Home Wine Business Editorial Viticulture Q&A with Kevin Atticks, Maryland’s New Secretary of Agriculture

Q&A with Kevin Atticks, Maryland’s New Secretary of Agriculture

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Wine industry veteran Kevin Atticks steps into a new role.

By Paul Vigna

 

Kevin Atticks worked for several decades on behalf of Maryland wineries and grape growers. He founded Grow & Fortify in 2015 to strengthen the state’s broader craft alcohol industry and support the agricultural businesses connected to it. In mid-January 2023, newly elected Maryland Governor Wes Moore appointed Atticks as Secretary of Agriculture. Here’s a recent edited interview with Atticks.

 

Paul Vigna (PV): What are you doing that’s similar to your present work?

Kevin Atticks (KA): At a base level, I’m doing the same thing I was doing before, which is listening, learning and working on behalf of the industry I represent. 

When you boil it down, that’s what I’ve done for 20 years. And I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to do it from a different perspective. 

PV: Did you ever imagine yourself in this role?

KA: This was never on my planned trajectory or agenda. This is an agency I’ve worked with from the outside, one I’ve respected, and one I’ve worked very hard to educate on the industries I was representing. 

It was in the last eight years, since Grow & Fortify was founded, that my team and I began to look beyond the wine industry, but including the wine industry, at larger, value-added agricultural industries and concerns. I think that’s what got me on the radar — and got our industry on the radar — of the incoming administration.

PV: What are a few of this administration’s main priorities?

KA: The administration has big priorities. In terms of agriculture, it wants to preserve farms by giving [them] the tools — and the right regulations — so that they can be profitable and preserve themselves. There’s a clear acknowledgement from this administration that, with the best practices we have in place, any type of farming is going to be better for Maryland, better for [Chesapeake] Bay, than losing a farm. 

PV: What shape is the state’s wine industry in? What are you most proud of?

KA: The top accomplishment we’ve had over the years is statutory and regulatory reform. That’s not the most exciting, but it goes back to listening and figuring out what the industry needs, and then going and doing it. 

For example, the industry said, “Hey, we can’t sell by the glass or sell by the bottle or have tastings without a physical walking guided tour. That’s a real problem.” It took a few years but we changed it. 

Direct shipping took a bunch of years, but we changed it. When I started, the industry was very limited and, as the industry grew and more entrants came on board, we gained the political tools and the political representation to get it done. 

The accomplishment, really, was moving the industry forward … increasing the market share. There’s a continuum, and by no means are those projects done. It was honestly very bittersweet to have to step away from these industries, but what I’ve told my industry members is, I now have the opportunity, from this position, to continue the trajectory but to support it from the inside.

PV: That progress isn’t just measured by the number of wineries, right?

KA: It’s far more than that. Just because you have more wineries doesn’t make [the industry] great. You need to increase the market. You need to sell more product. How do you do that? You have to promote these products, get them more in the face of consumers. 

One specific thing I’m very excited about is the Alcohol Manufacturer Promotion Fund, which begins kicking in this spring. It will bring nearly $1 million to the industry for promotion, education and research. We haven’t had money to do that [before]. I imagine one of the first priorities will be to create a major promotion effort that’s geared toward expanding the market share. 

PV: Where is the Maryland wine industry in terms of sourcing grapes?

KA: The way the “farm winery” law is written now, a winery has to either have 20 acres of grapes in the ground or source 51% of its fruit from [Maryland] vineyards. As a result, we have wineries, even urban wineries, that are using local fruit now. 

I heard something interesting for the first time the other day. After hearing complaints that there’s not enough fruit available, we’ve seen wineries expand their acreage significantly. But [those same wineries] are using [that fruit], so it’s not always on the market. [Surplus fruit only becomes available] at the last minute because they yielded more than expected.

One of our oldest continuous commercial growers, Jennie Schmidt*, has just gone under contract with a winery or two to plant grapes. So it’s not an, “I’m offering my fruit for sale.” Rather, it’s Winery A paying her to plant grapes and entering into a 10- or 15-year contract to take all those grapes. It’s a complete rethinking of how the grape market works and it is a major advancement for the state. 

And so that creates the model for others to do the same. There are experienced growers in this state who are either working with lots of clients and trying to figure out who’s going to buy their stuff, or these experienced growers basically are contractors and growing exactly the way the [contracted] winery needs it. I love that. 

PV: Earlier, you mentioned regulations that would aid farmers. Can you talk about those a bit more? 

KA: With regards to regulation, the Department of Agriculture will work with the health department, the planning department and the environmental department to make sure we’re streamlining and reducing some of the hurdles that farmers face when they try to diversify what they’re doing or get into value-added operations. That’s really where it’s going to be. We have a goal of streamlining and cutting regulations rather than adding new ones. 

PV: Finally, in your mind, where is the Maryland wine industry headed?

KA: My sense, in talking with both new wineries and new entrants into agriculture, is that direct-to-consumer is the future. There’s going to be more focus on finding ways to connect consumers and producers; the wine industry has led the way in that and we’re going to see lots of other segments follow. A lot of [movement in this direction] did start with COVID-19, because consumers began shopping differently and seeking local products. That’s only continued to grow as we’ve come out of it. 

***

* Ray Brasfield started Cygnus Wine Cellars in Manchester, Md., in July 1996 and began retailing his wine in May 1998. He was a founding member of the Carroll (County) Wine Trail and was best known for his sparkling wines. Brasfield closed at the end of 2016. He sent in this letter to the editor on Feb. 15.

Thank you for the great interview with Kevin Atticks. One correction, if I may. Regarding Kevin’s response about Jennie Schmidt establishing a plant/grow/sell arrangement with a Maryland winery, Cygnus Wine Cellars did that first back in 2005 with Quail Vineyards in Manchester, Carroll County. I purchased 3 acres of vines and with Bob White (the then owner of Quail Vineyards), planted them as part of his establishing his vineyard. He grew those grapes for Cygnus Wine Cellars and I purchased the grapes for several years under that original agreement. It worked out well for both of us. It helped establish his vineyard by my buying the vines, and I was assured a source of Maryland grapes for my wines. Made good sense all around. —Ray Brasfield

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Paul Vigna

Paul Vigna is a writer and editor in Harrisburg, Pa., who has been covering East Coast wines for 10 years. He was the first winner of the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association’s Birchenall Award in February 2018. You can find him at the Wine Classroom at www.pennlive.com and follow him on Twitter @pierrecarafe

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