Thousands attend 29th annual Maryland Wine Festival

John and Cindy Stevenson had the perfect set-up Saturday at the Maryland Wine Festival: topped-off glasses of vino, a cadre of friends and family, blankets and chairs spread out under a shade tree, crusty bread, caprese salad and two kinds of cheese.

The Ellicott City wine connoisseurs were among thousands who attended the 29th annual event on the sprawling grounds of Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster. The two-day event continues Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.

The Stevensons said Napa Valley has nothing on Maryland's homegrown wines.

"Not all good wines come from California," Cindy Stevenson said.

Nearly 40 Maryland wineries and 80 craft vendors dotted the green lawns, where another 40 food vendors sold falafel sandwiches, turkey legs and pulled-pork barbecue, said Dottie Freeman, parks superintendent for the Farm Museum. Organizers expected the crisp fall weather would draw enough people to break the previous crowd record of 25,000 over the weekend, she said.

The event, which costs $30, also features live music, wine seminars, wine-making demonstrations and an amateur wine judging. Access to a premier tent costs an additional $35.

The festival is expected to raise between $200,000 to $300,000 for Carroll County, Freeman said.

Charles Hicks of Edgewood said he found a favorite at the festival: autumn cranberry pinot grigio from the Far Eastern Shore Winery. Hicks, a Baltimore math teacher and recent North Carolina transplant, said he wanted to attend the event for a chance to learn more about wines, including the foods that pair best with certain bottles.

"I love it; the music, the vendors. It's a great experience," Hicks said.

Jacqueline Delman of Lutherville and her husband, Jason, joined about 20 friends at the festival to celebrate her birthday. The couple said they planned to sample the selection until they found their favorite and spend the day relaxing.

"It's nice; you don't have to spend $20 on a bottle of wine just to try it," Jason Delman said.

Kate McFadden of York, Pa., who joined the Stevensons under the shade tree, said the festival helps Maryland wineries widen their customer base. McFadden said she was excited when state lawmakers authorized wineries to ship directly to customers.

"It's about time," McFadden said.

Since the law became effective in July 2011, 607 wineries have received permits to ship bottles, according to the state comptroller.

Festival customers can now have cases shipped to them, rather than having to lug the bottles home, said Adam Borden, president of Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws.

Of the wineries with permits, about 25 are from Maryland. The bulk, 442, are from California, where more than 90 percent of American wine is produced, Borden said. About 7,000 wineries exist across the country, including 62 that are licensed in Maryland, he said.

While the law has its critics, including retailers who still aren't allowed to ship wine to customers, it has been a boost for Fred Wilson, who said it has helped him increase his business and cultivate customers, like the ones lined up outside his tent at Saturday's festival. The owner of Elk Run Vineyards and Winery in Mount Airy expects to sell between 300 and 400 cases during the event, which he believes is one of the best wine festivals around.

"It's a great time to relax, listen to music, eat good food and loosen up before the next work week," Wilson said.

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