Peggy Conrad vividly recalls attending the very first Maryland Wine Festival, held in September 1984, at the Shriver Homestead in Union Mills, on a whim.
"I just heard about it and thought I would check it out and see how much I liked it," said Conrad, who worked for the county government for 31 years and is now retired. "I was not a big wine drinker back then."
Suffice it to say, it turned out that Conrad enjoyed that first festival quite a bit — and also ended up developing a fondness for white wines. The Maryland Wine Festival (which moved to the Carroll County Farm Museum its second year and has been held there ever since) is now in its 29th year, and Conrad has been to every one of them.
And she has a collection of 57 official wine festival glasses, most of them stamped with the specific year they were issued, to prove it. She's got at least one glass from every year, and often two — since you automatically get a glass when you buy a ticket, and she frequently buys tickets for both days of the two-day weekend festival.
This year's edition, the 29th annual festival, will be held Sept. 15-16.
Conrad also has an impressive collection of official wine fest posters, which are different every year.
"There's no way I'd miss the festival," said Conrad, who lives with husband Grover just across the way from the farm between Westminster and New Windsor, where she was born and raised. "I like to get out and travel and do things in the summer and early fall, but I never plan anything for the weekend of the wine festival."
For the Conrads, the wine fest weekend is also an unofficial reunion. Her husband, her two daughters and her two grand-daughters usually accompany her.
"We always have a blanket and our chairs, and we all get in a big circle," she said. "And of course all your friends stop by and you chat with them. There are quite a few people I see there year after year.
"There's also a couple that Grover and I met in Jamaica about 10 years ago, who live in Laurel," she added. "And they are friends with another couple they met somewhere in the Caribbean, who live in Bethesda.
"So every September, during the weekend of the wine festival, both couples will come and stay with us here in Westminster. We all go to the festival on Saturday, they stay overnight, and then all day Sunday we have our own party here at the house. We bring our wine home from the festival and we have more."
But that's not to give the impression that Conrad is obsessive about the festival. Surely, when she attended that very first festival she had no idea she was establishing an annual ritual.
And as far as her wine glass collection goes, she's pretty casual about that too. She admits that before she gathered up the glasses for a photo shoot, they were scattered around the house. And she had to search high and low for her 2011 glasses ... until she remembered they were in the dishwasher.
What most stands out for her is how much the festival has grown since its rustic and somewhat antic beginnings in 1984.
Eight Maryland wineries were represented at that debut festival, and about 4,500 people turned out — admittedly more than anyone had planned for. Some wineries quickly ran out of wine
The Maryland Wine Festival's official Web site (http://www.marylandwinefestival.org) includes a colorful history of the event penned by Jack and Emily Johnston.
"The (first) Festival got off to a rather rocky start at 10 a.m., just as the gates were opening," the Johnstons wrote. "Some guy was driving by and rubbernecking at all the goings-on, and rear-ended a car waiting to make the left turn into the Shriver Homestead. He was immediately descended upon by 20 State Troopers with Breathalyzers. Turned out, even at 10 in the morning, the driver posted about a .08. And he'd not even been through the gates."
Eventually, of course, the organizers got the kinks ironed out, and year after year the festival grew, and grew, and grew. By 1988 there were 13 wineries and by 2008, 23 wineries. This year, 37 Maryland Wineries are scheduled to been on hand with wines to sample and purchase.
Meanwhile, according to the Maryland Association of Wineries, the annual turn-out has soared to more than 25,000, and grand total attendance since 1984 is well over the half-million mark.
Over the years, as the crowds have gotten bigger and the lines longer, Conrad has developed a strategy. She doesn't do nearly as much wandering as she used to, and she no longer spends much time queuing up to sample every wine from every winery.
"After so many years, we've pretty much seen all the vendors and everything there is, in terms of what's for sale," added Conrad, who favors chardonnays and pinot grigios.
"We'll wander around some, but usually we just like to sit, especially if it's a nice day. I'm content to take my chair and buy a bottle of wine and sit and chat with my friends.
"Everybody in our group will buy a bottle of a different kind and we just taste each other's wines. That way we don't have to spend so much time standing in line," she added.
After all these years, Conrad, despite her impressive collection of glasses, has one mild regret about it all: "They have other memorabilia, like T-shirts and sweat shirts, but I haven't bought them, though I'm kind of wishing now I had bought a T-shirt or two over the years," she said wistfully.
"But maybe this year," she added, her face suddenly lighting up again. "Maybe this will be the year I'll buy a T-shirt!"