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It's Tough to Be a Winery In Maryland

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

SPARKS, Md. -- The sun is setting beside a lush green field. The air carries a sweet whiff of wine. A few men huddle around a conveyor belt, loading it with empty bottles. The bottles are mechanically turned upside down and rinsed. They clank together along their route. A few seconds later, Riesling is injected. The bottles are corked, labeled and boxed, and onward they go.

At the end of the belt, a man waits for the boxes to arrive. He is wearing jeans and a dark blue T-shirt. When the boxes reach him, he slaps a piece of tape across the top. He is Bert Basignani, the vintner of Basignani Winery here, and tonight is bottling night.

Welcome to life as the owner of one of the most successful wineries in Maryland, where part of doing business in the shadow of more prominent wine regions -- including neighboring Virginia -- means doing a lot of things yourself.

"It's not easy," Basignani says. "The PR guys hate me for saying this, but Maryland wine is considered a backwater. But there's some good wines here. And we're all trying to get better."

Maryland has 22 wineries -- some, like Basignani Winery, practically in the back yard of Robert M. Parker, who lives in Parkton. The influential wine critic has professed to enjoy Maryland wine, including Basignani's, but it is apparent to some of the state's vintners that they have very little respect within the state, let alone beyond its borders.

"Outside of the state, who is going to give our wine any credibility?" Basignani says. "Yes, Virginia has done a great job, and they have a critical mass. But as far as quality, geographically we are the same. You either grow good grapes or you don't. We've got our piedmonts. We've got our mountains. We're in the mid-Atlantic. How much difference can there be?"

Basignani's best-selling wine is a $14.75 Riesling, which he describes as "crisp, with honeyed notes of fresh peach and apricots" and just 5 percent residual sugar. But the wine that really established Basignani as one of the region's top winemakers -- and got him noticed by Parker's Wine Advocate newsletter -- is his chardonnay, which sells for $15.75 a bottle. It is aged and fermented in French oak barrels. It is full-bodied, with spicy pear aromas, and honeyed apple flavors.

Basignani sells about 4,000 cases of wine a year, mostly to Baltimore County liquor stores and restaurants. His wine also shows up in Howard County. The winery itself has a homey tasting room that is open Wednesday through Sunday, and Basignani hosts picnics, movie nights and musical events.

Basignani, 60, became a commercial wine seller as a bit of an accident. He grew up in and around Baltimore and later worked in his father's construction business. In 1974, he settled in Sparks, midway between Baltimore and the Pennsylvania line. Like his grandparents, Basignani began making his own wine.

"I realized that I'm going to have to grow my own grapes if I want to make myself a decent wine," he says.

So he did just that. He also read a lot of books on the subject. He went to tastings. Pretty soon he met Parker. The two became friends, a sort of mentor-student relationship. In 1986, with an abundance of grapes on his hands, Basignani opened the winery. He worked at it part time, with the help of his wife Lynne and four kids, until 1999 when he devoted full attention to the winery.

Basignani is known for his minimalist style, which he says he picked up from the late Hamilton Mowbray, a Maryland wine pioneer. "He always told me to give the wine a chance," Basignani said. "I'd call him and say, 'The pH [degree of acidity] is this. What should I do?' He'd tell me to just relax. 'Give the wine a chance. It will be okay.' It took years for me to believe that."

Basignani hopes to grow the business enough so that his children can one day take over. He declines to say whether his business is making money. "I do it because I love it," he says, adding this description of the perfect day he occasionally enjoys:

"If it's a nice day, I'll putt around my flower gardens. Around 9:30, I'll go up and do a little paperwork. Get on the phone. Have lunch. Maybe watch an episode of 'Law & Order.' Come back for more paperwork. Do some laps around the vineyard checking things out. Have a nice dinner. Then a good bottle of wine."

The Basignani Winery is at 15722 Falls Rd., Sparks, Md. For tastings, events and directions, call 410-472-0703 or go tohttp://www.basignani.com.

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