G. Hamilton Mowbray, a pioneer in Maryland winemaking who demonstrated that classic European grapes could be successfully grown in the mid-Atlantic, died Thursday of heart failure at Union Memorial Hospital. He was 79.
In 1964, Dr. Mowbray purchased a 100-acre farm in Silver Run Valley, just a few miles south of the Pennsylvania line in Carroll County, where he established Montbray Wine Cellars.
He operated the vineyard until 1992, growing European-American hybrids as well as pure European vinifera. He also wrote extensively about winemaking and passed along his knowledge to other aspiring winemakers along the East Coast.
"He basically led the way as far as the development of vinifera as a viable crop in Maryland," said Bert Basignani, owner of Basignani Winery Ltd. in Butler.
"He knew the technical aspects of wine, but that's not really what he was about. What I learned from Ham was the art. He just imparted that knowledge, the excitement of what you could do with wine."
Dr. Mowbray as born in Taylorsville, the son of the Rev. Raymond L. Mowbray and Elizabeth Musselman Mowbray. The family moved throughout the state as his father, a Methodist minister, was transferred from church to church.
Dr. Mowbray was a graduate of City College, and served as a radar technician for the Army Air Forces during World War II. He was stationed in Guatemala.
After the war, he attended the Johns Hopkins University, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology. In 1946, he married the former Phyllis Wagner, and the two moved to England, where Dr. Mowbray earned his doctorate at Cambridge University.
"We visited the continent numerous times and developed a taste for wines -- the civility of it as a drink with meals," said Mrs. Mowbray.
The couple returned to Maryland in 1953, and Dr. Mowbray began a career as a research psychologist with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where he remained until 1973.
The couple developed friendships with the few people who were growing wine grapes in the region. Among them was Charles Singleton, a professor of Italian at Hopkins who had begun growing grapes in New Windsor.
The Mowbrays lived for many years in Woodbine, but moved to the Carroll County farm in 1964 when he decided to establish a vineyard. There he began planting vines on the hillsides, and the couple renovated a farmhouse that dated to 1795.
"He was working at APL and doing this vineyard all at the same time," said Mrs. Mowbray. "Eventually, something had to give, and he opted for a winery."
In cultivating the classic European grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and Riesling, Dr. Mowbray bucked the conventional wisdom that the mid-Atlantic climate was too harsh and the vines too susceptible to disease.
To grow the European grapes, Dr. Mowbray learned to graft American rootstock onto imported vines.
"The wines attracted attention because they were above the ordinary," said Rob Deford, owner of Boordy Vineyards in Long Green Valley. "He proved to everyone that it could be done and, beyond that, the wines could be good."
Dr. Mowbray also was known for producing some of the best wines from hybrid grapes that thrive in the Maryland climate. One of his prized wines was his Seyval blanc, a French-American hybrid.
In October 1974, he made the nation's first ice wine from Riesling grapes that froze on the vines. The grapes were picked just as the sun rose, and they were pressed while still frozen.
"The ice was left and the juice was like nectar from the gods," Mrs. Mowbray said. "We made 100 bottles of that wine, and they were absolutely priceless."
In 1976, he became the second American to receive the French Croix de Chevalier de Merite Agricole for his contributions to winemaking and grape growing.
He was a founding member of the American Wine Society, and lectured on wine appreciation, evaluation and grape-growing at the University of Maryland, Roland Park Country School and Mount Vernon College in Washington.
In the 1970s, he ran a school of wine appreciation in Columbia called the Montbray School of Wine.
He was also instrumental in helping entrepreneurs in Virginia establish viable vineyards there. He received the American Wine Society's Award of Merit in 1977 and an achievement award from the Virginia Vinifera Wine Growers Association in 2000.
In 1992, he closed his winery, telling The Sun: "It's just time. I've done my thing."
The vines are now maintained by Mr. Basignani.
"He was a feisty guy, just a ball of fire," Mr. Basignani said. "He was excited about wine, and he passed that along. He loved all aspects of winemaking, and he wasn't shy about expressing his opinion."
A memorial service is being planned.
He also is survived by a son, Paul N.H. Mowbray of Mays Landing, N.J.; a daughter, Claire Mowbray Golding of Princeton, Mass.; and two granddaughters.