State wine festival is pressured by the gripes of wrath Two are challenging operator for control

Md. wineries upset

October 24, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Jerry Hardesty, owner of the Middleton Tavern in Annapolis, has raked in profits from the Mid-Atlantic Wine Festival for a decade. Now, a former employee and a competitor are trying to wrest control from him in separate challenges.

And the three-way contest to run what state law says is a festival to promote Maryland products has brought long-simmering grudges into the open.

The contenders have called friends, business associates and members of Anne Arundel County's General Assembly delegation, asking for support, advice or a good word with the county liquor board, which decides who wins the June 1998 wine and microbrew festival license.

One contestant asked the lawmakers, who previously helped pass legislation that benefited Hardesty, to butt out.

Maryland winemakers, all but one of whom pulled out of the festival in 1990 in a dispute over money, are backing Bob Harrison, an ex-Hardesty employee who has offered them favorable terms.

James "Rusty" Romo, whose family owns Harry Browne's Restaurant in Annapolis, also applied for the license. He says he has the support of some local nonprofit groups, offers to broaden the festival to include West Coast wines and promises to donate some of the proceeds to an undetermined local educational cause.

Hardesty says his organization has "done an excellent job" running the festival and should continue.

The others are "trying to follow a dream, I guess," Hardesty said.

But to hear Robert Deford, who is president of Boordy Vineyards in Hydes and is on the 10-member Association of Maryland Wineries, Hardesty's stewardship of the festival has been more like a nightmare.

"Rather than share the proceeds in an equitable fashion, he has chosen to feature wineries from other states who are so eager to get their products into Maryland that they will work for free, allowing him to pocket greater profits," Deford wrote to the Anne Arundel liquor board.

The three-member board has scheduled its first hearing on the matter Tuesday. A second hearing will take place in late November.

None of this drama has impeded the popularity of the festival, which has drawn as many as 12,000 people at $16 a pop on a sunny day.

A well-attended wine and microbrew festival can net tens of thousands of dollars -- the kind of profit that can help business through a lean winter and gains the promoter wide recognition.

The promoters "aren't going after it for a cultural experience," said Michael J. Wagner, the ex-state senator from Ferndale and operator of a catering business that has sold crab cakes at the event. "They're doing it to make a buck, and that ain't a crime."

Much as he says he admires Hardesty for creating the festival, Wagner, who also owns a restaurant supply house, is staying out the fray. "All these guys are my customers," he said.

Hardesty wouldn't discuss what some close to the dispute have described as revenge, bad feelings about his festival and complaints he doesn't share enough of the profits with vendors. He did say that he's lost money some years and always has to take a financial risk because few people will come in bad weather.

Pressed in the middle of all this is Linganore Winecellars of Mount Airy, the largest winery in the state and the only Maryland winery that stayed with Hardesty's festival.

"I would like to be left out of it," groaned Eric Aellen, vineyard

manager.

He is the nonvoting president of the winery group allied with Harrison. But he wants an invitation, whoever has the license.

Linganore stayed in the festival as a business decision, Aellen explained. The winery sponsors Chessie, Maryland's Whitbread Race entry, makes the dry white "Chessie's Legend," and wanted to give a boost to local stores selling its wines in the lucrative and sailing-oriented Annapolis market.

The General Assembly created the annual bash in 1988 to promote in-state wines. But after the 1990 festival, all of the Maryland winemakers except Linganore pulled out, saying it was not classy enough or big enough. Hardesty was then reduced to buying wine to sell at the festival, instead.

But in 1993 Hardesty won legislation that allowed out-of-state wineries and trendy microbreweries, those brewing 60,000 barrels of beer a year or less, to participate. The festival took off, outgrowing several city locations until it moved to the Anne Arundel County fairgrounds in Crownsville.

It was "a sobering experience," Deford, of Boordy Vineyards, said.

The Maryland winemakers wanted back in, but the space rental had become too expensive and too risky -- and except for Linganore, they have stayed away. Given that out-of-staters can swing it -- some do quite well -- Hardesty says the local producers should stop whining and join in.

Not so, says Deford. Other state governments promote and protect their wine industries in ways Maryland does not. "Essentially, it is a big moneymaker for a promoter and a loser for the wineries," said Deford, disputing Hardesty.

Enter Harrison, who runs the Eastport Clipper, and Romo, both of whom harp about making the festival more of a community event that benefits more nonprofits, small local businesses and local performers.

The liquor board will have to decide -- using rules that never anticipated such a brouhaha and are silent on everything from festival criteria to when the applications have to be in.

But that will change, said board Chairman Richard C. Bittner. The board is drafting new rules for next year.

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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