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Refined drinking set for Columbia

Wine, woods, and weather that sounds like it should be just wonderful.

With all that to offer, organizers of this weekend's Wine in the Woods festival wonder why anyone would opt to hang out with a bunch of horses and a centaur named Kegasus when they're offering such a refined alternative — and with alcohol as well.

Not that there's all that much overlap between the tipsy revelers in the Preakness infield and the wine connoisseurs who will be making their way to Columbia this weekend.

"We have a different demographic than they do," said event organizer Mary Ellen Baker, striking a blow for peaceful coexistence. "They have their group of people that they pull in, and we have ours. It doesn't seem like their attendance is going down, and ours keeps going up."

Indeed, attendance at the annual celebration of fine Maryland wine and food, which generally takes place the same weekend as that big horse race at Pimlico, set a record last year.

An estimated 34,500 people made their way to Columbia's Symphony Woods in 2010, up more than 7,000 from 2009. The crowd was so large, in fact, that Baker and her cohorts at the Howard County Office of Recreation and Parks, which sponsors the celebration, added about 50 percent more acreage to the festival grounds.

They've also added parking; more than 10,000 spaces will be available, in lots (including Merriweather Post Pavilion's) and nearby parking garages.

"It got so crowded last year," said Baker, acknowledging that success created a problem they were more than happy to solve. "The additional grounds will open up the event even more and allow for much less crowding."

Indeed, one of the main attractions of the two-day festival is the bucolic nature of the Festival Woods setting. Sipping wine is all fine and good, but sipping while stretched out on a picnic blanket, with magnificent trees and singing birds providing a backdrop — that's what sets this weekend apart.

"Wine in the Woods is all about the ambience of the woods, that beautiful canopy of trees," said Baker, in her fifth year as event manager for the festival. "The beautiful part about it is, there's no other wine festival in the state that has this beautiful atmosphere — especially that canopy of trees."

Twenty-nine Maryland wineries will be sending their vino to Columbia this weekend, along with 21 food vendors and nine additional vendors offering "specialty foods" for discerning palates. And the best part about those nine? They'll be offering free samples, Baker said.

Wine in the Woods isn't simply about sipping and sampling, she stresses. Continuous live music will be performed on two stages, with a lineup that includes Deanna Bogart, Damon Foreman & Blue Funk, the Crawdaddies, Junkyard Saints and more. There will be a stilt walker, face painting for the kids (who can't drink, of course, but are welcome to have a supervised good time while their parents do), even an appearance by someone dressed as Julia Child, a woman who certainly loved having fine wine with her food.

Still, Wine in the Woods is a celebration of the wonderful things viticulturists can do with grapes. Souvenir wine glasses will be provided; visitors can bring their own corkscrews if they like (or buy them there). Bottles of Maryland wine will be available to drink on the spot, or take home and savor later.

"It's all about Maryland wines," Baker promises.

Reigning over it all will be the festival's mascot, Bacchus the Golden Man, a living statue visitors will see immediately upon entering the main gate, off Little Patuxent Parkway.

"He is quite the attraction. People look for him every year," Baker said. "He is probably the most photographed thing here on site."

And he's so much more appealing than that four-hoofed Kegasus who will be lording it over Preakness, she said.

"Yeah, we would prefer he not show up here," Baker said with a laugh.

If you go

Wine in the Woods is set for noon-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Symphony Woods, 5950 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Tickets are $25 ($30 at the gate), $10 for designated drivers ($15 at the gate), $5 for ages 3-20. Call 410-313-4700 or go to wineinthewoods.com.

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