1930-1965 The Early Years; J. & P. Wagner, props.
It was a quiet act of civil disobedience that led to the founding of Boordy Vineyards in 1945. Fed up with Prohibition, and determined to help the decimated American wine industry get back on its feet, Philip and Jocelyn Wagner planted a small grapevine nursery on their property in Riderwood, Maryland in the early 1930s.
They began selling cuttings throughout the United States, ultimately reaching nearly every state in the union. Their modest efforts, amplified by Philip Wagner’s 1933 book “American Wines and How to Make Them” (at the time, the only book of its kind available in the United States), sparked a renaissance in American winegrowing by disseminating grapevines to backyard grape growers and giving them sound advice on how to turn their crop into drinkable wines. ?
The vines the Wagners propagated were French-American Hybrids, hardy new varieties that proved more disease resistant and cold tolerant than the old world “vinifera” varieties. The Wagners had discovered them during their travels in France, where Philip served as a foreign news correspondent. Vines discretely tucked into their luggage on trips back to Maryland were planted in their experimental vineyards, and the grapes were vinified on a trial basis. Vidal Blanc, for example, was first found by the Wagners in a backyard vineyard in Poitier, France, a town southwest of Paris about half way to Bordeaux, and cuttings were “smuggled” into the U.S. wrapped in a damp towel in Jocelyn’s purse. This variety, which had superior disease resistance and made a well-balanced wine, is now widely grown throughout the eastern United States, often from cuttings supplied by Boordy Nursery. The Wagner’s vineyard was experimental at heart, and included dozens of varieties on a trial basis; these were assessed for their resistance to disease, fruitfulness, and above all, wine quality. While many have slipped into obscurity, two in addition to Vidal have emerged as mainstays of the wine industry in the Eastern US: Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin.??
Philip & Jocelyn’s winemaking efforts demonstrated that classically-styled table wines could be produced from the French-American hybrids grapes growing in their vineyards, and they ultimately established Maryland’s first commercial winery in 1945. Financing for the winery in the amount of $500 was arranged through Mr. James Rouse’s father, a banker with Fidelity Trust Co. of Baltimore. The Wagner’s vision was simply to make good, affordable wines for people who wanted wine to be a regular part of their meals, in their words, “Make wine for wine drinkers.” Boordy’s three basic offerings – a red, a white and a rose – were patterned after the modestly priced vins de pays of France. Their success inspired many pioneers around the country to follow their example, and pilgrimages to the Wagner’s winery usually included a dinner, graced by Jocelyn on the piano and Philip on the violin, accompanied by a tasting of their latest vintages. The Wagners’ circle of friends included many notables: wine author Frank Schoonmaker (who first championed the use of varietal names on wines in America), pioneering winery owners Joseph Heitz, Robert Mondavi, and Warren Winiarski (founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, featured in the movie “Bottle Shock”), and Dr. Maynard Amerein, (known as the “Father of American Wine” and Chairman of the Department of Enology and Viticulture at UC Davis).
The market responded well to the Wagner’s new venture. Haussner's Restaurant, an establishment located in East Baltimore's famous marble steps neighborhood, made Boordy the house wine and received weekly shipments in bulk containers to keep up with demand. Wine writer Frank Schoonmaker's name appeared on early Boordy labels - a prestigious endorsement which opened markets outside the state. Phil Wagner recalled that their first order from Macy’s in New York, for forty cases, exhausted their inventory.