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Ziems closing winery after 21 years at 'hobby'

March 26, 1998|By TERI JOHNSON

by Joe Crocetta / staff photographer

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Ziems Winery

Bob and Ruth Ziem have produced about 16,820 cases of wine in the 21 years they've operated Ziem Vineyards and Winery.

The Downsville couple measure their success not in terms of bottles sold, but in the friendships they've cultivated.

"I've loved the people we've met," Ruth Ziem says.

The Ziems say they plan to retire from the winery - the only one in Washington County - when their state and county licenses expire May 1.

It's a sad note for their customers, who have been enjoying the Ziems' white and red wines for years.

Joel Kennedy and Kelly Picciotta of Rockville, Md., described their Feb. 28 trip to the winery as "wonderful" in the Ziems' guest register, and also wrote, "I can't believe you guys are retiring! I'm crushed, truly crushed!"

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Mindy and Jim Marsden met the Ziems more than 20 years ago, when they saw a newspaper ad about the winery and decided to visit.

After a wine tasting in the kitchen of the Ziems' home, the Marsdens became their first Hagerstown customers.

"Ruth got out the cheese and crackers, and Bob got out the wine," Mindy Marsden says.

Ruth Ziem, who says she was naive about the winery business, was thrilled with their purchase.

"They bought a whole case - I was flabbergasted. I thought, 'We're on our way,' " says Ruth Ziem, 65.

They started business in May 1977 on their 55-acre farm, five years after planting grapes.

"Bob tells people it's a hobby that got out of hand," Ruth Ziem says.

"An expensive hobby," he adds.

She likes to share her story about how to become a millionaire.

"Start with two million dollars and open a winery, and you'll be a millionaire real quick," she jokes.

She says they didn't have a lot of fancy equipment, and they didn't make a big investment.

He raised the grapes and made the wine, and she labeled the bottles and kept the books. Ruth Ziem, a homemaker, says she learned the business along the way.

They converted a dairy barn into a winery, and the building included a room for visitors to taste wine. The room is decorated with signs such as "Life is too short to drink bad wine" and "When in doubt, add more wine."

Ziems wineryThe Ziems produced about 2,000 gallons a year, and at one time they grew about 15 varieties of grapes on eight acres.

Bob Ziem, 73, is a chemist who has worked for NASA, the Pentagon and the U.S. Navy. He planted French-American hybrid grapes because they did well in this climate, and he believed they made a better wine.

He named the wines after the grapes used to make them, such as Landot Noir and Leon Millot. He says this sometimes was confusing for customers, because they didn't recognize the names.

"If I'd been smart, I would have called them 'Conococheague Red' or 'Bloody Lane Red,' " he says.

He calls himself a purist, and Mindy Marsden agrees.

"He works hard on getting out the flavor of the grape," Marsden says.

Marsden, who considers herself a hobby wine enthusiast, says while his white wines are good, she thinks the red wines are his best.

Bob Ziem had thought about growing grapes when he and his wife and three children moved here from Bethesda, Md., in 1971.

"I was looking for a farm, and I just wanted to get out of the city," Bob Ziem says.

Ruth Ziem says they thought opening a winery would be a nice, relaxing business.

"No one told us how much work was involved," she says.

She says they are retiring because the work is too physically demanding for her husband. Tending the vineyards is a labor intensive process, beginning with pruning in February.

"They had to be weeded, sprayed and prayed over," Ruth Ziem says.

The buds usually would break in late April or early May, and the grapes were picked in August and September.

Their neighbor, Ralph Crawford, started picking grapes for the Ziems when he was 12. He progressed to tasks such as pruning, tying up vines, weeding, spraying and putting corks in the bottles.

"I liked it, and I just kept coming back," says Crawford, 27, who now lives in Hagerstown.

The Ziems also have enjoyed their 15-year association with Crawford.

"He was like my fourth kid," Ruth Ziem says. "Anything I told him to do, he did."

Crawford and the Marsdens often accompanied them to events such as The Maryland Wine Festival in Westminster.

At festivals or at the winery, the Ziems say they have prided themselves on their friendliness, and they've never rushed visitors along.

"We took the time to talk to them, and to explain it to them," Bob Ziem says.

Ziems WineryRuth Ziem says they never actively marketed their wine, and most of their business has come from Washington and Baltimore. Many people have been introduced to the winery by word of mouth.

The Ziems will celebrate 45 years of marriage April 18, and they have two grandchildren.

In 1989 they won two international awards for wine achievement. Last October the Maryland Grape Growers Association honored Bob Ziem for his work with hybrids.

Bob Ziem says this is his fourth retirement, and he doesn't plan to start another business. He pulled out the grapevines about a year ago, so he wouldn't be tempted to keep working.

They still have several hundred cases of wine left, and when those are sold, the winery will become another page in history.

But the Ziems still will have the good friends they've made during two decades.

They know the memories, sparkling as fine crystal, will endure.

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