Tempest in a wine barrel

May 12, 1993

Call it a vintage case of sour grapes, this tiff between the Association of Maryland Wineries and Annapolis tavern owner Jerry Hardesty.

The 10 vintners in the association are stomping-mad at Mr. Hardesty for using his capital connections to win passage of a General Assembly bill allowing him to invite out-of-state wineries to his yearly beer and wine bash. The vintners say this violates the spirit of 1984 legislation that created the Maryland Wine Festival as a promotional tool for Maryland's small but reputable wine industry. The fest has since grown into a popular annual event held at the Carroll County Farm Museum.

Association members point out that wineries in other states, especially Virginia, are solidly backed by their governments, through the return of taxes on wine sales, aggressive marketing campaigns and other measures. Maryland wineries, in contrast, get little state help. They rely on wine festivals for a good portion of their earnings.

What's more, wine associations in other states close their festivals to Maryland wineries. No wonder local vintners are less than thrilled to share their turf with fat, happy wineries from neighbor states. Marylanders also say Mr. Hardesty is inviting the out-of-staters to get even with the locals for pulling out of his festival a few years ago, when they objected to the harsh financial terms he offered them.

Mr. Hardesty's response? Whine, whine, whine. The owner of the Middleton Tavern says the association members actually fear competition and seek to control the festival scene statewide.

For their part, the vintners make a good point about the policy that keeps Maryland wineries out of festivals in nearby states. It's hardly neighborly; and technically, it breaches federal laws on interstate commerce. Mr. Hardesty does the state wine industry no favors by inviting out-of-staters to his festival, but he seems within his rights to do so, as much as the local vintners might object.

It appears the association's real gripe is with the state government for not promoting local wineries. Indeed, while officials can claim the state can't afford to help, they could be missing an opportunity to boost a product experts say is as good as any wine produced on the East Coast -- and thus create more revenue and jobs for the state.

Perhaps if the Maryland wine industry received better government support, there might never have been reason for the local vintners and Jerry Hardesty to uncork this sour-grapes saga.

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