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State's small winemakers shun annual festival in Annapolis Dispute with organizer turns bitter. Neighboring states to be represented.


All Jerry Hardesty wanted was a nice little wine festival. What he got was the grapes of wrath.

When Mr. Hardesty holds his fifth annual festival in Annapolis this summer, fairgoers will be able to sample wines and meet winemakers from Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. But if they go to Maryland's capital expecting to meet Maryland winemakers, they'll be disappointed.

Maryland's 11 small wineries are avoiding the Celebrate Annapolis Wine, Food and Music Festival July 25-26 because of a bitter dispute with Mr. Hardesty over the terms of participation.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hardesty said, 18 wineries from contiguous states have tentative plans to attend the festival, which is authorized under a Maryland law that states that "the primary focus of the Annapolis Beer and Wine Festival is the promotion of Maryland beer and wine."

How the festival lost its focus is the subject of a nasty squabble between a prominent Annapolis businessman who believes he has gone out of his way to help the Maryland wine industry and 11 vintners who feel that with friends like Jerry Hardesty they don't need enemies.

Listen to the winery owners and you hear tales of a politically well-connected restaurateur, a friend of many legislators, who prevailed upon the General Assembly this year to secure passage of a flawed bill that gives out-of-state wineries an entree into the Maryland market.

Listen to Mr. Hardesty and you hear a story of a small group of intransigent individuals who are more interested in whining than in making wine. "Their contention was they didn't want the competition," he said. "They wanted to control the ballgame."

Mr. Hardesty, owner of the historic Middleton Tavern in Annapolis, launched the Annapolis Wine Festival in 1988 after receiving permission from the General Assembly for a festival at which only Maryland wineries could pour samples and sell wine by the bottle. For three years the state's wineries took part.

To Mr. Hardesty and the Annapolis city government, the festival was a success, a pleasant civic celebration that benefited local charities and gave the wineries a "marketing opportunity." To the wineries it was a dismal failure -- with inadequate promotion and a low-class image.

"You can't do a proper wine festival if your audience is walking by a National Boh truck on the way to the entrance," said Albert M. Copp, owner of Woodhall Vineyards in Sparks.

The festival never met the wineries' expectations for attendance. It drew about 5,000 people each weekend for the first three years, a figure they compared unfavorably with the 20,000 drawn by the annual Maryland Wine Festival in Carroll County. After three years, the wineries informed Mr. Hardesty that they would not return. With no winery participation, Mr. Hardesty kept the festival alive by operating under a pair of one-day special event liquor licenses, but no sales for off-premises consumption were permitted.

Over the winter, Mr. Hardesty lined up support in the Annapolis city government and in the Anne Arundel County legislative delegation for a bill that would let him invite wineries from contiguous states to pour and sell their wine. The bill also opened up the festival to "micro-breweries" that produce fewer than 60,000 barrels of beer each year.

The wineries fought the legislation, even hiring a lobbyist to make their case for them. They lost. The Annapolis Beer and Wine Festival Act passed both houses by overwhelming margins. It was, said Rob Deford, owner of Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, "a sobering experience."

This year, when Maryland winemakers received their invitations to the Annapolis Celebrates festival -- moved from its old quarters at St. John's College to a field next to the Naval Academy's football stadium -- they found the terms had been changed. They would have to pay Mr. Hardesty ground rent, and would receive no reimbursement for the wine they poured as samples.

"The deal being offered us, you don't even have to have a high school education to know you'd go out of business doing it," said Mr. Deford.

Jim Lutz, general partner of the Wild Goose micro-brewery in Cambridge, isn't crying in his beer over the terms. "It's a losing proposition for me, but I write it off as a marketing expense," he said.

Meanwhile, the Maryland wineries are concerned that their dispute with Mr. Hardesty has given the impression that they don't care about the Annapolis market. In fact, they said, they want to go back -- but only if changes are made.

"The only way I want to go back to Annapolis is if we do a festival that befits the capital of Maryland," said Mr. Copp.

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