Inge Crist plans to volunteer at Wine in the Woods this weekend, just as she has most years since the popular Columbia festival began 21 years ago.
The Germany native and 54-year resident of Ellicott City, who "picked grapes as a child and grew up with wine" as a frequent visitor to her grandfather's vineyard, says the event set for May 18-19 is a lot of fun and a great way to give back to the community.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to be around people who are enjoying themselves," said Crist, who immigrated to the United States in 1952 as a young bride. "Howard County can do so much more because of all of its volunteers."
Crist will join a corps of 500 other volunteer festival workers, without whom the two-day wine festival in Symphony Woods couldn't take place, said Ann Combs, manager of volunteers and special projects for the county's Department of Recreation and Parks.
The county department handles all aspects of the event that shines a spotlight on Maryland wineries, she said, noting that 35 of the state's 62 wineries will have booths this year. Fifty crafters, 23 restaurants and specialty food vendors and 12 musical acts will also be featured.
Combs, who has worked on the festival since 1994 and became volunteer coordinator in 2001, explained that aside from event volunteers there are winery volunteers who perform other tasks.
Her volunteers receive a T-shirt and a one-day ticket to the event for working a four-hour shift. Workers staff the admissions booth, checking IDs, scanning tickets and distributing souvenir wineglasses for wine tasting. Others work at the information booth, handing out event guides and offering information about recreation and parks programming.
While some volunteer to be designated drivers, who refrain from imbibing and serve water and soda, the most popular job is pouring wine for the wine education seminars.
"Those slots fill up first," Combs said. "People can listen in and learn something."
About three-fourths of the volunteers, who are all ages and equally divided between men and women, return the following year, she said.
The festival has come a long way since its inception in 1992, when 75 volunteers were needed each day and there were only 8 or 9 wineries present.
"Back then, we were happy to have 7,000 people attend; now that number has grown to 25,000 guests," she said.
Held rain or shine, Wine in the Woods has almost become too popular.
"We have considered pulling back on marketing to get our attendance down," Combs said. "When there are too many people it just isn't as fun. It's not just about the money. It's about providing a quality event."
Combs said event proceeds fund scholarships for individuals with disabilities so they can participate in the summer camp program.
Jade Ostner, director of events for the Maryland Wineries Association, said Wine in the Woods is the state's largest wine festival in terms of attendance. The Maryland Wine Festival, which is held in September at the Carroll County Farm Museum, is a close second with an average of 20,000 attendees.
The 35 wineries each bring 10-40 volunteers, who are trained to be knowledgeable about the varietals of wine they will be pouring.
When Ostner took her post in 2008, there were only 32 wineries in the state, she said. Within the next three years, MWA anticipates that 15 more Maryland wineries will open.
"The reason that number has jumped is that new laws we lobbied for make it easier to navigate [the process] in terms of zoning," she said.
While all 62 wineries are licensed, some have yet to begin wine production as it can take 4-5 years before grapes are ready to harvest, she pointed out.
"It's a labor of love and an expensive undertaking for the wineries to attend these festivals," she said. "It's important to realize that the bottle of wine you see in the store is an agricultural product. Our growers are farmers after all."
Ken McGregor, a longtime Columbia resident and retired Department of Defense employee, said he's been volunteering at Wine in the Woods for a decade or more.
After living in Germany from 1976 to 1981, the Canada native said he became a wine lover so the event is a perfect fit for him.
"The festival puts money into programs for youth, and that's why we came to Columbia in the first place, for its bike paths and pools. I've never begrudged the Columbia Association a single penny," he said.
Noting that Wine in the Woods "has just exploded," he said he has been encouraging [the county] to also hold a beer festival.
"These events are a lot of work, though," he said. "The very next day after the wine festival ends, they start planning for the next year."
Combs said she looks forward to the day when a Howard County vineyard opens and is present at the festival.
"Hopefully, that will be soon," she said.