The tour guide at the winery in Montgomery County had just told the crowd - with some pride - that Provenza - wine sold for about $3.39 a bottle.

"Kinda high, isn't it? drawled a man in Bermuda shorts.

John Paul Winced. "This is not your casual let's-go-out-and-get-drunk wine. You can get Boone's Farm for that."

Provenza grapes, it develops, are handpicked and hand-pressed; months later each bottle is individually filled, capped and labeled. By the time Paul got to the end of his lecture - a hand-corking demonstration - he seemed to have the skeptic convinced.

Winery tours are old hat in California, but around here the concept is so novel that most visitors arrive knowing little or nothing about basic winemaking. That's okay with the winemakers. The dozen or so sineries that have sprung up in Maryland and Virginia in recent years are struggling to establish a name. Winery tours, they've decided, are the best way to get the word out.

Everybody wins: The winemaker builds good will and sells a bottle of wine or two, while the tourist discovers a refreshingly different way to spend a fall afternoon - a trip to the country and , at the very least, a glass of wine. At the most you get a guided tour, as much wine as you can drink and a tableful of food to go with it.

Ten years ago there were hardly any wineries to visit. Winters here were too harsh and summers too humid for delicate wine grapes. Within the last decade hardier European-American hybrids have been developed, and the industry seems finally to be taking off. Many area wineries have seen their outputs double each year.

The soil is so bountiful that its potential is practically limitless, according to Ira Ross, a 20-year winemaking veteran and owner of the Bon Spuronza Winery in Carroll County.

"Maryland's got the finest land in the whole United States," Ross says. "It's like upper New York State but with a longer growing season and more water. Anything you put in the ground will grow."

Archie Smith, president of Meredyth Vineyards near Middleburg, is just as chauvinistic about Virginia. "Our soil is perfect for grapes. In New York they have too much acid in the soil. In California they don't have enough acid. With us it comes out just about right. I've gone over it with the government scientists - it's combination of sand and clay in just the right proportions. There's other stuff - someone told us you have to have this stone called schist in the field. I scoffed, but it turns out we've got it."

All this means more sugar in the grapes and less acidity, therefore fewer additives needed in the wine. Result: a "natural food."

Whatever the appeal, winemakers agree that people are getting more knowledgeable about their product."Five years ago most people's experience with wine was limited to a bottle of Taylor Sparkling Something-or-Other on the holidays," said Barbara Provenza of the Montgomery County winery. "Now the average consumer is more aware of wine."

Yet, there are problems. A lot of people are still surprised to find out wineries even exist around here; anachronistic laws, especially in Maryland, limit the amount of money the winemakers can make selling wine directly at the winery. It's hard to compete with the big bucks of New York and California.

"Yeah, I get discouraged," said Archie Smith. "I'll tell you when I get discouraged, about 3 o'clock in the morning when I can't sleep.

"What do I worry about? Last year I worried because there wasn't enough rain; this year I worried because we had so much rain. You worry about black rot, mildew, all the fungus diseases that float through the air. You worry about the harvest - it's like wrestling with a boa constrictor for about six weeks at a stretch.

"Maybe I'm crazy. I think I am much of the time. But now we're selling wine to Northern Virginia and D.C., and we're moving into Maryland and downstate Virginia. We have a distributor in Birmingham and we've had inquiries from other states. So the wine is getting around."

Smith isn't worrying alone.

"It's tough to be small," Tom Provenza said. "Here's just one example. When I buy a load of bottles I have to take 2,200 cases in a load. That's a 44-foot trailer, the largest they have. Now a small winery doesn't need that many bottles.You're talking about $4,500 just for bottles. We're definitely at a handicap."

All this anxiety seems a world away from the relaxed atmosphere of a winery tour. At Provenza, a motley gathering of old and young, dressed in everything from cut-offs to leisure suits, listened intently as Paul explained about crushers and vats and barrels and bottles and corks. "That's all, you're free to walk through the vineyards or drink some more wine," he told the group when the questions died down.

Most people opted for the tasting room. The Provenzas mingled, moving from table to table to answer questions or refill a glass.

The setting was cozy and intimate - curtains at the windows, fresh flowers on the tables. Couples talked, laughed, nibbled on Mrs. Provenza's homemade quiche and salmon spread.

"People do expect a certain charm and romance about wine," Barbara Provenza tells a visitor. "As long as it's possible for us to keep it romantic - that's the only thing that keeps us going. If it were all automated, I guess that's when we'd have to leave. After that that point it would be strictly business."