Vintage Boordy Fruits of their labor: Maryland's largest winery turns 50 with a celebration -- and a plan for its future business success.

October 18, 1995|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN STAFF

Philip and Jocelyn Wagner never set out to create an internationally renowned winery that would survive half a century and spawn hundreds of imitators.

They were just trying to get rid of a grape glut.

Nevertheless, 50 years after the Wagners founded their winery in the Baltimore suburb of Riderwood, Boordy Vineyards not only continues to use up grapes, it thrives. Its wines have never been better.

Later this month (Oct. 28-29), Boordy will celebrate that milestone with a two-day festival at its present home in the Long Green Valley of northeastern Baltimore County. Mr. Wagner himself, now 91 and retired, is expected to attend that Sunday to help current owner Rob Deford mark the occasion.

Lasting 50 years is a feat for any enterprise, but in the quixotic business of making wine in the eastern United States, it's a near-miracle. Yet Boordy has endured -- despite killing frosts, voracious pests, skeptical consumers, inexperienced ownership and financial crises.

The occasion is especially noteworthy because the importance of Boordy Vineyards in the history of American wine is all but impossible to exaggerate.

Younger wine enthusiasts have no memory of such an era, but their elders can recall a time in the 1930s and into the 1960s when most American wine was -- how can you put it delicately? -- schlock.

California, its wine industry and standards devastated by Prohibition, was turning out mostly trash -- cheap fortified wines fit more for Skid Row consumption than the dinner tables of American families.

The picture in the East was worse. At the time, nobody had figured out how to grow vitis vinifera, the grape species that yields all the famous wines of Europe, East of the Rockies. Instead, the relatively few wines made in the East were made from native vitis lubrusca grapes, which were afflicted by a peculiar flavor generally described as "foxy."

Enter Phil Wagner.

A correspondent for The Sun who honed a taste for wine during his European travels, Mr. Wagner became interested during the 1930s in propagating French-American hybrid vines, which combine the hardiness of native American grapes with the non-foxy flavors of European grapes.

Assisted by a Canadian friend who helped him sidestep a ban on importing European vines, Mr. Wagner brought dozens of different hybrids home to Maryland. At his small vineyard in Riderwood, he planted cuttings and experimented with different varieties.

As vines tend to do, Mr. Wagner's plants began to produce fruit. "Pretty soon we had grapes coming out of our ears," he said during a recent interview.

Mr. Wagner, who went on to serve stints as editor of both The Evening Sun and The Sun, recalled that it was his late wife Jocelyn who first suggested that they solve the problem by making and selling wine. So, in 1945, Boordy Vineyards became the nation's first bonded winery to base its production upon hybrid wines.

Boordy's modest red, white and rose wines were never a challenge to the reputations of the finest Burgundies, and Mr. Wagner never pretended they were. Yet they excited wine drinkers because they actually tasted like real table wine of the type many returning veterans had tasted in Europe.

"There were no other Eastern wineries producing anything like it," Mr. Deford said.

Mr. Wagner continued to make wine at Boordy for the next 35 years, eschewing frills such as varietal names. 'We weren't especially commercially interested one way or another," he said. But the winery paid its expenses, and Boordy built up a loyal clientele that prized his wines as an inexpensive alternative to imports. "It was never thought of as the foundation of a small industry or lasting 50 years," Mr. Wagner said.

Regardless of the founders' intentions, Boordy achieved both. Inspired by Mr. Wagner and supplied with plants from his nursery, other pioneers took up the cause of French-American hybrids, which are now grown by wineries in almost every state east of the Rockies.

In 1965, Mr. Wagner made a decision that would eventually ensure Boordy's long-term survival. Seeking to increase his production, he persuaded his friend Robert Deford Jr. to plant vines on his farm on Long Green Pike.

That family alliance paid off in the late 1970s when Mr. Wagner decided his winemaking days were over. His friend's son, Robert Deford III, had recently returned to the family farm because his father was ill. A vegetarian, he didn't feel quite at home with the family's beef cattle operations, so his interest gravitated to the grape-growing side of the business.

In 1980 the Deford family bought out Mr. Wagner for $130,000. Rob Deford, then 29, took over the business.

Those first years were difficult, Mr. Deford said. The California wine boom was on and Boordy was no longer the only game in town in the East. Other pioneers had demonstrated that vinifera grapes could indeed be grown in the East and newer Maryland wineries were producing familiar varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, riesling and chardonnay.

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