When the first Wine in the Woods festival was being planned in 1992, Ellicott City restaurateur Fernand Tersiguel suggested organizers add enlightenment to their goals for the event. This weekend, as the wine festival marks its 20th anniversary in Symphony Woods, the education seminars still attract a loyal following.
But these are not the formal or snobby classes one might imagine. Instead, they are casual interactions among wine lovers.
"You start tasting wine almost right away," said Larry Elletson, an Ellicott City resident and one of three co-directors of the Maryland chapter of Tasters Guild International. And the wines being sampled are all from Maryland wineries, he added.
"We try to expand people's horizons and get them away from their comfort zones" so they don't keep buying the same wines out of habit, he said.
The festival is expected to draw more than 25,000 visitors and will feature 33 of the state's 56 wineries, said a spokesman for the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, which runs the event.
About 100 people attend each of the four classes offered Saturday and Sunday, Elletson said. Different wines are presented each day.
Often, winery owners come into the seminar tent and talk about their wines — a personal touch that adds to the experience.
"Even I don't get to see our Maryland wineries on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland on a regular basis, so it's great to hear from them," Elletson said.
Swirl, sniff, sip, and spit or swallow are the five S's novices will learn in Wine Tasting 101, he said. Participants compare and contrast two whites, two reds and one "sticky," or sweet dessert wine.
Swirling the glass helps one assess a wine's color and viscosity, and aerates and releases the aroma, he said. When it's time to sip, participants are told what to look for.
"We lead them, but we let them experience the wines for themselves," Elletson said. Instructors help students identify flavors before sharing what their educated taste buds are picking up.
Dottie Wayne, Elletson's wife and a Tasters Guild co-director, said the couple "has only been doing this for 15 years."
"We used to drink boxed wines," she said with a laugh, adding that, reputation aside, there are some good ones.
"And wine in screw-top bottles," added Elletson with a smile, explaining that "there's less waste."
The couple now stores between 750 and 1,000 bottles in a wine cellar in their basement, a 7-foot-by-12-foot room that's kept at a steady 55 degrees. They have collected wines from Croatia, Hungary, Bosnia and South Africa in addition to the more expected locales of France, Italy, Spain and Germany.
And they talk of "terroir," a French word that refers to "the ground, air, moisture and wind" of a winery's geography, geology and climate.
"Some of the best terroir on the East Coast is in Maryland," Elletson said.
Until several years ago, the state had not been known for the quality of its wines, so sweet wines became Maryland's bread-and-butter, just to keep wineries in business, he said.
"I'm not denigrating Maryland wineries; they made what the public wanted," he said. "But that's been changing over the last five or six years, and they're becoming more sophisticated."
"New vintners are challenging the old ways, but it's a slow evolution," Wayne added. "Some new ones came in and showed it could be done, and they're producing a fantastic product these days."
Regina McCarthy, marketing coordinator for the Maryland Wineries Association, said the state's wine industry is growing each year, with six new wineries expected to open in 2012 in Western Maryland, Frederick and "all over the place."
"Maryland is known as 'America in Miniature,' and every growing region, or micro-climate, in the state offers something different," she said.
"Now that the state legislature is more friendly [to the industry], it's easier to open a winery," she said. But with 200 wineries in Virginia and 150 in Pennsylvania, "we're playing a bit of catch-up."
Penn Oaks Winery, which is based in Silver Spring, grows its grapes in Howard County, she said.
"But it's only a matter of time before Howard County gets a winery," she said, noting that "agricultural preservation land is perfect for that purpose, but it takes four to five years for vines to produce usable fruit."
In the meantime, education seminars are a great way to learn about wine and about what Maryland wineries have to offer, Elletson said.
"We talk about the best way to store wine, and it isn't on a rack above the refrigerator where it's subject to heat, light and vibration," he said.
How to best pair wines with food is a frequent question from the audience, Elletson said, adding "there are a lot of us who are foodies in addition to being winos."
The Maryland chapter of the Tasters Guild, whose third co-director is Dana Perzynski of Baltimore, resulted from a merger of three chapters in Central Maryland. Longtime director Monty "Yogi" Barrett, who helped plan the first Wine in the Woods festival, moved from Columbia to Texas two years ago but still returns for the event.
Wayne said that wine consumption is trickling down to a younger crowd. That's a good thing for wine clubs, which need an infusion of younger enthusiasts to continue to thrive.
The Tasters Guild coordinates monthly wine-tasting events with chefs at area restaurants, which are open to members and their guests, Elletson said.
"We're growing the next generation," he said. "We're working to get them away from beer."
If you go
What: The 20th annual Wine in the Woods festival, also featuring food, art, crafts and entertainment. Children's activities have been discontinued.
Where: 5950 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia.
When: Continues today from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tickets and information: wineinthewoods.org