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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"I discovered the market had changed but Boordy hadn't," he said. "The old favorites -- the red, the white, the rose -- were no longer of interest to people."

Mr. Deford said it took six years to turn the winery around, during which time it almost went broke. "It took us until 1988 to show $400 of profit. Since then, we've been a profitable, successful business."

The turning point came in 1985, when Boordy made a Beaujolais nouveau-style red that won a gold medal in a competition that included many California wineries.

"At that point I began to feel a ray of hope," said Mr. Deford, now 44.

The next big step came in 1986 when Mr. Deford hired Tom Burns as winemaker. "I got a guy in here who cared more about wine than life itself," said Mr. Deford.

It is no criticism of Mr. Deford to report that the quality of Boordy's wines has increased dramatically under the care of Mr. Burns, to whom Mr. Deford ceded full control of winemaking decisions in 1992.

The changes at Boordy since the Wagner era have been dramatic. Within two years of taking over, Mr. Deford began to use varietal names on the labels, starting with seyval blanc, the ,, most successful of Mr. Wagner's hybrid imports. In the mid-1980s, Boordy released its first wines made from vinifera grapes. And in 1988 it introduced its first sparkling blanc de blancs, made from chardonnay.

All Boordy's wines are soundly made and all but the $15 bubbly are modestly priced. They include generic red and white wines, hybrid varietals such as seyval blanc and vidal and vinifera varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and riesling.

Mr. Deford is realistic in appraising the quality of Boordy wines. "We're not oblivious to the call of greatness, but I'm not going to say that characterizes everything we do," he said.

But he is not at all modest about Boordy's Seyval Blanc "Sur Lie Reserve," made from the original vines planted on his farm for Mr. Wagner, which he justifiably considers his finest wine. (The "sur lie" refers to aging the wine in contact with the yeast residue from fermentation, a process that can add body and character.)

The seyval reserve is followed closely in his affections by the sparkling wine, which has made dramatic strides since its first vintage. In recent vintages it has been comparable in quality to some of the better Champagne imitators from California.

With a production of 10,000 cases this year and eight full-time employees, Boordy is now the largest winery in Maryland and one of the few with a full-time owner and winemaker.

Mr. Deford has one unusual wish for a businessman: more competitors nearby. The way he sees it, the more Maryland wineries there are, the stronger they will be. "My hope is that we get 10 more wineries in the next 10 years in this state," he said. "We want the industry to double."

Mr. Deford is not complacent about Boordy's next 50 years. After the anniversary is over, Mr. Deford said, he plans to get back to planning for yet another shift in Boordy's approach -- probably resulting in an expansion.

But if he decides to spend the weekend of Oct. 28-29 reveling in the glow, he'll have earned the right. If Mr. Deford had not taken over Boordy when he did, this piece of Maryland history might have gone the way of the much-missed Montbray and Byrd wineries.

Mr. Wagner, for one, is appreciative. "I think they're doing pretty good," he said. "Tom Burns is a meticulous winemaker and a very good grape grower. He really takes care of that vineyard."

Mr. Deford said that despite all the changes he's brought to Boordy, there remains an essential continuity in the philosophy behind the wine.

"This is where I feel a great kinship with Philip Wagner. Even though we've changed about everything that can be changed, we both think it's important to make great values," he said.

It's a sound philosophy. One can only hope that a 94-year-old Mr. Deford will be invited to restate it at Boordy's 100th anniversary in 2045.

Anniversary

Boordy Vineyards' 50th anniversary celebration takes place Oct. from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $25 and reservations are required.

Among the activities will be wine tastings, grape crushing and pressing, champagne-making demonstrations, cooking lessons, an historical exhibition, music and the release of Boordy's 1995 Nouveau. Guests will also have the opportunity to purchase wines with custom-made labels.

For information, call (410) 592-5015.

Boordy tasting notes

These are some of the currently available wines from Boordy Vineyards. All are Maryland-grown.

1994 Maryland White ($6) This well-balanced blend made from hybrid and vinifera grapes is a simple, honest, flavorful white with surprising fullness for a wine so inexpensive. There's some residual sugar, but it's basically dry and quite well-made, though slightly rustic. It's an excellent value for an everyday house white wine.

1994 Seyval ($7) Very fruity, light, and racy, with a hint of spritz. This lively, slightly herbal wine is meant for consumption over the next year or two. Excellent to serve with shellfish or lighter fish dishes.

1994 Seyval "Sur Lie Reserve" ($8) This is one of the great undiscovered values in American winemaking. Totally different from Boordy's other seyval, it's a full-bodied, rich white wine with just the right amount of oak influence. This compelling wine has nuances of peach, melon, marzipan and vanilla. It suggests a theoretical hybrid of a fine Alsace pinot blanc and an excellent California chardonnay. Take that, vinifera snobs!

1992 Chardonnay ($9.50) Boordy's chardonnays are decent, drinkable and show a judicious use of oak, but they come nowhere close to the quality of the "Sur Lie Reserve." This is a pleasant, appley wine that's just fine if you must drink vinifera.

1993 Chardonnay ($9.50) This vintage is definitely superior to the 1992, offering a full, ripe, buttery feel on the palate and admirable apple and nut flavors. It falls a bit short on the finish and isn't quite complex, but it's a very sound wine made from Byrd Vineyards fruit.

1992 Blanc de Blancs ($15) This fine, crisp sparkling wine has much of the toastiness and yeastiness of true French Champagne and none of the lemony quality that afflicts many California renditions. The mouth-feel is quite impressive. It's not Bollinger, but it's one of the better American imitations of Champagne.

1994 Riesling ($9) Pleasant, spicy, but rather dilute.

1994 Vidal ($7) This overtly fruity, spicy, exuberant hybrid white wine with aggressive flavors of peach, melon and honey is far from genteel, but it is certainly bound to be a crowd pleaser. It has a noticeable sweetness, though not enough to banish it from the dinner table. Try it with hot Oriental cuisines.

1992 Cabernet Sauvignon ($11) A medium-bodied wine with plenty of black cherry fruit and decent grip. A littler closed now, it will probably show best in one to two years. Nothing great, but very respectable.

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