You won’t see Dr. Joe Fiola behind the bar at any Maryland wineries.
But his work as the Specialist in Viticulture and Small Fruit, University of Maryland extension, is one of the reasons why that wine you’re drinking is winning awards and satisfying palates. Pennsylvania has someone similar in Mark Chien — both set up workshops and essentially help pollinate the wine community with news and views about how to grow better grapes.
Fiola once again stationed himself in the back room at the Maryland Governor’s Cup competition recently, something he has done for the past seven or eight years after initially serving as a judge. What better way to assess the overall quality than sample as many wines as possible.
And there was plenty of improvement. Fifteen wines wound up with gold medals out of the 90 or 95 that entered the competition. “That’s the largest percentage I’ve been around in a long, long time,” he said by phone Thursday. “That says a lot.”
He credits the improvement to “the level of intense viticulture that’s going on. Everyone has gotten the message that wine is made in the vineyard and if you want to make great wine, you’ve got to make great grapes.”
Asked him about the value of having an intrastate competition vs. taking wines outside the state to compete nationally and internationally. He said there’s already plenty of that, but “I think it’s real important for people in this state to get a barometer on how the state is doing overall and how one winery is doing against another winery in the state . . . how the Meritage wines are doing, the Vidals, how the Chambourcin is starting to fit in. That’s real important for us to see within the state what we’re doing well, what we are continuing to improve and what we need to improve. [You have the] golds being won by the blush, the Meritage, Chambourcin; it’s exciting to see that kind of thing. The Sangiovese in there. We’re starting to create our own little niche of what we can do best, and that’s a good thing.
“It’s an incredibly diverse state from west to east as far as climate is concerned, and I don’t think Maryland will ever be known for one distinct [wine] because of the diversity we have from the mountains all the way to the southern and Eastern shores. It will always be a challenge for us to be known for one thing in particular.”
While they learn what grow well, Maryland also have learned what doesn’t. One is Nebbiolo, another is Pinot Noir. “That’s a real challenge,” he said of the Pinot. “We don’t have too many people doing that. Some of the northern tier counties in the higher altitudes are being somewhat successful with that, but not on a large commercial scale. We’ll have to see if that one works. With our current vineyard concentrations, Pinot Noir is not something we’re recommending strongly.
“Same thing with Riesling. We haven’t had a lot of success with that in our locations because it’s tough with the warm days and warm nights to get the aromatics you’re looking for. Especially when you’re growing like Traminette, which is much more disease resistent. At least you get comparable aromatics in the wine.”