Paul Farragut was serving as a Howard County Council member back in 1990 when he first pitched the idea to invite Maryland wineries to showcase their wines in Howard County. He said he had seen the success of the Maryland Wine Festival in Caroll County and believed it could be emulated.
“It came as a simple suggestion when it came to the Council,” Farragut said about Howard County’s premier festival—Wine in the Woods, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this weekend.
“I’m not even sure I suggested Symphony Woods,” said Farragut in an interview this week about the origins of Wine in the Woods. “I was thinking of two areas at the time; Symphony Woods and the Howard County Fairgrounds.”
He took the idea to the County Executive at the time, Chuck Ecker.
Ecker said he wasn’t immediately receptive to the idea.
“I had doubts,” said Ecker. “I wanted to talk to people about it and I wanted to see how it would go and get opinions.”
Initially, opposition came from several groups who didn't approve of alcohol being served on county property, according to Ecker and former Recreation and Parks director Jeff Bourne.
"There were questions," said Bourne, "Why is the county promoting this?"
Ecker satisfied one organization by agreeing to provide them with a booth to warn people of the dangers of too much drinking. And Bourne said other criticism was deflected by following Carrol County's lead and providing an aggressively promoted designated driver program.
After that hurdle was passed, Ecker embraced the idea. He entrusted the Department of Recreation and Parks with planning the festival.
First, the department successfully guided legislation through the General Assembly in 1991 that would allow vendors to sell and distribute wine at the festival. Then they chose Symphony Woods as its location, according to a history of the event on the Wine in the Woods website. They chose the venue for its beauty and availability of a large number of parking spots.
At the time, the late Gary Arthur was chief of the bureau of recreation for recreation and parks. Arthur took the idea to a group of Maryland winery owners, who held their meetings at a restaurant in Westminster.
Bert Basignani, the owner of Basignani Winery, was at that meeting.
“I was doing the festival committee at the time,” said Basignani. “I remember when Gary first approached us with the idea.”
Basignani said Arthur told them he felt he could make the festival successful, that he could grow it each year, that there was a strong population center around Symphony Woods and that the timing was right.
“It was a good presentation and we were receptive to it,” said Basignani.
That first year the festival attracted about 10,000 people and nine Maryland wineries. Today, it attracts about three times that many.
Laura Wetherald, the current chief of the bureau of recreation, was on the staff in 1992, the first year of the festival.
“The department all kind of jumped on the bandwagon because we knew it was going to be a department-wide effort,” said Wetherald.
She was in charge of the VIP tent and sponsorships. The event was and still is held on the same weekend as the Preakness. Wetherald remembers acquiring a big-screen TV that first year, so people inside the VIP tent could watch the race while still enjoying the event.
“Under the trees in Symphony Woods, we had a perfect environment,” said Wetherald.
"There was a sense of pride on the staff of the real quality in what we were doing," said Bourne, of the early years of the festival. "It was enhanced by the location. It set an almost medieval tone, if you will, with the tents under the trees. It's sort of a magical place for the event to happen."
However, it wasn’t all sunshine and red and white wine. There was a terrible storm on Sunday.
“I’m almost ashamed to say it, but I think it rained the first year,” said Wetherald.
Even now, one of the greatest fear for organizers of the event is bad weather. Weatherald said this time of year the word "rain" is not to be used at the recreation and parks office.
Other than the rain, the first festival was deemed a success.
“Being in Symphony Woods was a beautiful venue,” said Basignani. “Almost immediately we felt the event had real promise because it was well organized, well put on and well promoted.”
The guests were happy, the employees were proud and the wineries were pleased—with that combination, the event has grown each year.
“It has turned into something very special and a must-attend for people’s spring calendars,” said Dick Story, who served as the director of the Howard County Economic Development Association from 1993 to 2011.
“It’s a celebration of the wine industry and community, more than it is a celebration of drinking,” said Story.
Regina Mc Carthy, the marketing coordinator for the Maryland Wineries Association, said the event’s impact on the Maryland wine industry has been tremendous.
“This wine festival has proved to be wildly successful,” said Mc Carthy. “Not only at the event, but afterwards. We find that customers who attend the festival go to their local stores and ask for Maryland wine.”
“It has had a dramatic affect,” said Basignani. “Howard County is a major market for us now. Twenty years ago, we could have tried to develop that market, but we have found that marketing by way of the festivals; where you can get in front of your customer and talk about the wines is very effective for us.”
This year, organizers are planning for more than 30,000 people to attend Wine in the Woods, according to Wetherald. Thirty-two wineries will be participating, as well as a number of artisans and entertainers. Saturday's attendees also get access to the the lawn for a concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion.
“I really never thought it would be as successful as it has become,” said Farragut, reflecting on how his suggestion evolved. “It’s only due to the fact that it was well thought out and it continues to be well-managed.”
Farragut said it was Gary Arthur who deserves major credit for the event’s success. Arthur started working for recreation and parks in 1971, working his way up to director, a position he held from 1998 until his death in May of 2010.
Bourne, who was Arthur's predecessor and close friend, said the success of the event can be attributed to the hard work of all the employees at recreation and parks, but particularly Arthur's enthusiasm for the festival.
"The growth of the program, the level of entertainment, the size and scale and attendance, the quality of the event," said Bourne, "you really have to look at Gary's tenure as director as driving that to a whole other level."
In Arthur's obituary, it was reported that Howard County Executive Ken Ulman called Arthur two weeks before his death from the festival.
“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘How’s the crowd?’” Ulman recalled.
Wine in the Woods takes place on May 19 and 20 at Symphony Woods in Columbia's Town Center from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m on Sunday. The event costs $35 for advance purchase tickets and $40 at the gate on Saturday; $30 advance and $35 on Sunday.