Drink a hearty toast to the Wine Festival

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September 24, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

THEY SAY that if you want to make a small fortune in winemaking, you have to start with a large fortune.

There's certainly a wealth of statistics to back up that discouraging commentary.

But fortunately, it has not dampened the outlook of state vintners who continue to make good wines and good cheer at the annual Maryland Wine Festival held at the Carroll County Farm Museum.

Nearly 25,000 people attended the two-day event a week ago, the 17th year for this popular celebration of the state's viticulture and viniculture.

Ten wineries promoted their products at the affair, about the same number as in years past. Over the decade, a few wineries have closed their doors but new ones have sprung up in their places.

Despite the annual warnings that the industry will dry up in Maryland for lack of support, the state tax collector reports a growth in the sales of wines produced by Maryland vintners.

Local grape production is also in ascendency, although obviously dependent on the annual vagaries of weather.

Wine Festival attendance totals don't change much either, except when the weather turns bad. Highway traffic patterns and logistical limitations at the museum grounds have pretty much kept the crowds at the same level.

If the backups on access roads, at the box office and at the wine tasting counters become unmanageable, there's a self-regulating mechanism that limits attendance.

Talk of a three-day festival has disappeared, especially given the reluctance of county commissioners (past and present) to expand the promotion of alcoholic beverages under county government's aegis. (Never mind that these same leaders are forever extolling the virtues of agriculture and the fruits of farming, the need for more tourism and economic development, etc.)

In fact, there was discussion by the commissioners a year ago of ending the county's participation in the festival, despite the whopping $100,000 annual contribution the event generates for the public coffers.(Under the new government structure this year, the Farm Museum is a separate entity. But since it gets considerable financial support from the county each year, income from the festival continues to go for the same county budget purpose.)

The festival also creates the kind of widespread attention and publicity for Carroll that all the economic development bucks can't buy. It's on the national tourism calendars and has been featured in national magazines.

Other places around here have tried to duplicate the festival, but none has equaled the Carroll event for its full and well-managed exhibition of Maryland wines and its partnership with the state's winemakers. There's a coziness and family atmosphere that gives a special cachet to this September fixture. (Some competing events have been quick-buck operations that have fallen afoul of tax authorities and have alienated local producers.)

Certainly, area wineries hold their own festivals and events throughout the year that draw healthy crowds and customers. Weekend tastings are a tradition at many of them, for hospitality and visitor entertainment are the key ingredients for the success of most winemakers.

But the Maryland Wine Festival is the place where they all come together, providing an unequaled opportunity to compare their differing treatments of the fermented grape.

And while there's no rigid limit on the number of one-ounce samples that an individual can imbibe, the event has always been well policed by the festival staff, servers in the tents and by the state troopers in prominent attendance.

The vast majority of attendees limit themselves to the 10 sampling coupons included in the admission ticket, even if some people end up giving a few unused coupons to others.

The voluntary sobriety tests that have been offered by the troopers in the parking lot for many years are another welcome restraint on excess.

While there's always a chance that something unfortunate can happen, this seems to be one of the few public events that has a firm grip on how to balance alcohol consumption with responsibility.

The festival's future seems assured for at least another year. Indeed, the county commissioners recently gave an indirect signal that they expect the event to continue at the museum for a good many more years.

The message is contained in the recent purchase of and development plan for the 105-acre Gesell farm that lies between the Farm Museum and the Carroll County Agricultural Center.

Plans are to use this last hayfield in the city of Westminster to expand the facilities of the two institutions. And more importantly, to improve the public roads access to the sites and add parking spaces to permit bigger events.

That could mean larger crowds at future wine festivals -- if the organizers and the wineries agree. Expanding attendance will mean rethinking the layout and controls that have worked in the past and the willing participation of many more volunteers who have been essential to the festival's success.

From this perspective, the glass certainly looks more than half-full.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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