Boordy's Deford hated tending grapes as a child


September 22, 1991|By Mary Corey

It's the kind of day God created for malls and old movies, a misty, gray Saturday where inertia seems the only reasonable response to the humidity.

Unless, of course, your name is Rob Deford.

In that case you've been up since 4 a.m. You drove to Western Maryland, returned with 10,000 pounds of grapes, unpacked half from the truck and now feed them into a crushing machine you call the Mechanical Human Foot.

There's also much you ignore on this afternoon: threatening clouds, hovering bees and the flood in your office from the rain last night.

In the heart of the season, when an early frost could kill a crop already made smaller by the summer drought, there's no time to waste. After 11 tumultuous years as president of Boordy Vineyards, nobody understands that better than Rob Deford.

"It's a very tough way to make a living," the 40-year-old says. "But that's to be expected. If it was so easy, why would wine be any different than Coca-Cola?"

With his strong jaw, blue eyes and affable demeanor, it's easy to understand why Mr. Deford is considered the golden boy of local winemaking. It's more than just appearance, though. Boordy, the oldest vineyard in Maryland, is one of only a few making a profit, and many are pinning their hopes for the state industry on him.

"He's got the best chance of making Maryland wines internationally known of any of us," says G. Hamilton Mowbray, the founder of Montbray Wine Cellars Ltd. in Northwest Carroll County. "He's got drive and determination, and he's young. That helps. I still think it's a long shot, but it's possible."

Stranger things have happened. Like, for instance, the fact that Rob Deford is in the business at all. It was the furthest thing from his mind when he tended the grapevines on his family's farm as a child, grapes that his father eventually sold to Boordy.

"I hated it," he recalls. "All I saw was row after row of weeds. It seemed a hot, frustrating, pointless job."

Little did he know that two decades later he and his family would own the vineyard.

A rough start

The road to success at Boordy has been as bumpy as the gravel-filled path leading to the 250-acre farm in Northeast Baltimore County.

First of all, it started with tragedy. Mr. Deford was finishing school at the College of the Atlantic in Maine when -- eight credits shy of graduating -- he learned his father had emphysema. He returned home in 1978 to tend to the family cattle farm, but Mr. Deford, a vegetarian, quickly learned that this couldn't be his lifelong career.

At about the same time, the family heard that Philip Wagner, who founded Boordy in 1945, was interested in selling the winery. The Defords knew the Wagners, having sold them grapes for 11 years, and the deal was struck. Boordy became theirs for $130,000, and Mr. Deford spent a year studying wine at the University of California at Davis.

There's an old saying local winemakers often tell about the rigors of running a winery. You can make a small fortune in this business, it goes, as long as you start with a large one.

Mr. Deford could have written the line himself. After moving the vineyard from Riderwood to the farm in Hydes, he funneled $500,000 of family money into the business. This year marks only the third time he's expecting any return on the investment.

Projected gross revenues hover around $400,000 from a crop expected to yield 15,000 gallons; the summer drought will keep quantity low but quality high, he says.

"It's a labor of love," he explains. "There is a feeling that you're making something that has a life of its own, something to be contended with."

Initially Mr. Deford invested heavily in advertising, trying to improve the lackluster image the wine had among consumers and restaurateurs.

"I liken it to turning the Queen Mary around with a canoe paddle," he says now.

He faced many dark days on the farm. In one year, Mr. Deford's home burned down and what's now called "the massacre" occurred. Close to 800 grapevines were lost in one night when the temperature plummeted to 17 below zero. Things hit rock bottom, however, when Boordy's cellar master -- the person responsible for making the wine -- was forced to retire due to back problems.

"It just seemed like everything was going wrong," he says. "I kept waiting for the next blow."

It came in the form of the California wine craze. In the early '80s, anybody who knew Chablis from chardonnay was clamoring for wines from California, and serving local stuff became akin to drinking bathtub gin.

Mr. Deford sees vestiges of that attitude today. "Many people still don't think that Maryland can make a good bottle of wine," he laments.

One thing that helped dispel that attitude has been the Maryland Wine Festival, taking place at the Carroll County Farm Museum this weekend. (See box for details.) "When you have about 18,000 people coming to taste your wine . . . in a setting that's entertaining and fun, you can't go wrong," he says. "It's the best kind of promotion there is."

Becoming a businessman

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