Wine Festival and festive wines tied together

When the 31st annual Maryland Wine Festival kicks off on Saturday, it will feature more than 30 Maryland wineries, two stages of musical entertainment, more than 60 vendors, football games on big-screen TVs and 15,000 or more wine lovers.

The event has become not just a local cultural touchstone, but a festival with a reputation abroad, according to Carroll County Farm Museum and Wine Festival Manager Dottie Freeman.


"We took ZIP codes in the past and all 50 states and 24 foreign countries have visited the Maryland Wine Festival," she said.

The festival, and the Maryland wine industry along with it, has come a long way since the first event was held in 1984, according to those who were there.


"The first festival, I think there were seven wineries, and it was held at the Homestead at Union Mills," said Emily Johnston, who with her husband, Jack, sat on the original planning committee for the festival. "It was mobbed. In the planning group, we had expected maybe 1,500 people and I think they got 3,000 or more .... The year after, it moved to the Farm Museum and has been there ever since."

It was clear from the turnout at that very first wine festival that the interest was there, but the idea of bringing a large number of local winemakers — even if it was fewer than 10 initially — was an entirely new concept in the eastern U.S. at the time, said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association.

"When the Maryland Wine Festival started in 1984, wine festivals ... didn't exist," Atticks said. "I still hear from my peers in other states to this day that Maryland was the first in the mid-Atlantic region to do it, to have such a large-scale festival ... ours was the one that Ohio and Missouri and others have pointed to as a model."

Today, there are large wine festivals in other states and even other festivals in Maryland, but the events all have their roots in Carroll County. For that matter, according to Atticks, so does the contemporary incarnation of Maryland winemaking.


Grapes were being grown and wine being made in Maryland as far back as Colonial times, Atticks said, and to the south, Thomas Jefferson dreamed of making wines to rival those of Bordeaux, France, in his beloved Virginia.

"Jefferson had this problem — they would plant cuttings from Bordeaux and everything would die. It takes three to five years to get a crop and everything just takes so long ... we hadn't figured out what grew here," Atticks said. "Things were coming along and then Prohibition knocked it back by 20 years. It has really only been in the past 10 years in Maryland that we have come to know exactly what will grow here."

Modern Maryland winemaking traces its roots back to 1962, when Hamilton Mowbray opened Montbray Wine Cellars in Silver Run. It was not the first winery in Maryland — that honor goes to Boordy Vineyards, opened in 1945 in Riderwood — but Mowbray's influence was felt throughout the state and inspired other vintners, Atticks said.

"He was a leader in the eastern wine industry and wrote books about wines of the East," Atticks said. "He was one of the founding fathers of eastern American viticulture. Carroll County has always been at the center of Maryland wine."

Mowbray shuttered his winery in 1992, but his influence was still felt when Ray Brasfield opened Cygnus Wine Cellars in a repurposed Manchester slaughterhouse in 1996.

"I knew him for a long time, and he actually testified in support of me getting my county permit," Brasfield said of Mowbray. "There is definitely an accumulation of knowledge that just continues to roll forward ... that a lot of the homework has been done cumulatively over the recent decades, regarding at least the basics of what kinds of grapes tend to do well here."

Today, there are more than 1,200 acres of grapes grown in Maryland, 60 acres of which are in Carroll County, Atticks said.


When it comes to what grapes grow well in Maryland, Brasfield said he believes various regions of the state differ so widely that there will probably never be a signature grape or wine for the entire state. Still, he has seen good white wines made from Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay and Albarino, a Spanish white grape varietal. For the reds, Chambourcin, Chancellor and Cabernet Franc have found their way into Brasfield's wines, and Cabernet Sauvignon from Maryland, Brasfield said, makes for classic wines.

Maryland red wines were not always worthy of being called classic, Johnston said. She and her husband have held wine education seminars at the Wine Festival since the beginning, using examples of particular types to illustrate just what a person exploring wine should be looking for in a glass of a particular grape variety.

"The first year we did the festival, we wanted to use the Maryland wines in the wine education seminar. The problem was we couldn't find a red wine that was powerful enough that anybody would learn anything from it. The reds were terrible. We ended up using some California Zinfandel because we couldn't find anything we thought anybody would want to put in their mouths, much less learn anything," Johnston said. "Pretty soon we started to notice that things were improving, and four to five years into the festival we started using nothing but Maryland wines in the education seminar and still do."


Not only have older wineries like Cygnus upped their game, but according to Atticks, the whole Maryland industry has raised the bar in recent years.

"Nowadays you see wineries regularly coming out of the gate with phenomenal wine," Atticks said. "You have to think that part of that is that the market is demanding it, but also because the industry has evolved so much in the past 10 years."

One such winery is Old Westminster Winery, located just south of Westminster. The family-run vineyard is just three years old and has already won the 2014 Governor's Cup award for its 2013 Albarino, said Ashli Johnson, the marketing and tasting-room manager. Her sister Lisa Hinton is the winemaker, and her brother Drew Baker is the vineyard manager.

"It started in 2009 when we talked about wanting to do a family business," Johnson said. "My mom has always been into wine, and we talked about a winery but my siblings and I were still in school. After we graduated, we took a trip to California together in the fall of 2010 and while sitting on the back porch of Robert Mondavi [Winery], we looked out and we could see it — that's when we said, 'Let's do this.'"

Rather than starting small and experimenting with different grapes as a new winery might have done years ago, the family hired consultants, tested their soil and planted 6.5 acres of Chardonnay, Albarino, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. A tasting room will be constructed beginning next year.

They also produce wine sources from other Maryland vineyards, Johnson said. In the winery itself, which sits between the Baker family home, the vineyards and, in Carroll County fashion, a cornfield, a single wooden barrel sits filled with a cluster of Pinot Noir grapes sourced from the Antietam Vineyard.


That wine won't be ready for the wine festival this year, but Johnson said they like to bring a barrel of still-aging wine to the Maryland Wine Festival each year. This will be their third year at the festival, which she said has been crucial to their early success.

"It's a great way to stay connected since our tasting room is not open yet," Johnson said. "A lot of people don't know that we are here."

The growth in the quality and the quantity of Maryland wines is closely tied to the Maryland Wine Festival, Atticks said. The best way to promote wine is to give people an opportunity to taste it, he said, and getting people to taste more wine makes them more savvy consumers, who drive winemakers to make better and more interesting wines.

"We've ... seen the wine market evolve to the point where customers will try new wines, and will like interesting wines no matter what the grape variety is and where it is from. That combined with the buy-local movement has created a truly unique opportunity in the history of local wines," Atticks said. "Events like the festival are a great way to remind 15,000 to 20,000 people that we are growing great fruit and making great wine."


As the market for local wine has changed, so too has the festival evolved to meet those changes, Atticks said. This year's wine festival will see the return of the premier tent, which provides festival-goers an opportunity to taste special reserve wines and enjoy more of a chance to speak with winemakers at length about their wines.

"Gone are the days when you could walk about and spend 10 minutes tasting through wines and talking to the winemaker," Atticks said. "With the premier tent, we are bringing in people that really do want to talk about wine. What date were the grapes picked that year? How did the winemaker deal with the rain?"

The premier tent is not for everyone, however, and the festival has also evolved to cater to those who just wish to sip some wine and enjoy the Farm Museum grounds. This year's festival will see the return of the second, acoustic music stage and, according to festival manager Freeman, an experiment in combining football and wine.

"We try to do something unique at the festival each year and this year there will be a big-screen TV for everyone to view the University of Maryland football game on Saturday, and on Sunday they will be able to view the Ravens," she said. "We are trying to listen to people ... Sunday attendance had dropped. Now they can come here, watch the game and enjoy the Maryland wines."

To Bonnie Hood, a vendor at the early wine festivals before she joined the Farm Museum as the events coordinator, finding ways to accommodate everyone so they can have a great time at the festival in their own way is the holy grail. She works with Freeman and others all year to make sure the festival goes off well, but said the greatest compliment is when people tell her it feels like an easygoing party that was thrown together in a week.

"It's usually we have a sea of tents and blankets galore and everybody is just very friendly," she said. "Everybody is grooving to the music. It's just a very laid-back time for our guests and that's how we want them to feel. That it's a break from their regular routine."

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com.

If You Go

What: The Maryland Wine Festival

When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, and noon-6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21

Where: The Carroll County Farm Museum, 300 S. Center St., Westminster

Cost: Adults age 21 and older $27 in advance, $30 at the gate; premier pass $62 in advance, $65 at the gate; designated drivers, children ages 13-20 $20; children 12 and under free

For more information or to purchase advance tickets, go to http://www.marylandwine.org.

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