By Paul Vigna
Joe Fiola is the University of Maryland extension specialist for viticulture and small fruit, his office parked out in the hills near Frederick. He had come across several varieties of Eastern European grapes while holding a similar role at Rutgers and eventually started making a white blend out of them that he liked very much.
Convincing anyone to grow the grapes, well, that was another story. Finally, as he described it, he started “browbeating” Dave Collins, the co-owner and winemaker at Big Cork Vineyards, located a stone’s throw from one of Fiola’s experimental vineyards. “I just kept bringing him bottles of the wine I was making,” he says. “[Dave] finally broke down.”
With no regrets, mind you. What took on the moniker of “Russian grapes” turned into Big Cork’s top seller, called Russian Kiss, receiving plaudits from wine judges nationally and bringing Collins and big Cork’s wine in June 2019 to the Russian Embassy in Washington’s D.C. for a Russia Day celebration. BBC and Voice of America are among the major media outlets that have profiled the wine and winery.
For Fiola, that role as a cheerleader for the Russian grapes captures the kind of contributions he had made. Not just to New Jersey or Maryland but the entire mid-Atlantic wine community over the past 30-plus years and draws recognition as one of Wine Industry Network’s most inspirational figures for 2020.
“Joe has been a great help to the industry,” says Ed Boyce, co-owner of nationally acclaimed Black Ankle Vineyards in central Maryland. “I could point to a lot of specific things he has done for us, but I really think his infectious enthusiasm is best thing about him. Optimism is a rare commodity in farming, but Joe keeps his sunny outlook despite all of the issues we face on a yearly basis.”
A south Philly guy who moved to New Jersey in high school, he said two of his early role models in that state’s wine industry were Rudy Marchesi, then at Alba Vineyard and now the proprietor at Montinore Estate in Oregon, and Dr. Frank Salek, longtime owner of Sylvin Farms Winery in Atlantic County, a producer Fiola said was “the first one in New Jersey to really be committed to growing vinifera.”
Hired by Rutgers University as a small fruit breeder, his focus largely was on strawberries and raspberries (blueberries, a New Jersey staple, belonged to someone else), which has led to 12 patents that he developed. Grapes became part of his domain, too, at a time when the state’s wine industry was increasing from fewer than a dozen to almost 50 wineries by the time he left in 2001 for his present role in Maryland, where a similar growth was occurring. “So, both places were primed to have a university presence to get the industry started,” he said. “It worked out well for me.”
Among those recalling Fiola’s arrival was Rob Deford, president of Boordy Vineyards, which will celebrate its 75th birthday this year. While there was a sense of community, Deford says, there was little coordination. “It just accelerated the process of the exchange of critical information,” he said of Fiola’s presence. “My first sense when Joe came on board has been the same way ever since, is that Joe is a focal point, he’s the hub of the wheel. And that information flows to him and out from him. Before he came, that did not exist for us.”
Regina McCarthy, for years a member of the Maryland Wineries Association staff who wrote the book on the history of Maryland’s wine history, concurred. “It’s been a pleasure to watch Joe’s experiments and research over the years, but the true impact he has left on me is the importance of human connection,” says McCarthy, now director of client services for The Vineyards at Dodon, 35 miles south of Baltimore. “He’s excited to share his experiments, to learn about what others are doing and is always at the ready with an enormous hug.”
Fiola’s impact on the Maryland industry alone has been wide-ranging, from providing his insights in the vineyard to addressing issues and offering his perspective at conferences. Lauren Zimmerman, the successful winemaker at Port of Leonardtown Winery, said she remembered first meeting him at a new growers workshop and his warning that growing grapes was a challenge. “Joe wasn’t going to mislead or sugarcoat it,” she says. “His in-depth research and focus on education have helped raise the quality bar in Maryland wine production, and he continues to guide the industry’s evolution with a strong focus on quality.”
Part of that evolution is finding new grapes that accompany changing tastes and a changing climate, identifying vines that would add to the depth of what the state’s wineries grow and make. Much of that discovery has taken place in experimental vineyards that he maintained in New Jersey and has scattered at locations throughout Maryland. “Look around the world, similar climate, good wine, and let’s bring those grapes in,” he says.
Currently, he is growing some northern Italian varieties such as Vermentino, Sagrantino and Teroldego, and he talked about a cultivar tasting he held a couple months ago where he brought in samples of Columbard and Pinot Blanc and several varieties from Switzerland he has been testing. In so many cases, it has been wine made from the grapes his has grown.
“I get to grow the grapes and make the wine,” he says, “and I think that’s really important as far as seeing things through. I always say my wine is my data.”
Kevin Atticks has been connected to the Maryland wine industry for several decades, first as the president of the Maryland Wineries Association and now as the executive director of Grow & Fortify, which represents the state’s producers of wine, beer and distilled products.
“Joe has brought deep research via four research vineyard sites on which grape varieties to recommend for growers throughout Maryland,” Atticks says. “His research has led to the planting of Barbera, some of our more popular aromatic varieties and a series of Russian varieties. His commitment to this long-term research has propelled Maryland’s industry on a much faster trajectory.”
His presence, however, extends beyond Maryland’s borders. He travels to surrounding states to make presentations or judge competitions and has served as the moderator for five PennLive.com tasting summits that have brought together winemakers and owners from as many as six states. Recently, he was given the Monteith Bowl by the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association for his “exceptional contributions to the development and sustainability of the American wine industry.”
Along with Tony Wolfe, a viticulture extension specialist at Virginia Tech, they provide ongoing insights and guidance for the East Coast wine community.
“It just happens to be that [Joe’s] employed by Maryland,” notes Collins, of Big Cork.
“Same with Tony. Employed by Virginia, but it’s sort of a mid-Atlantic kind of a support group, you might say. Joe has been 100 percent helpful of everybody in Maryland. Without him, I’m sure the industry would not have grown at the pace that it has grown and is growing. No question about that.”