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Wine in the Woods: A Columbia Wine Connoisseur's Thoughts, Tips

Here's how (and why) to enjoy Wine in the Woods.

Matt Kircher blogs for vinotrip.com, a site dedicated to covering wine in and around Maryland. A Columbia resident, he was a natural choice to preview this weekend's Wine in the Woods. Follow him on Twitter @vinotrip.

This weekend in downtown Columbia, Symphony Woods will play host to Wine in the Woods, organized by the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks.

It is the Maryland Wine Association’s flagship spring festival and one of the largest on the East Coast, drawing more than 30,000 people total over just two days to sample wines made exclusively in the state of Maryland. Dozens of local wineries turn out to pour everything from albarino to zinfandel.

Don’t think there’s a wine made in Maryland that fits your tastes? Whether you’re a fan of easy-drinking semi-sweet wines or complex cabernet blends, there’s a Maryland wine out there for you. The diversity of wine types and styles found at a festival with the scale of Wine in the Woods makes it the perfect venue to find a new, locally produced favorite.

It may not be made from pinot noir—the notoriously thin-skinned grape doesn’t hold up to the wetter East Coast climate—but the Maryland terrior (a fancy word that describes a combination of soil type, climate, and moisture levels) actually suits grapes like the Italian sangiovese, which can yield a similar medium-bodied, fruit-forward red wine.

In fact, Maryland wine is on something of a roll right now. Decades of experimentation with traditional and hybrid grape varieties and techniques, interest from farmers looking to preserve traditional agricultural lands, and a (very gradually) loosening regulatory environment make the state increasingly attractive to would-be vineyard owners. Consider the following:

  • Maryland shares many of the same soil and climate conditions as neighboring northern Virginia, a fast-growing and high-profile wine region; Maryland growers can leverage best practices from across the Potomac to achieve a sustainable and profitable operation in a shorter period of time.
  • Parts of Maryland long-associated with agriculture face a multitude of pressures, from reduced federal subsidies to foreign competition; wine-making offers an attractive option that both preserves land and can generate incremental revenue via agrotourism.
  • Many counties in Maryland now allow farm wineries to both produce wine and operate tasting rooms on the premises; and thanks to new legislation passed in 2011, all Maryland wineries can now ship their wine directly to the doorstep of both in-state and out-of-state consumers, opening new markets for winemakers. 

Add those factors together and it’s no surprise that dozens of wineries opened their doors in Maryland over the last decade. The latest count from the Maryland Wine Association shows nearly 50 wineries operating in the Old Line State. With many attending this weekend’s festival, what better way to sample a cross-section of Maryland’s wine right here in Howard County?

If 2011 will be your first Wine in the Woods, all this might look a little intimidating. Tens of thousands of attendees sounds like a lot of people, but in fact it’s not much more than you’d find at an amusement park on a typical weekend.

Planning and preparation can make all the difference between a frustrating day and good time for everyone. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years: 

  • Buy tickets online ahead of time! Not only will you save a little money, you’ll get through the gate a LOT quicker in the morning. Lines can wrap all the way around the woods if the weather is nice. (Note: Tickets for this year's festival are no longer available online but can still be purchased in advance at the locations listed here.)
  • Arrive early, especially if you want to bring a folding chair or blanket to spend the day in the woods. Parking lots and open space within the grounds fill up fast.
  • Consider taking the HoCo transit bus if you live in Columbia. Most routes run to the mall in downtown via village centers; if you can walk to a bus stop, you just saved someone from playing designated driver!
  • Pace yourself. Symphony Woods offers good shade coverage, but lots of wine on a warm day in May makes for an unpleasant combination. Don’t feel obligated to try every wine on that tasting sheet.
  • Prevent over-buying by taking notes throughout the day and buying all your wine during the last hour. Although you risk seeing the occasional bottle sell out, this saves you from lugging bottles around all day.

My final words of advice? Try something new! Maybe you’ve never heard of chambourcin or vidal blanc grapes before, but remember, every journey of discovery begins with a single step.

Leigh May 19, 2011 at 12:39 PM
Another tip from a past attendee: we bring a loaf of (good) white bread to clear our taste buds between tastes. Especially helpful before a taste of a dry wine after tasting a sweeter wine at the last tent.

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