6/1/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent
Starting today, Maryland wineries will be able to sell wine and offer samples at farmers markets listed in the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Market Directory, which is available online at http://www.marylandsbest.net.
A new off-site permit will replace the current winery special event permit. It will remove county-by-county restrictions and limits on the number of markets (or market days) a winery may attend. The new process shifts the permitting burden off of the markets and on to the wineries, while also streamlining the process and making it less expensive for wineries.
“You can never truly predict what it will do but we plan to use it to the fullest extent of the law,” said Rob Deford of Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Maryland’s oldest winery.
While the new permit makes it much easier for wineries to sell their products at farmers markets, it does not give them open access. Markets must invite a winery to participate in a market and wineries may not sell wine by the glass. In addition, local regulations regarding the sale and sampling of wine prevails, even if they are more restrictive than what the new permit allows.
The Maryland Wineries Association encouraged wineries to apply for the off-site permit before June 1 so they would have it when it becomes effective. Wineries must also report to the Comptroller on the 20th of each month which markets they intend to go to the following month.
Deford said that farmers markets attract people who care about sourcing their foods locally. He said they are a captive audience of sophisticated food consumers and are often more affluent — all that’s required to convert many of them to customers is for them to experience locally-produced wines.
“In the world of wine, we have been facing the headwinds of competition forever,” said Deford. “A prophet is never respected in his own town — it’s important to challenge the notion that wine has to be imported from somewhere else to be good.”
Although many farmers sell their eggs, fresh produce and even some value-added products made from what they grow at a farmers market and depend on the income from it, it doesn’t work that way for vineyard owners. “Farmer’s markets are barely better than break-even in our experience,” said Deford. But, “this change in the law will increase the number of wineries that exhibit at farmers markets.”
He considers the cost of setting up at farmers markets as an advertising expenditure. And it’s much more effective, not to mention cheaper, than advertising in print.
“As wineries try this out, they are going to have to decide if this effort is good for them in the long term,” he said. But in the short term, “buying one license at cost of $100 and getting rid of the burdensome paperwork” makes it an attractive prospect.
“We are very focused on Maryland and trying to take advantage of our home market. The Maryland wine market is the envy of the region because we have a lot of consumers,” Deford said. He added one of the biggest hurdles vineyards have had to overcome is that for a long time “we have not been viewed as farmers by the ag community or regulators.”
Wine grapes have enabled Deford’s family farm to remain profitable.
“We raised beef, grew produce, grain and hay on Long Green Farm long before the winery was built,” he said.
Boordy is an occupant on the farm where they still grow grain and hay. It’s the oldest winery in Maryland, dating back to 1945. Deford’s family has been associated with it since 1965.
Growing wine grapes has been increasingly recognized as an agricultural operation. Deford credits Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Buddy Hance with much of that. “I don’t know if he drinks wine,” he joked, “but he has been very supportive of our industry.”
“Wineries and vineyards are a growing segment of our already diverse agriculture industry,” said Hance. “This new permitting process is another way we are working to connect consumers with all Maryland producers.”
For example, in 2011, the Maryland General Assembly made it legal for Maryland vineyards to ship wine to Maryland consumers direct from the winery. Prior to that, they could ship to most other states but not to Maryland customers. Although this does not represent a substantial portion of sales, it helps to spread the word about Maryland wines and keeps sales local.
Now, Deford said, grape growers are working to educate planners who have historically regarded winemaking operations as equivalent to a General Motors plant. On-farm creameries often face the same sort of misunderstandings, he said.
“This permit is a great example of the industry and state working together to promote local wines to customers already focused on buying other locally grown products,” said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association. “We hope to turn locavours’ into locapours’ via farmers markets.”
Farmers markets have become increasingly popular as interest in purchasing fresh, local food and connecting directly with farmers who grow the food has risen.
In 2008, there were only 88 markets in Maryland. This year, there will be 131.