This article originally was published on www.winedustry.com
As a start-up vineyard adventure on our Southern Maryland farm, the idea of becoming a founding member of the Southern Maryland Wine Growers Cooperative was an attractive option. A winery cooperative is an effort between regional wine grape growers to pool resources, time and talent as well as share the costs and rewards in producing and marketing wines under a single entity.
Southern Maryland is a developing wine region, so without the cooperative model, each wine grower would either be forced to remain a wine grape grower only—or invest the costly capital outlay needed to develop individual wineries. Without cooperation, the wine region’s development would be slow and could possibly fail to thrive. For our farmers, time is of the essence, as our land faces development pressures from the expanding Washington DC metropolitan area.
Over the past several years, the Southern Maryland farmers, state and local governments worked together in minimizing the effects of a declining cash crop and establishing new crops. We work together in order to preserve our land, extend our region’s agricultural history and bring agricultural tourism dollars to our community.
Old cash crops give way to new hopes.
Although Maryland has a wine history that dates back to 1647, tobacco had long been the favored cash crop of the region. Recognizing the decline in this cash crop, our government implemented the Maryland Tobacco Crop Conversion Program (the tobacco buyout) in 1999. The tobacco buyout was an effort to maintain the agricultural areas and help farmers transition from tobacco to other cash crops. Today, the transitioning farmers are experimenting with growing hay, vegetables, and raising livestock. A smaller number of farmers are growing greenhouse bedding plants, cut flowers and wine grapes.
Our own farm, Long Looked For, Come At Last, has a rich history of growing victory gardens to supply local residents with food during the World War II, as well as growing tobacco. We stopped growing tobacco in the late 1980s, rendering us ineligible for the tobacco buyout. We experimented with growing Christmas trees and we sublet fields for rotational crops.
Gerald Byrne, part of the third generation of the family farm, toured the Mediterranean during his teens and came back from that experience with a desire one day to work in his own vineyard. After several years researching and consulting with the University of Maryland’s Cooperative Extension, Gerald proposed growing wine grapes to the family.
In 2004, we put in our proofing acre, testing 9 different varieties of grapes. From the grapes’ success, we determined we would start a commercial acre of Vidal Blanc and a half acre of Viognier. In 2009, we added an acre each of Barbera and Petit Verdot with the help of family and friends. This upcoming year, we are looking to add another several acres of vineyard with the goal of developing at least 11 acres. While we are committed to growing high-quality wine grapes, we are not in a financial position to expand into wine production. The Cooperative provided us with the means to accomplish exactly that as well as provide us a buyer for our wine grapes.
Port of Leonardtown Winery
By pooling our resources, our talents, our grapes and time with other start-up vineyards, we were able to partner with state and local government in the establishment of both the Southern Maryland Wine Growers Cooperative and, subsequently, Port of Leonardtown Winery.
Together with the other 17 wine grape growers, we manage and guide the Winery. Our Board determines and implements the guidelines in growing and harvesting the appropriate grapes, producing wines, purchasing the necessary capital investments, staffing the tasting room, participating in festivals and marketing our wines to the public. Participating in the winery cooperative model gives us the opportunity to develop best vineyard practices for our region as well as gain practical experience in running a winery.
We were lucky to have the support of local government; giving us a great deal in offering and helping us renovate an abandoned State Highway Administration building into our winery. In 2009, we crushed our first harvest and opened our winery for tours and tastings this past May. To date, we’ve medalled in two state-wide competitions and the Atlantic Seaboard Competition, where our wines were judged against wineries from New York to Florida. Our success is thrilling and inspires us to redouble our efforts. We’re looking forward to our upcoming harvest and continuing with our great cooperative experiment.
The Port of Leonardtown Winery cooperative is the first of its kind in the state of Maryland and one of only a few in the United States. Another example of the cooperative model is the Shawnee Cooperative in Southern Illinois (http://www.shawneewinery.com).
If there are other wine grower cooperatives out there, please comment! We would enjoy sharing our experiences! If interested in learning more about the feasibility of a winery cooperative, please visit this PDF paper. A powerpoint of the paper is also available at: POWERPOINT