UNLIKELY WINE MOGUL Boordy's Deford hated tending grapes as a child

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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

After his cellar master retired in 1986, Mr. Deford was forced to make a tough decision: Should he focus his energy on wine making or business? For the winery to survive, he had to choose the latter. After hiring a capable cellar master to make the wine, he set out to improve the nuts-and-bolts side of the business: distribution, marketing, promotions and sales.

Many say he's brought a different attitude to the local liquor business.

"He's a gentleman," says Janis Talbott, co-owner of Morton's Wine, Spirits and Elegant Eats. "That's not always the case in the business. He listens to what people say. He has manners, and he's respected for that."

Yet Mr. Deford often feels like a winemaker in business clothing. "Whenever I'm in a room full of real businessmen, I realize I'm not one of them," he says. "In my heart of hearts, what I really am is a winemaker who practices business."

Slowly, Boordy began expanding the vineyard, improving the quality of the wine and winning awards. Today it produces 15 different wines, including one of the few Maryland champagnes.

"I have to give him a lot of credit," says nationally renowned wine connoisseur Robert M. Parker Jr. "He's worked hard, and he has talent. But it's hard to establish a reputation in the wine world in a region known for its crabs."

Looking back on it now, Mr. Deford isn't sure what kept him going during those bleak times.

"I would never persevere again," he says wearily.

G. Hamilton Mowbray says he knows what kept Rob Deford in the business, come early frost or late crop. "The motivation came in not wanting to let his family down," he says. "He felt a responsibility to them."

Once a month, the family -- including his wife, Julie, his sister Sally Buck, his brother-in-law Richard Bayly Buck and his mother, Anne -- hold a de facto board meeting. (Mr. Deford's father, Rob, died in 1987.) Decisions are always made over at least one bottle of Boordy wine.

"We call it product evaluation," he says. At times there have been lengthy discussions over the future of the winery, but one thing has always been clear: The Defords were in this together.

"What we went through would have broken a lot of families up," says Mr. Deford. "It only made ours stronger."

Toiling in the vineyards also has brought romance. He met his wife in 1983 when he hired her as a summer field worker. At the end of the season, Mr. Deford recalls, "I gave her her last check and asked her out."

The couple married in 1986 and now live in Monkton with their two children, Lilly, 3, and Ben, 1. Mr. Deford's 13-year-old son, Phin, from his first marriage spends half the year with them. Mrs. Deford, a graduate of the Maryland Institute of Art, often lends her artistic eye to the family business, helping redesign the wine labels and taking on the role of chief sign maker.

An unconventional past

In many ways, his past helped prepare Rob Deford for an unconventional future. He attended Stanford University in California in the late '60s, applying for conscientious objector status after receiving his Vietnam draft notice. Although he took courses in studio art, he spent more of his time carrying picket signs and smelling tear gas.

"There was not a single intact plate glass window on the campus," he recalls.

Such dissent had made it easier to pursue an unusual career. "Everyone back then felt it was important to find your own path, as opposed to one that was prescribed by society. That has remained with me. It's an important part of my makeup -- a kind of orneriness where you have to do things your own way," he says.

After dropping out of Stanford, he taught English in South America for several years. In 1974, he returned, enrolling in science classes at the College of the Atlantic.

Today, Mr. Deford is back in school, determined to finally get his undergraduate degree. Two days a week he takes geography courses at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and plans to graduate in 1994 -- 25 years after he began college.

"It's what they call the scenic route," he says.

Made wiser and more cautious by the past, he refuses to entertain grandiose plans for the winery's future. Instead he talks about modest growth, improved quality and stability.

"If you measured success in terms of money, we would not be successful," he says. "But I feel very proud of what we have done. . . . Driving in and seeing the place early in the morning when the sun's rising, before the chaos breaks out, I realize that we've created something very lovely here."

Wine Festival

The two-day Maryland Wine Festival continues from noon to 6 p.m. today at the Carroll County Farm Museum. The event includes wine tastings, food, entertainment and crafts demonstrations. Admission is $10 per adult; children accompanied by adults are free. For information, call 876-2667 or (301)848-7775.

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THE DEFORD FILE

Occupation: President of Boordy Vineyards.

Born: July 25, 1951; Baltimore.

Education: Stanford University in California 1969-'73; College of the Atlantic in Maine 1974-'77; University of California at Davis, 1979; currently majoring in geography at University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Current home: Monkton.

Family: Married since 1986 to Julie; children: Phin, 13, (from a previous marriage); Lilly, 3; Ben, 1.

Hobbies: Fishing, gardening, listening to folk music.

Wines, other than your own, that you drink: "They're too numerous to mention. I try to drink as many different kinds from as many parts of the world as I can."

Your cure for a hangover: "Don't drink too much, that's what I do, or sleep it off."

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