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Fiola's impact on vineyards grows

June 05, 2007|by MARLO BARNHART

BOONSBORO - Growing up Italian in Philadelphia gave Joe Fiola an appreciation for wine.

Lucky for him, he was able to transform that appreciation into a career as a viticulturist, the science or art of grape growing.

Since 2001, Fiola has been associated with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, working with small fruits such as raspberries and strawberries, as well as grapes.

"They made me an offer I couldn't refuse," Fiola said recently as he and several interns were finishing up a project at the lab at the Western Maryland Research and Education Center on Keedysville Road.

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The day before, Fiola and the interns were in Howard County, picking 18 varieties of strawberries. Their job is to manipulate the plants to withstand adverse temperatures, insects and other factors that impact the size and quality of the crop.

From his hometown of Philadelphia, Fiola obtained his undergraduate and master's degrees at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He earned his doctorate from the University of Maryland.

Fiola met his future wife, Debbie, at the University of Maryland and for three years they maintained a long- distance courtship.

When he accepted the job in Washington County, Fiola and his wife and their two children relocated to the Keedysville area. Daughter Jaclyn is 13 and their son, Gregory, is 10.

"I had some impact on the entire vineyard here," Fiola said of the research facility on Keedysville Road. There are several varieties of grapes imported from Italy growing in the vineyards.

Statewide, there are four experimental vineyards - Upper Marlboro, Salisbury, Queen Anne's County and here in Washington County.

"Maryland's soil and climate are good for grapes ... from Washington through Harford counties," Fiola said.

Last fall, the first of several beginner programs were held for people interested in starting vineyards. The first attracted 35 people in Washington County. The second and third, held in Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, drew 80 people each.

"I need so much help," Fiola said.

That's because he is not only involved with grapes but raspberries and strawberries, plus tree fruit.

Fiola, 51, has the help of interns from nearby schools such as Shepherd University, Hagerstown Community College and the University of Maryland.

"Some work for pay and some for credit," he said. "They are working on their projects and helping me with mine."

He said his hope is to place them in the industry, which is growing.

The holder of 12 patents in his field, Fiola said it's a thrill to open the pages of a nursery magazine and see varieties of raspberries bearing names of his family - names he gave the fruits because he developed them.

Fiola credits Maryland Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, with the surge in interest in the wine industry in Washington County.

Munson has been pushing winemaking for the county for years. He has said it's a good industry and preserves land, since farmers can make a profit.

On average, an acre of grapes yields $1,000 to $2,000, Fiola said.

When a grower takes the extra step of turning grapes into wine, the yield is multiplied 10 or 12 times, he said.

A quick tour through Fiola's lab revealed large jugs, smaller jugs and individual glasses of wine and soon-to-be wine. All are in various stages of manipulation toward the best final product.

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