Founder of Boordy Vineyards dies Philip M. Wagner, 92, longtime Sun editor

December 30, 1996|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Philip M. Wagner, a former editor at The Sun who founded Boordy Vineyards, wrote a classic book on winemaking and became an international authority on domestic wines and grapes, died early yesterday of emphysema and heart failure at his home in Riderwood. He was 92.

"He's a legendary figure. He was the first to plant French hybrids in the United States," said Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate magazine.

He was "one of the most important figures in the 20th century in wine education, and for his contributions to viticulture" -- the cultivation of grapes.

Boordy Vineyards celebrated its 50th anniversary last year as an internationally known winery. Mr. Wagner sold the business in 1980, and Boordy is now based in Hydes in Baltimore County.

During the 1930s, with his wife Jocelyn McDonough Wagner, who died in 1994, Mr. Wagner began experimenting with grapevines at their 4.7-acre property in the Baltimore suburbs -- the birthplace of Boordy. He called it a "Johnny Appleseed operation," and later expanded to a farm in Monkton.

Mr. Wagner was "the father of the Eastern wine industry. He inspired generations of winemakers," said Michael Dresser, The Sun's wine columnist for 14 years.

Mr. Wagner wrote several books that became the how-to texts for amateur vintners, who learned that it was possible to produce palatable wines in parts of the United States previously thought to be poorly suited for growing fruitful vines. He successfully blended flavorful European grapes with hardier native American roots.

His 1933 book, "American Wines and How to Make Them" went through so many revisions and reprintings that he and the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, produced a rewrite that is still in print. Published in 1976, it was retitled, "Grapes Into Wine: The Art of Winemaking in America." A 1945 volume, "A Wine-grower's Guide" also influenced many growers in the Eastern United States.

"I'm proud to say that he was my first and constant teacher," said Warren Winiarski, owner of Stags Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley, Calif. "I was very heavily influenced in my decision to take up the trade when I read Phil's book. I made my first wines from grapes that I got from one of his farmers out in Westminster in the 1950s."

Mr. Winiarski noted that Americans were allowed to make wine only for home consumption during Prohibition, and Mr. Wagner wanted to help them to make wine fit to drink. Among Mr. Wagner's many honors was an award given by the French government: the Ordre du Merite Agricole. He received it for his work with hybrid grapevines.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Grapegrowers' Association named Mr. Wagner its 1996 Man of the Year. Mr. Wagner also is one of the few individuals listed by name in the "Oxford Companion to Wine," and he served regularly on the wine jury of the California State Fair in Sacramento.

Born in New Haven, Conn., he spent most of his childhood in Ann Arbor, where his father was a professor of Romance languages at the University of Michigan. After earning a bachelor of arts degree from Michigan in 1925, Mr. Wagner went to work for the General Electric Co. in publicity and advertising for the next five years.

But during that time, he also wrote articles for some of the country's most respected periodicals -- the New Republic, Harper's, and The Atlantic -- which caught the eye of editors at The Sun.

Mr. Wagner was hired in 1930 as an editorial writer for The Evening Sun and became editor of the editorial page in 1938 -- succeeding H. L. Mencken. In 1943, he was named chief of the morning paper's editorial page.

His career on the opinion pages was sidetracked for 18 months when he was assigned to The Sun's London bureau in 1936: a time when fascism was on the rise in Europe, and Britain's King Edward VIII had decided to give up his throne for Baltimorean Wallis Warfield Simpson.

Mr. Wagner retired from The Sun in 1964, but continued to write a syndicated column about national affairs.

He said his winemaking was "the perfect foil for the nervous and intellectual strains of newspaper work. It is slow-paced, provides plenty of exercise in the open, and in both the vineyard and the winery, is deliciously free of ethical problems."

"It was a taste for wine that led me into winemaking way back during Prohibition," he once said. "And winemaking led inexorably into viticulture."

As the years passed, the Wagners' Boordy products grew in reputation and quantity. By the mid-1960s, they were producing 8,000 gallons of wine.

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