Eager to use their most effective marketing tool - personal contact - Maryland winemakers are scheduling a summer full of winery tours, tastings and festivals.
"If you can get them to taste the wine, you can win them over," said Carol Wilson, proprietor of Elk Run Vineyards and Winery, near Mount Airy.
The state's 10 wineries will have one of their first direct marketing opportunities of the season this weekend at the 12th Wine in the Woods festival, sponsored by Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks.
The event, scheduled for noon to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, offers visitors a chance to enjoy wine, food, music, shopping and entertainment under the leafy canopy of Columbia's Symphony Woods.
Tastings are important "because vintages change," Wilson said. "That's what makes the romance of wine. Every year, it is going to taste a little bit different."
Jack Aellen, owner of Linganore Winecellars in Mount Airy, said events at wineries and larger festivals are the marketing pattern for the wine industry. "The people sort of expect it," he said.
"We find that the general public likes to see our faces, likes to see what we do," he said. "We believe that we can put on a better show for the public than a third party can."
Sales 'are growing'
Sales of Maryland wine "are growing at a larger rate than we're seeing throughout the country," said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Association of Maryland Wineries. Statewide, sales increased 13 percent to 15 percent over the past two years, he said, with sales last year estimated at $5.6 million.
Several new wineries are starting up in Maryland, Atticks said, including three planned in Southern Maryland in the next two years. He said grapes have one of the highest returns on investment for an agricultural product, and wine is a highly value-added product.
But there are challenges to growing grapes in Maryland.
"We have to be more diligent than those folks in California because we have rain during the growing season," said Bob Lyon, owner of Catoctin Winery in Brookeville.
Because of cold, wet, cloudy weather, "last year was really a struggle of a year," he said. This year has brought the early rain and sunshine in which grapes thrive.
"People are eternally optimistic," Lyon said of his fellow winemakers. "It's a labor of love."
Atticks said the Columbia festival has proven to be a good place to get that labor into the hands of wine drinkers.
"What we have at Columbia is a long tradition of quality wine, quality crafts, quality music," Atticks said. "Our wineries see repeat customers [at Wine in the Woods]. They are highly invested customers. They are into wine."
At the festival, a ticket entitles the holder to 10 samples of wine and a souvenir glass.
Bands on the main stage are to include the David Bach Consort, Deanna Bogart, Damon Foreman, Kevin Kline and the Kelly Bell Band. Bay Jazz Project will entertain both days in the picnic area.
A "living statue" of the Venus de Milo will be on the grounds, as will a comedian and a balloon sculpturist. There will be demonstrations in the wine education tent and dozens of artists selling their work.
Rain has been an unwelcome part of the festival for several years, but last year the event still drew 11,000 visitors, said Barbara Lett, special events cordinator for the recreation department.
This year, cicadas are likely to be in full swarm, but Lett said she is not worrying about them. Howard County Tourism Inc. will give out cicada swatters in the shape of black-eyed susans this year, she said, and volunteers are prepared to deal with whatever comes.
"We always deal with the weather," she said. "We'll have to deal with the cicadas, too."
Admission to Wine in the Woods is $18 in advance, $20 at the gate, $5 for visitors younger than age 21 and free for children younger than age 3. Parking is accessible from Broken Land Parkway in Columbia Town Center. Information: www.wineinthewoods. com, or 410-313-7275.