The air had a rich, dark bouquet to some people, a taste of strong drink to others. It was thick with the vapors of Maryland wines being swirled in thousands of glasses and rolled over thousands of palates.
The eighth annual Maryland Wine Festival brought traffic jams, 11,800 people Saturday and 13,500 more yesterday to the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster.
For a $10 admission charge, anyone older than 21 was entitled to 10, one-ounce tastes of Maryland wines. All 11 wineries in the state had booths staffed with pourers serving lines of budding connoisseurs.
Dave Franchak, a financial analyst from Randallstown, said he had sampled 10 different wines and had settled on Eye of the Oriole, a 1990 vintage from the Catoctin Vineyards Winery in Brookville.
"I think it has a fruity bouquet," Franchak ventured yesterday.
His friend, Don Nilson from Catonsville, a veteran of all eight wine festivals, said he knew enough to "go right for the Catoctin." Does that experience make him an expert? "Not really," he said, since usually "I drink beer."
Sponsors of the event hoped that more people would come to see wine as they do, as a food, if only they knew enough about it.
"Our goals are to educate people and to try to kill the snob attributes of wine," said Emily Johnston, a grape grower from Silver Run and a member of the American Wine Society, a sponsor of the event.
Johnston and her husband, the regional vice president of the society, sell grapes to winemakers for cabernet sauvignon. Sipping wine while dressed in jeans and a T-shirt advertising the society, she explained that "wine should be an everyday beverage. Everyone should have a couple of glasses of wine a day. It's good for you."
Johnston manages even better than that. "I drink a bottle of wine a day whether I need it or not," she said. "A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine."
So that no one attending the event need continue in darkness, the festival offered a seminar on tasting wine. Hundreds of people took turns crowding under a striped tent for an hourly lesson in evaluating the worth of a wine.
"It's not something you do when you go to the in-laws for dinner," said Gary Griggs, of Westminster, as he put one audience though its paces of swishing and gargling to get to the bottom of a Riesling and a cabernet sauvignon.
"Ninety-nine percent of the American people don't know how to taste things," he said, recycling a French criticism that (x Americans are a "Coca-Cola society. We like things cold and sugary."
But evaluating wine requires all the senses except hearing, although "I've heard some people say you can really hear a great champagne," said Griggs, who lectures about wine at the University of Maryland.
First, he told his audience, look at the wine for "anything disgusting floating in the glass" and for clarity and brilliance of color.
Next, stick your nose into the glass and catch a lung-full of fruity and oak-like odors.
The fruity taste comes from the grapevine roots that are supposed to penetrate several layers of earth, picking up minerals as they go, and that replicate the taste and acidity of apples, cherries and other flavors, Griggs said.
The odor of oak comes from the cask in which the wine is stored. In one wine, Griggs' discriminating nose can even detect cedar and "cigar box aromas," he said. "It's very complex stuff."
Tasting the wine involves almost gargling it to roil the flavors over the taste buds, then sucking in fresh air after swallowing.
"Wine is food, has nothing to do with alcohol," Griggs said. It is supposed to complement the flavor of food. When wine and food are well matched, the wine chases each bite and causes the palate to salivate for more food, he said, describing the climax of wine appreciation. "And it goes on for a long time like that."
The last sense, touch, probes the wine by judging whether it's heavy or light on the palate and feeling the resonance it leaves after swallowing. Griggs asked: "Does your mouth salivate and
the same flavors come back again?"