A toast to the patriarch of eastern winemaking

WAY BACK WHEN

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Taking Note of History

June 11, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities.

- I Timothy 5:23

I hope at some point during the Great Grapes! Wine, Arts & Food Festival that begins at noon today and continues tomorrow at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville, someone will lift a glass to the memory of the late Philip Marshall Wagner.

Wagner, who died in 1996 and was considered the patriarch of eastern winemaking, established Boordy Vineyards in 1945 at his 4.7-acre home in Riderwood, where he lived until his death.

"He's a legendary figure. He was the first to plant French hybrids in the United States," Robert Parker, one of the nation's most influential wine critics, said at Wagner's death.

Wagner, a journalist who had been born in New Haven, Conn., came to Baltimore in 1930 as a 26-year-old editorial writer for The Evening Sun. He later became editor of that paper and was editor of The Sun at his retirement in 1964.

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

Wagner began making wine with his Riderwood neighbor and newspaper colleague, Hamilton Owens, later editor-in-chief of The Sunpapers, during Prohibition.

Even though Congress had passed the Volstead Act in 1919, outlawing the manufacture, transportation and sale of beverages containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol, Wagner was able to make wine legally because of a forgotten Maryland congressman, John Philip Hall.

In the early 1920s, Hall, who had made wine and cider in his basement, was brought to trial, and in 1924, the United States District Court ruled that fermentation of fruit for home use was a basic, legal right that could not be violated.

Wagner also explained that winemaking was an agreeable pastime being "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."

After repeal, Wagner began searching for alternatives to the native Lambrusca varieties and hybrids, which he disliked, and began experimenting with European vine cuttings smuggled into the United States.

"Failing to grow in Maryland the Vinifera grapes he preferred, this amateur introduced to this country the French-American hybrid varieties that are now planted extensively for winemaking in most states east of the Rockies and in both eastern and western Canada," Leon Adams, founder of the Wine Institute, wrote in his book, The Wines of America.

The result of his handiwork, which he shared with his wife and collaborator, Jocelyn, was the opening in 1945 of Boordy Vineyards, Maryland's first bonded winery. In 1980, the couple sold their business to Robert B. DeFord III, who has continued making wines in the Boordy tradition at his winery in Hydes.

Wagner's 1933 book, American Wines and How to Make Them, published by Alfred A. Knopf, has gone through many editions and remains in print. In 1976, it was reissued with a new name, Grapes Into Wine: The Art of Winemaking in America.

In 1997, Michael Dresser, The Sun's wine critic, wrote that it "is without a doubt the most influential book on wine ever published in the United States."

Wagner's wines came to the attention of fabled luminaries of the food and wine world such as Craig Claiborne of The New York Times and James A. Beard, the latter of whom visited to see what Boordy was all about. He sat with his hosts under the trees of their Riderwood home while sampling wines and enjoying an al fresco luncheon.

"His wine is the kind the French call a vin de pays, a country wine. Bottled soon after the harvest, it is put on the market while it is young, fresh and fruity," Beard wrote. "This isn't a wine to lay down and keep for years before it reaches its peak, but a light gay wine to open, drink and enjoy, the kind that plays an important part in the everyday life of any true wine lover."

What is the meaning of Boordy?

"He made it up and never wanted to discuss it," explained his daughter, Susan Wagner, a journalist, at her father's death.

In addition to Boordy, there are 15 other vineyards producing wine in Maryland.

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