In the vineyard, the work begins in early March. The vines have to be pruned and tied to the fruiting wire. The shoots must be positioned and the leaves pulled off. The harvest starts in early September for the white wines, into late October for the reds.
At Knob Hall Winery, Richard Seibert grows 19 different varieties of grapes, with plans to add more in the future.
“There’s only so much wine you can sell from one variety,” says Seibert, managing partner of the only commercial winery in Washington County.
“If you’re trying to make a Bordeaux blend, it takes five different varietals.”
Seibert’s family has owned the property, in Clear Spring, for over 200 years. The farmhouse in which he and his wife, Mary Beth, live dates to 1805. Originally called Good Neighbor or Knob Hall Farm, the 175 acres he inherited in 2006 was a crop farm, the land rented to local farmers.
Seibert didn’t expect to farm the land, open a winery, or even live in Clear Spring. With degrees in business and marketing, the Maryland native worked as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill for a national association, then founded and directed a nonprofit based in Annapolis, where he lived for 20 years.
But circumstances intervened. He came into possession of the farm at a time when money for nonprofits was drying up.
“I had two alternatives,” says Seibert, 60, an amiable man with a precise manner. “I could sell to developers or try to make the farm economically sustainable.”
He chose the latter, but with a twist. Seibert had visited wineries in California. He loves good wine. The idea of a vineyard appealed to him, but he wasn’t sure it would work.
“It costs over $1 million to get a vineyard and winery up and running. How big does the vineyard have to be for economic viability? It’s a moving target. It costs $13,000 to $17,000 per acre for plants, trellis, wire, and posts,” and that doesn’t include land and maintenance, says Seibert.
With the economic downturn making money tight, Seibert formed a limited partnership of 10 investors. In 2007, he planted the first grapevines on eight acres and, after renovations to the original structure and later additions, moved into the farmhouse. Currently, 42 acres are under cultivation, with a goal of 60 acres total. The rest of the land is still crop farmed.
“It takes two years after planting for the grape vines to mature, to produce grapes you can harvest for winemaking,” says Seibert, whose varieties include Albariño, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Traminette, Vidal Blanc, Viognier, Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, and Petite Verdot.
“They grow well in this climate area, are somewhat resistant to disease, and make good wine,” he says of his varieties, chosen on the advice of Dr. Joseph Fiola, the University of Maryland Extension Western Maryland Research and Education Center specialist in viticulture and small fruit.
Despite his lack of farming experience, Seibert is typical of vineyard owners, according to Fiola.
“The majority who get into wineries are not former farmers. They’ve done something else,” he says. “Conventional agriculture people tend to stay with farming. [With wineries], you have regulations, bottling, marketing, and lots of things other than just farming.”
In little over a decade, from 2001 to 2012, the state’s wine industry jumped from a longtime nucleus of about 12 commercial wineries to its current 55, half of them strung from Baltimore to Frederick counties.
“The objective was to get more commercial wineries in the state, for economic development and land preservation,” Fiola says of the tax breaks and zoning incentives the state offers.