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Winery in the works near Clear Spring

May 17, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY

Hope for a new industry is resting in the soil of a Clear Spring-area farm.

Dick Seibert, with plenty of help, has planted 6,000 grapevines on 6 acres. Today, at 7 a.m., he'll start on 3,000 more vines.

The short-term goal is grapes; his longer-range dream is Knob Hall Winery. It could take about two years.

When Seibert's Chambourcin (red) and Vidal Blanc (white) grapes grow, it could signal a renewed push toward making Washington County wine country.

Joe Fiola, a specialist in viticulture - grape-growing - and small fruit for the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension, said Washington County, with plenty of well-draining soil, has some of the best areas in the state for making wine commercially.

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It's just that no one's doing it now, which makes people wary. "It's always difficult to get someone to break the mold," he said.

At a gathering at Seibert's 173-acre St. Paul Road farm on Thursday, Maryland Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, took a turn digging in the field and planting a vine.

Munson has been pushing winemaking for the county for years. He said it's a good industry and preserves land, since farmers can make a profit.

On average, an acre of grapes yields $1,000 to $2,000, Fiola said.

When a grower takes the extra step of turning grapes into wine, the yield is multiplied by about 10 or 12, he said.

Seibert chuckled about the initial advice he got for his land, which he took over a few years ago.

He said he asked about the most profitable crop he could plant. The answer was soybeans - at $100 an acre.

Wine made more sense.

Seibert worked with Maryland Cooperative Extension. He took courses and went to a conference, where he met Olivier Bouilhac, a grape grower from Bordeaux, France, and Julie Bergerat, a winemaker from Burgundy, France.

Bouilhac and Bergerat were at the farm Thursday. They've been helping him get started.

There's a lot to think about - such as elevation. Since cold air is heavier, planting grapes higher, on a hill, as Seibert has done, can mean a difference of 5 to 7 degrees, Fiola said.

Seibert was a lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers, then founded a think tank called The Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy.

He and his wife, Mary Beth, still live in Annapolis. They plan to move after daughter Paige, 14, finishes eighth grade next month.

Next year, she'll attend Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pa. The Seiberts' other daughter, Stephanie, 16, is at Mercersburg Academy now.

Mary Beth said she supports her husband's risk. "I kind of grew up around making wine," she said. Her father had a 5-acre winery in Delaware.

Fiola and Munson said Washington County had a winery in Downsville for many years, but doesn't have any now.

Bob and Ruth Ziem closed that winery about nine years ago.

Fiola is hopeful that more entrepreneurs will emerge if they see Seibert succeed.

Next year, Knob Hall Winery will expand into riskier but better-known grapes - Merlot and Cabernet Franc - followed by Cabernet Sauvignon the following year.

"He's made a significant effort to doing it, and doing it correctly," Fiola said.

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