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Climate Change A Challenge For Maryland Wineries

Credit John Lee
Cabernet Franc grapevines at Boordy Vineyards. The vines are cut to be three feet above the ground. That allows cold air, which hugs the ground, to move through the vineyard, possibly avoiding a killing frost. Grapes are budding earlier because of climate change, which increases the possibility of frost damage.

On a warm, picture perfect late summer day, Rob Deford, the President of Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore County is pointing out some of his grapes that are almost ready to be picked.


“We’re approaching the cabernet franc vineyard, and first you see how beautiful the crop looks,” Deford said.


This has been a great year for grape growing in Maryland.  But 2018 was not. Deford said they got 32 inches more rain than usual. It was catastrophic. He lost more than 50 percent of his best red grapes.


“If I have a profound fear it’s that 2018 does represent the future,” Deford said.


Deford has reason to worry. The National Climate Assessment released last year predicts more rainfall, including intense downpours for the state.


Deford said too much rain coupled with Maryland's warm falls bring on rot and diseases. 


The heavy rains and warmer temperatures of climate change are changing things for Maryland’s wine makers. Grape growers are trying to figure out how to survive an unpredictable future.


50 miles south of Boordy is the Vineyards at Dodon in Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County, where Tom Croghan has been growing grapes for about 10 years. In that short time, Croghan said the weather has become more unpredictable.


“I think that’s going to be one of the issues for the industry is how to manage the extreme variation that we’re going to see,” Crogan said.


Croghan said warmer temperatures caused by climate change also affect the crop. 


“It changes the chemistry completely,” Croghan said. “So what we’re seeing is more potassium getting into the vines and that alters the pH of the fruit. And when the pH goes up the freshness reduces.”


Climate change is having an impact on the wine industry world-wide. 


“Napa Valley is unfortunately going to be facing that for all the years to come; it’s too hot,” said John Levenberg, a winery consultant who is starting a wine collective at the Union Collective in Hampden with his business partner Enrique Pallares. 


The collective takes grapes from farmers, then presses, ferments, ages and bottles the wine.


Pallares said climate change is changing where future wine regions in the world will be.


“It’s hard to predict exactly what that looks like because the weather is crazy now,” Pallares said.


Climate change can be a double-edged sword. Deford’s been growing grapes since 1965 and he said he used to see temperatures in the winter routinely dip to 15 below zero. But that hasn’t happened since 1982, which makes it easier for his vines to survive the winter. 


Croghan said the migratory path of grape-loving starlings that in the past zeroed in on his property has changed.


“This year because it’s warmer, they’ve stayed up north,” Croghan said. “So we’ve had fewer birds this year than we have in the past years. That’s not a bad thing.”


But at the same time, the heavy rains are hard on the vines. So the viticulturists are trying to deal with it in different ways.


Deford is growing more vines and planting grass between rows, figuring more vegetation means more water is being pulled out of the ground. Croghan plants cover crops like radishes and turnips between rows. They help to break up the soil so water can seep deeper into the ground.


Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association, said the University of Maryland is growing 100 varieties of grapes to help farmers know which ones can grow best in Maryland’s changing climate. There is some crystal balling going on here because vines can last several decades.


“Three years in a row of a sudden shift can kill your prospects for that variety,” Atticks said.


Deford said ongoing research makes him guardedly optimistic about the future, but adds nobody knows how far climate change is going to go. 


“We will adapt the best we can,” Deford said.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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