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The art of making wine has turned from hobby to career for W.Va. man

May 23, 2000|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - It started out as a hobby, something to keep busy with during a layoff from his job as a construction engineer in 1980.

Now winemaking is Frank W. Gift's full-time job.

Last year, his small vineyard off W.Va. 230, between Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown, W.Va., produced about 4,000 gallons of wine - roughly 20,000 bottles - made from a variety of grapes and other fruits.

The winery, called A.T. Gift Company, all started with the winemaking kit Frank Gift bought at a drugstore after his wife, Angela T. Gift, complained about him being underfoot during the layoff.

The "kit" was basically a recipe and a balloon that he was instructed to place over the bottle in which he was fermenting the wine. He had to buy its main ingredient, grape juice concentrate, separately.

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The recipe yielded a gallon of not-bad wine, Frank Gift remembers.

"It turned out well enough that my wife liked it and told me to make some more," he said.

He made more similar wine then started researching the craft and experimenting with other wine recipes.

Not too long afterward, the couple was producing enough good wine to give away to friends and family, whom they eventually overloaded with their growing yield.

The Gifts got a license to produce wine commercially in 1987.

That year, they made about 3,000 gallons of blackberry, cherry, apple, peach and plum wines, all from fruit they were growing on their 10-acre farm.

They had American grapes growing on the property back then but didn't add grape wine to the list until later.

A.T. Gift Company now sells 13 varieties of wine, including the five originals. Others are black raspberry, nectarine, Concord grape, Niagara grape, chambourcin grape, seyval grape, blueberry and strawberry.

The winery's first outlet was a supermarket in Charles Town, W.Va.

Around 1990, the couple started selling their wine at fairs and festivals.

By 1991, the winery was successful enough that Frank Gift, weary of his commute to work in Washington, D.C., retired from construction.

The winery has grown a lot since the early days, when the entire operation was in Angela Gift's 13-by-18-foot summer kitchen, Frank Gift said.

That building is now used for bottling.

The wine is fermented and aged in a much larger building next to it. It contains 10 1,000-gallon tanks, two 550-gallon tanks and about 150 55-gallon barrels, each labeled with the type of wine in it and the date it was made.

After aging and several filterings - each finer than the last - the wine ends up in 100 5-gallon carboys, which can be carried to the bottling room.

In addition to help on the weekends from his wife, who still commutes to the city for a full-time job, Gift has a part-time employee.

Not only do the Gifts trek to fairs and festivals around West Virginia, Frank Gift spends several days each month traveling to deliver wine to vendors in other parts of the state.

The Gifts don't have a license to sell their wine outside the state because they'd have to step up production so much that it wouldn't be fun anymore, he said.

"My wife and I really enjoy what we're doing with the amount of work now. We don't want to burn each other out," he said.

While production is planned to stay at about the same level, the vineyard isn't stagnating.

The Gifts recently added blueberry and strawberry wines to their repertoire, Frank Gift said.

In the future, they plan to try elderberry and cranberry wines, he said.

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