The 2013 Drink Local Wine conference in Baltimore two weeks ago was eye-opening for me because of more than just the high-quality wine; the content and organization of the conference and dynamics of the Maryland wine industry deserve a few words. My thoughts on the conference stem a lot from my position with the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board and the fact that Colorado hosted the conference last year. As I said in my first post on the subject last week, I think Maryland might have put on a better show overall.
However, as for the quality of the wines, I think Colorado has the edge (and not just my opinion...). The Twitter Taste-Off is the headline event for the conference, so wineries try (or at least should try) to put their best foot forward. There was a lot of mediocre wine at the conference both this year and last year. Yet, both states showcased some pretty outstanding wines. I think that because Colorado has almost twice as many wineries as Maryland, Colorado is able to produce more high-quality wine (though the ratio may be similar). But that being said, I plan on adding a few Maryland wines to my collection.
As the the rest of the seminars that preceded the tasting, the sessions in Maryland were slightly more interesting (probably because I was hearing the info for the first time). However, the topics were pretty much the exact same. One session was a superficial introduction the region and another session harped on the the lack of a locapour movement. If these topics are repeated every year, the conference is going to get stale. We get the fact that many locavore restaurants are ignorant of their local wine industries. Let's do something about it instead of complaining. I really like the blind tasting of Colorado wine versus California wine last year. However, the last session in Maryland was something that I really enjoyed. Dr. Joe Fiola shared six different experimental wines (two whites, two reds and two dessert) that he hoped would show wineries new options or possibilities for Maryland wine. I thought that three of the wines were good and three weren't so good, but the creativity (Russian hybrids!) was infectious.
Now quickly back the Twitter Taste-Off. In Colorado, we had 150 or so consumers attend. Baltimore sold 400 tickets! That's not necessarily saying there is more consumer involvement in Maryland (both events were sold out due to venue capacity), but it was impressive nonetheless. I heard many people in the Warehouse at Camden Yards (a superior venue) ask for sweet wine only (a paradoxical situation for many wineries), but I also saw and heard many consumers truly interested in learning of their local wine industry; some for the first time! The turnout, facility and food spread for the Taste-Off in Baltimore were truly impressive.
Another interesting thing that I learned during my time in Baltimore was that Port of Leonardtown Winery is actually a cooperative winery, one of only a few in the entire country. Over one dozen vineyards established the Southern Maryland Winegrowers Cooperative and jointly founded the winery with the Town of Leonardtown and St. Mary's County. The growers sell grapes to the winery and when the winery is profitable (hasn't yet happened) the vineyards receive a dividend. This structure isn't without it's challenges, as some vineyards' grape quality aren't necessarily the highest, but it is a very interesting concept. I know that wineries and vineyards don't always get along, so seeing a cooperative winery producing quality wine was one of the high points for me.
Along with with a willingness to work together, the acceptance of hybrid varieties was almost universal. In Colorado, I can count all the wineries that regularly use hybrid grapes one one hand. I, personally and professional, believe that hybrids have to be used to grow the Colorado wine industry. I don't think hybrids are for every winery nor are going to produce $30-bottles of wine. I do think wineries can make inexpensive blends with fanciful names that incorporate hybrids. I saw Maryland wineries doing that. I also saw a lot of varietal vidal blanc and chambourcin and even a sparkling chardonnel. Are Maryland consumers that much more aware of those varieties? I never got that answer. But it is obviously working; take note Colorado wineries...
Overall, I thought being on the other side of the conference (guest versus organizer) was much more relaxing and interesting. I was able to notice things that I didn't notice in Colorado. And knowing that the conference has grown and improved every years since the first conference in Texas five years ago bodes well for the future. So where will the conference go next year? I heard that Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania were on the short list. I'd love to see Idaho, Michigan or New Mexico, but they may have to wait a few years. Yet, I wouldn't be surprised if one of those three emerged as the frontrunner. Where ever the organization decides to take the conference, I will look forward to going and supporting the movement.