cost of vines for local growers willing to put a minimum of one acre into growing grapes for wine. Just a few days before Plant's first seminar, recipients of last year's grants will receive the first of their vines from a list of grapes with such romantic names as Vidal Blanc, Traminette, Chardonel, Cayuga White, Vignoles, Chardonnay, Chambourcin, Chancellor, Norton and Cabernet Franc.

A few weeks before accepting their vines the growers attended seminars sponsored by the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service on growing grapes.

"I'm a new farmer," wrote 2006 grant recipient James Horstkamp. "I'd been thinking about growing grapes for years. [The Southern Maryland Agricultural Commission's] program, not just with the offer for matching funds, but with education and training ... knowing that someone would guide me the entire way... gave me the incentive to get off the fence." Horstkamp is now chair of the wine cooperative in St. Mary's County.

So when Bergmark heard Plant's concerns she challenged him to join the program and share his knowledge with Southern Maryland farmers and other prospective grape growers.

"I said sure," Plant said and for the second of three times during a 90-minute conversation about wines and grapes, pulled bottles from stocked shelves to illustrate a point.

Holding a $35 bottle of wine from Ken Korando's Solomons Island Winery, Plant discoursed on how a face-to-face relationship between Korando and the grape grower led to a $35 bottle of wine instead of an $18 bottle of blended wine. Later, from the cool stores of his restaurant and shop he described a similar successful partnership from the Napa Valley region of California state with $84 bottles of wine.

If the first piece is to get the "right grape in the ground," Plant says the second piece is "what do you do with a good grape?" which will be the topic of the second seminar. "You want to get your grapes in the right hands, to the right person with the right passion."

The seminars target both active farmers and potential grape growers. Anyone committed to growing a one- to five-acre vineyard can grow enough grapes to make it worthwhile, Plant said. "You water. You walk through your vines. You pull bugs off. You tend your grapes. One person can easily manage an acre of grapes."

"This is a great time to start," said Bergmark. "In order for a wine to carry the Maryland label, at least 75% of the fruit must be grown in Maryland. There are 20 wineries already in Maryland, with seven more coming on-line in 2007. All of these wineries are looking for Maryland-grown grapes. The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission wants to help and has offered financial support and training expertise."

For more information contact about growing grapes contact the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission office at (301) 274-1922, or visit http://www.somarylandsogood.com/ .

The Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission is hosting two upcoming wine seminars by Rob Plant of Blue Wind Gourmet

April 17: Growing Wine Grapes that will Sell: A wine seller's perspective
April 30: What It Takes to Make Wine that will Sell: A wine seller's perspective

Both will be at 7:30 pm at:

Blue Wind Gourmet
22803 Gunston Drive
California, MD 20619

Registration is $5 per seminar. Please register by April 12 with name and phone number to Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, 301-274-1922.

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