Vintners put a cork in their business Business: As they close the doors to their Washington County vineyard, Robert and Ruth Ziem have literally uprooted themselves.


DOWNSVILLE -- Well, not exactly. Nearby Downsville has the Downsville Christian Church and the downtown. Ziem Vineyards which becomes Maryland wine history as of today -- assumes eight neighboring acres here in Washington County.

This is not exactly wine country. Not anymore anyway.

"I'm getting older and it's too much darn work," says Robert Ziem, 73. "I'm not sorry, but I am sad," says Ruth Ziem, 65.

"We tried to make money, but we weren't very good at it," Bob says. "I like to think we were making a Maryland wine," Ruth says.

Robert and Ruth Ziem, settled in their post-middle age, will close their vineyard this week because it is time. A quarter century ago, they planted their first French hybrid grapes in the loamy, well-drained soils of the Cumberland Valley. A NASA solid propulsion engineer with a chemistry degree and a city gal from St. Louis who "doesn't do tractors," they knitted together one hardy hobby.

From Day 1, their mission statement read: "The Ziem Vineyards' intent is to make a contribution to the achievement of excellence in Eastern U.S. wines." With that now said and done, the Ziems' exit leaves the ranks of Maryland wineries now at nine.

Ziem Vineyards was a mom-and-pop operation that produced 2,000 gallons of wine a year. At its peak, the vineyard grew 15 varieties of grapes and bottled about as many wines. Sometimes they'd haul the wine to liquor stores themselves, but their heart wasn't in distribution or marketing -- or "marketeering," as Bob says.

"You can't make money without getting big, and we couldn't afford to get bigger," says Bob.

In this long neck of Maryland, beer is preferred to wine. The Ziems certainly have felt at home in Washington County, but their business hasn't.

"Lord, we have people in Downsville who still don't know we're here -- and don't care," Bob says. "I'm not condemning them. Wine drinking is just not part of their culture."

The Ziems relied mainly on wine drinkers from Baltimore and D.C. to drop by to taste Ziem's trademark red table wines: Chambourcin. Chancellor. Marechal Foch. Landot Noir. They made some white wine, too. But "All wine would be red if it could," says a sign in the Ziems' converted barn, where last week a few came to pay their respects.

"We heard about the vineyard closing," said Frank Littleton, sipping from a fire-sale bottle of Chancellor 1986. "We stopped in here 10 years ago," the visitor said to Ruth, wistfully.

"Where you been?" Bob piped in. More than once, people have likened Bob Ziem to Henry Fonda's scratchy character in "On Golden Pond."

Bob retrieved another bottle of Chancellor and plunked it down on the wine-tasting table. He earned a mini-scowl from Ruth.

"I don't care if they break," Bob said. This from a man who admits he's not terribly broken up about breaking up the family hobby.

Maybe it was all that pruning of all those renewal spurs. Maybe it was fighting the weeds, bugs, deer, diseases. Not to mention Bob's fleet of tractors, wine-making equipment and antique gizmos. A man could make a living just fixing the things he needs to make a living.

Much of the time, Bob and Ruth worked the eight-acre vineyard themselves. Their sons, Kurt and Eric, worked with them until they left home. And they got help from a kid named Ralph Crawford from up the street in Hagerstown. Ralph must have been 12 when he first rode by the farm on his bike.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," Ralph says now.

For 15 years, Ralph worked summers at Ziem Vineyards. He pruned, he picked, he bottled and he corked. And every workday, the Ziems fixed Ralph a dinner of lunch meats.

"Wish I could have cloned him," Bob says.

"He's probably the smartest man I know," Ralph says, adding, "they both treated me like a son."

Now 27 and working for UPS, Ralph is still partial to Ziem Chelois, a nice, dry table wine. Last year, after the last harvest, Ralph helped the Ziems pull out the grapevines. The vines, black and bundled like barbed wire, are clumped like funeral pyres throughout this ex-vineyard.

"I told Mr. Ziem," Ralph says, "I'll always be there for him."

Mr. Ziem is out walking the old acres, figuring all the chores he could be doing. A little paint here, lot of pruning there. Bag worms are clogging up the trees again. Even without a vineyard, tending to his full 55 acres is a full-time enterprise.

"Need a couple of boys out here to work. But they're hard to find," Bob says.

No boys out here anymore. No dogs, either. Seems a farm should have a Labrador running and casing the joint. But Ruth Ziem has a rule: Retirement, she says, is when your kids leave and your dog dies. Well, their three children are grown and gone. And a dog or two has already passed this way.

"She won't let me get another dog," says Bob.

He listens to the woman who keeps the vineyard's books. Each month, Ruth filled out the state and federal paperwork to account for every drop of wine made, sold or spilled. And every April 15, Bob would know that once again, the vineyard had made no money. A marriage ritual, of sorts, in a marriage that turned 45 this month.

Other things aren't meant to survive -- despite the best intentions and chemistry. At Ziem Vineyards, the time was right for cutting losses, appreciating gains and for making sweet, simple plans. Ruth wants to vacation in Italy. No argument from Bob, who long ago fell in love with Tuscany.

Oh, they'll still make a little wine for themselves and friends. But they are finished as winemakers. A dozen or so people have called wanting to buy the place. But Bob says, "I'm not selling anything, thank you very much." It's one thing to quit your own business, quite another to quit your land.

Italy trip or not, Bob and Ruth have plenty of life and work left in them. She won't miss doing the books, but she did love meeting all those folks who found their vineyard.

"You do know how to get back out of here?" she asks customer Frank Littleton. Before the visitor leaves, he shakes Bob Ziem's hand and wishes him luck. "Want to buy a farm?" Bob bellows, as Littleton's Mazda creeps out the way it came in -- up the gravel road, past the 200-year-old stone home and adjacent spring house, right to the vineyard's doorstep.

Their guest is gone, history. The two vineyard owners are left looking at each other. Their eyes fix on the sign nailed to their converted barn.

"We're going to have to re-do the N," Ruth says, eyeballing the ZIEM VINEYARDS sign. Indeed, the "N" is crooked, missing a nail. Ruth calls it the "drunken N"; it's been that way for months.

"No point fixing it," Bob says, but without heart. Ruth doesn't say anything; she doesn't have to. They both know and feel something about the sign and more.

"Oh, all right," Bob Ziem says, "I'll get the ladder out."

Pub Date: 4/30/98

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