The next time some nose-conscious neighbor starts touting his imported premier cru, tell him to put a cork in it.
After all, points out Catoctin Vineyards winemaker Robert Lyon, "the French government gave [Montbray Vineyards owner] Ham Mowbray a medal for doing more with seyval [grapes] in a few years than they had done in two centuries."
In the past decade, Maryland winemakers have developed a cabernet savvy -- along with chardonnays, rieslings and hybrid reds. There are at least 10 wineries currently operating in the state, producing more than 300,000 bottles a wine a year and reporting total sales of about $1.5 million a year.
And although they are relative newcomers to the industry, and lagging far behind the established California houses, such Maryland labels as Montbray, Boordy and Byrd are garnering an increasing number of citations and awards attesting to their polish.
At the 2-year-old Catoctin Vineyards winery in Brookeville, winemaker Robert Lyon and his partners already have a handful of medals from international competitions. Lyon's 1983 experiment in balancing the tannin of a red table wine by recycling fermented cabernet skins caused a sensation at the Winemakers International banquet where it was served.
"They're talking about transporting squeezed cabernet skins from California" to East Coast wineries for testing, Lyon said. Ironically, Catoctin has abandoned the red table wine in favor of its first cabernet sauvignon, which will be released this year.
The owners of Catoctin Vineyards, which operates out of the former Provenza winery off New Hampshire Avenue, are what might be considered supply-side winemakers -- wine lovers who were seduced into trying to suit themselves.
Lyon, a native of Oklahoma, was in college when that formerly dry state went wet in 1959.
"My friends and I started trying all these fancy French wines, and I thought it was great," he said. A degree at the University of California-Davis and several apprenticeships later, he says ruefully, "It's more idealistic fun than it is in real life. There's a lot of hard work involved."
His partners Jerry and Ann Milne, an ophthalmologist and a nuclear physicist, are California expatriates who bought a weekend place in the Middletown Valley of Frederick County. They began selling grapes about 10 years ago to area winemakers, "always with the thought in the back of our minds that we'd like to make our own," Jerry Milne said.
Two summers ago, a slump in the market coincided with Provenza's closing, and the Milnes found themselves with 50 tons of unwanted grapes. They bought $250,000 in equipment and raced into production.
With this year's production nearing 1,500 cases, Catoctin is already a mid-sized operation by Maryland standards. Ultimately, the winemakers expect to produce perhaps 20,000 cases annually, enough to make money while staying "small and select," as Milne says.
Winemaking is no get-rich-quick business: Industry surveys warn that it takes six to eight years to turn a profit.
Two-thirds of Catoctin's production is chardonnay and cabernet -- two relatively expensive prestige wines and, in the case of the slow-ripening cabernet, slow to return the investment. While seyval grapes may cost $400 to $500 a ton and riesling about $800, cabernet and chardonnay grapes have been bringing as much as $1,200 a ton.
Maryland's climate can be unhealthy "for grapes and for man," grouses the transplanted westerner Lyon: It's too humid in summer and too bitter in winter.
There will be no 1985 chardonnay, for example, because the same frigid ill wind that blew away the Inauguration festivities wiped out the entire chardonnay crop. And the Maryland soil is "almost too rich, very complex and full of minerals," unlike the uniform and predictable California mixes, he said.
In addition, Lyon said, the marketing situation for new wines is "grim," caught between the relatively inexpensive foreign imports -- which are often subsidized by governments eager to take advantage of the strong dollar -- and the general public's prejudice against Eastern wines.
"We sell 60 percent of our wines out of the winery," Milne said. "It's marketing by osmosis, partly."
Products of Catoctin, Boordy, Montbray, Byrd and other Maryland wineries (complemented by a variety of regional foods) will be featured at the second annual Maryland Wine Festival in Carroll County, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28 and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 29. From Westminster, turn south on Center Street to the Farm Museum; or call 301/848-7775 or 301/876-2667 for information.
The following weekend, Byrd Vineyards will host its fifth annual Harvest Festival, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5 and 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6. Take I-70 west from Frederick about 10 miles to Exit 42; follow Rte. 17 north through Main Street in Myersville, turn right onto Church Hill Road and go one mile to the entrance on left.