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Monday, April 18, 2016

Decanter Wine & Racing Festival

I only recently began to explore Maryland wine, but I am making a serious effort to learn more. I tasted some of the state's best offerings last January at the Winter Wine Showcase in Baltimore and I walked away very impressed by what I discovered. So when I was offered tickets to the Decanter Wine & Racing Festival near Laurel, Maryland, I jumped at the opportunity.

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The event is held at the Laurel Park Racetrack and is not your typical wine festival. After checking in and picking up a glass, I strolled through the indoor tasting space and then wandered outside to explore the tent, which contained additional wineries and food venues. Outside the tent, there were food booths and trucks assembled beyond the betting windows and offered an excellent spot to purchase lunch or a snack and watch the races.

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The event started at noon and I arrived as the doors opened. I wanted to beat the crowd as much as possible, so that I might taste a few wines without having to wait in line. I started out tasting multiple wines per table, but as the throng began to assemble and lines formed at the tables, I refined my plan and decided to concentrate only on Cabernet Franc. I have a certain fondness for that varietal and I can fairly say that I have tasted a large number of them from Virginia, the Loire and California. I will not go so far as to call myself an expert, but I do have a lot of experience with that grape and there are characteristics that I can certainly pick out.

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In the spirit of full disclosure, there were 23 wineries in attendance and I did not visit all of them. This was largely due to my own personal shortcoming. I just do not have the patience to stand in a long line to taste wine. Nevertheless, I was able to taste enough Cab Franc that I came away with a sense of its importance as a Maryland varietal. Most of the wines I tasted were from 2013 and clearly that was a good year in Maryland. A feature of all the Cab Francs I tasted was the ripeness of the fruit. Most lacked even a hint of green pepper and the best had notes of spice and black pepper in the finish. The examples from Great Frogs and Elk Run were quite good. The Knob Hall and Boordy Cab Francs were absolutely stellar. 

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In addition to wine, food and horse racing, there was live music and a competition. One of the annual features of the event is a “Best Dressed” contest. So many attendees were attired in their best spring outfits, which necessarily included large spring hats. It adds an additional element of fun to the event. 

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My only lament about the festival was the crowding at the booths. Many of them were pouring eight or more wines, so even at a frenzied festival wine-pouring pace, visitors might spend several minutes at a single table. I have seen other festivals limit the number of offerings the wineries are allowed to present, in an effort to alleviate some of the crowding. In the end, however, this is just the nature of the beast. 

On the flip side, the event was well organized and executed. It was more than just another festival and provided a variety of attractions and events to keep the crowd engaged. For me, it was just a springboard. From here I will begin to explore Maryland in earnest. I am gaining some understanding of the wine industry’s geography, the varietals and the premier wineries. I do recommend this event as a way to become acclimated. If you went this year or if you stop in on a subsequent year, please let me know what you think.