SILVER RUN -- Dave Argento is looking for a few very special investors for a virtually risk-free venture.
That is, there's all but no risk of dividends or capital gains anytime soon. And short of an oil strike in the vineyards of Carroll County, there's absolutely no risk of ever making a killing.
That's because Mr. Argento's plan, as outlined in a draft prospectus, is to raise $224,000 to save Montbray Wine Cellars, a pioneering but impoverished winery in the scenic Silver Run Valley, barely a grape's throw from the Pennsylvania border. For a quarter century Montbray has been operating on a shoestring, sustained by the modest means and immodest determination of its founder, former Johns Hopkins psychologist G. Hamilton Mowbray.
In an effort to preserve and expand Montbray, Mr. Argento and his partners have formed Seyve Villard Corp., a new holding company named after a grape variety, and have drafted a plan to offer 28 shares of stock at $8,000 apiece.
If the plan passes legal muster and finds enough investors, the corporation would use some of the money to lease Montbray's vineyards, winery and name from Mr. Mowbray with an option to buy the property at a later date. The rest would be invested in renovations and equipment as part of a 10-year plan to turn Mr. Mowbray's "labor of love" into a money-making operation.
It's not an investment for widows and orphans, admits Mr. Argento, 34. The prospectus projects a loss for the first three years, and after that any pro fits would be plowed back into the business. No dividends are planned -- at least not in this century.
"If you want to make money, you can invest in a McDonald's franchise and you're pretty well guaranteed of making some money," Mr. Argento said. "Investing in a winery in a mid-Atlantic state isn't that kind of investment."
Mr. Mowbray, 69, who has wanted to retire for several years, is cheering on Mr. Argento's effort, but he too warns possible investors that this is hardly a gold mine.
"If they're looking for a quick return of any size, I'd advise them to go elsewhere," he said. But, he added, "This is a great scheme for romantic idealists."
According to Mr. Argento, there are still a few of them out there. He said he has received verbal commitments for 16 of the 28 shares.
While Mr. Argento was careful not to hold out any hope of making a fortune investing in a Maryland winery, he does see it as a viable long-term investment.
"You have to have a goal of making money in any business if you're going to survive and grow," he said. "In terms of getting into the black as far as our operating budget, we think we can do that in probably four years, but that doesn't mean we'll be making money in terms of paying back the initial investment."
A visit to Montbray makes it clear why. To anybody whose image of a winery has been formed by watching "Falcon Crest," the Carroll County property could come as a rude shock. Montbray's winery is housed in an old barn grafted onto an open-air, cinder-block shed. There are no shiny stainless steel tanks, and the shabby tasting and sales room is barely bigger than a closet.
But for many Maryland wine enthusiasts, Montbray is a virtual temple. Founded in 1964 and bonded in 1966, it is Maryland's second-oldest winery and the oldest to be continuously operated in one place. (Boordy Vineyards is two decades older, but it moved from Riderwood to Hydes when it was sold in the early 1980s.)
Montbray was also the first commercial winery to successfully grow classic European (vinifera) grapes in the mid-Atlantic states. It made the region's first Riesling, first chardonnay and first cabernet sauvignon, and has been praised by critics for all of them.
The one thing Montbray has never done, however, is make much money for Mr. Mowbray and his wife, Phyllis.
"When money was needed, it came out of our personal accounts and went into the winery," Mr. Mowbray said.
Mr. Mowbray's enthusiasm for wine is undimmed, but he admits his physical and economic vigor have faded with age. In recent years, his ability to maintain the vineyards has diminished, and he was unable to pay for help.
In December 1989, Mr. Argento, who quit a high-paying job in the construction business, came to work at Montbray full-time. For a while he collected a salary, but in recent months he has worked in the vineyard without pay while various other schemes to buy the winery failed. After the last deal fell through, Mr. Argento said, he decided to try to put together a deal.
To help draft a plan, Mr. Argento recruited Gary B. Davis, chief financial officer of Polk Audio Corp. and a wine enthusiast.
According to Mr. Davis, the Seyve Villard effort is "by no means a public offering" but an attempt to create a small, closely held company.
Under Seyve Villard's business plan, Montbray's wine production gradually would rise from a typical production of under 2,000 cases to more than 5,000 by the end of the decade. Eventually, Mr. Argento hopes to grow to 10,000 cases a year.
If all goes according to plan, the winery would recoup the initial investment sometime after 2000. If the deal falls through, Mr. Mowbray said, he could be forced to sell the property to developers when its agricultural-preserve status expires in five years.