Saturday, May 04, 2013


Anyone who has read my blog for even a minute knows I am a huge fan of Philip Wagner. Wagner is one of the two major figures in east coast wine of the last 50 to 60 years. His influence is still felt today. The first winery I ever visited in Maryland was Boordy. By that time, the original Boordy had closed, and the new Boordy, now owned by the Deford family, had already moved it to its current location.
The problem with a legacy like that of Philip Wagner’s or Dr. Konstantin Frank’s is that their accomplishments hang over a business like a giant shadow, enveloping everything. These kinds of legacies are a lot to live up to, and can sometimes be damning.
In both cases, Frank’s and Wagner’s influence and achievements stretched well, well beyond the wine they were making. Indeed, at the end of each of their careers, the wines were almost secondary. Their wine reputations were in decline as younger acolytes surpassed them in terms of quality and taste.
Legacies can be a tough thing to get beyond. In both cases, though, through generations, both wineries have come through the other side in incredible shape.


In fact, there is no question that the Deford family can now easily and even boastfully say that they have established their own legacy as large and as impressive as any in east coast wine making.
Robert Deford, first as the young scion of a well-established Maryland agricultural family, and then a the elder statesman of Maryland wine, has firmly established an expanding and high quality winery, while also working deftly behind the scenes to improve the state’s political and marketing muscle, and leading the cause of conservation in the mid-Atlantic. That’ a legacy his children will have to rise beyond, and it’s a proud heritage indeed.
According to the winery website, “Winegrowing, like most farming, stems from a love and respect for the land.  In our case, a connection to our farm, Long Green, has been strengthened over many generations from days spent walking its hills and valleys, fishing its streams, planting and harvesting crops, and tending to livestock. A stubborn sense of place has been imprinted in our souls.”

Wagner’s Legacy
Boordy Vineyards has played a seminal role in the renaissance of regional wines in America. Founders Philip and Jocelyn Wagner established Maryland's first commercial winery in Baltimore City in 1945, and their success at producing classically-styled wines inspired many pioneers around the country to follow their example.

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. 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.

The market responded well to the Wagner’s new venture. 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.

The Deford Family
Rob Deford, who received training in enology at the University of California, Davis currently oversees Boordy with his wife Julie Colhoun Deford.  Boordy currently produces 97,000 gallons of wine annually and cultivates forty acres of grapes in the Long Green Valley (Central Piedmont region) and in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Maryland.
In the mid-1960s, Philip Wagner began seeking additional growers of Maryland grapes to supply his expanding business, thus bringing the Deford family into the Boordy story. Robert Deford, Jr. was a personal friend, and an ideal candidate. He loved wine; he had land which looked promising; importantly, he had several children who could do battle with the weeds in the summer. The Defords became one of the first of Boordy’s “cooperating growers” with the establishment of a vineyard on their Long Green Farm in 1965. The Wagners developed relationships with other growers throughout the state, from the Eastern Shore to the mountains of Western Maryland.
Over the fifteen years that the Defords trucked their grapes to Riderwood, a bond formed with the Wagners that ultimately led to the sale of the winery to the Deford family in 1980.
“We started growing for Wagner in 1965, when I was fourteen years old,” Robert Deford told me in a telephone interview. “He had recently retired from the Sun and was looking to make his living full time at Boordy. I think we were the first cooperating grower, at least among the first ones recruited by Mr. Wagner. We raised cattle, turkeys, and crops on our farm. I thought that with a vineyard I was going to live a bacchanal. Of course, at fourteen, you’re ready for a bacchanal. But it was harder than that. Everyone always thinks of only the good things. Cutting weeds back at 105 degrees in the Maryland summer was the antidote to my more worldly thoughts. But at fourteen I got to see the entire winemaking process, which was great as I was interested in the botanical sciences from an early age.”
Continued Deford,”Our family dates back to the 1800s on this farm and we have a strong sense of tradition and connection to our land. When my father was too ill to manage the farm any longer, I moved back to Maryland with my young family. That was 1978. Mr. Wagner was looking to retire and let it be known that he wanted to sell Boordy; a number of camps were putting together proposals. He wanted to sell to someone who knew something about the business. We were farmers. We had the land and equipment and we had been grape growers for the past 13 years.”
“In August of 1979 I applied to and was accepted at UC Davis. And at that same time Wagner accepted our proposal to buy the winery.  It was agreed to I would attend Davis. But after one year Philip said, ‘Enough bio-chemistry - come home or I will sell it to someone else.’ He had had enough.”
In 1980 Boordy was purchased by the R. B. Deford family and was relocated to their historic 240-acre farm in the Long Green Valley of northeastern Baltimore County. The winery is housed in a 19th century stone barn whose massive walls provide an ideal environment for the production and aging of wine.
Robert (Rob) Deford III, who had worked in the vineyards as a teenager, and attended the school of enology and viticulture at the University of California, Davis from 1979 – 1980, assumed the role of president and winemaker. In the fall of 1980 Boordy crushed grapes for the first time at the winery’s new location on the Deford’s 240-acre farm in the Long Green Valley.

The Apprentice
“In those early days there were things I learned from Philip Wagner and things I didn’t learn from him,” Deford told me. “ What I did not learn from Wagner was how to make wine, grow grapes, or sell wine. This was the mid-1970s and the California boutique winery movement was starting to make headway. They were using new techniques and trying new things. Wagner was out of touch – he was not a fan of stainless steel or temperature control. He was not interested in recent innovations or emphasis upon varietals. If I had heeded the Wagner philosophy we probably would not have survived another five years.”

“When we took over Boordy, there were four wholesale companies that sold his wine. Almost immediately after Wagner was gone, three of the four distributors closed out or brand. One even sent back product with a case of Vieux Telegraph Chateau Neuf de Pape with a note, saying, “Good luck, kid!” It was terrifying. Things were moving very fast. It was a very scary time,” continued Deford.
“What did I learn from Wagner? He always said to make wine for wine drinkers. Value is an important thing in wine. Value is the relationship between what the wine offers and its price relative to its peers in the market,” recounted Deford.
“He taught me about the importance of building an industry. He taught me about the value of the clustering of wineries and what it meant for our own winery’s stability. He showed me the value of working within the industry. His guidance remained with me and led me to work toward forging a Maryland wine industry. He taught me to think about our business in a political context. He said you have to work with your local and state officials. This came in part from his days as Editor at the Baltimore Sun. People sought him out. It was his journalistic background. He would have lunches with influential people.”
“I had my first experience with the political process this when I testified in front of the Maryland legislature in 1981, pressing for a piece of law to allow for “catalog sales” of wine (now known as direct shipping).  I was the only favorable witness; everyone else testified against the bill.  It ultimately took 30 years to modify the Maryland code to allow for direct shipment,” recalled Deford.
“What I also learned from him was the importance of pragmatism in running a small business. Philip had a nursery and an equipment business on the side. I remember sitting in his office one day. He was talking with a customer on the phone about the price of a piece of equipment , and after he hung up the phone, he smiled and said to me, “It’s shameful that I’m still selling equipment at my age.” He knew that he had to have a profitable business. He ran a lean business, and he was able to make a living. He didn’t have the money to do it any other way. He was very much pay as you go, and we are very much the same way. I am grateful for that lesson,” concluded Deford.

Making A Difference
From the outset, the Defords took Boordy Vineyards in a new direction.  The vineyards were expanded to include traditional European vinifera varietals, equipment was updated, and the once-reclusive winery was opened to visitors at its new location.

A watershed for Boordy and the Maryland wine industry occurred in 1984, when seven wineries came together to form the Association of Maryland Wineries. Rob was elected to serve as the new group’s first leader and presided over the Maryland Wine Festival’s inaugural event held at the Union Mills Homestead in Westminster. The festival was an overwhelming success, and moved to the Carroll County Farm Museum the next year where it is still held today, attracting crowds in excess of 20,000.

By 1986 Boordy had grown sufficiently to merit bringing on a dedicated winemaker, and Tom Burns was hired to fill the position which he holds to this day. Continual improvements in equipment and viticultural practices were made to support Tom’s work. His efforts soon began to bear fruit. Wine critic, Robert Parker wrote in his Wine Buyer’s Guide: “The most successful Maryland winery from a commercial and critical point of view is Boordy Vineyards whose wines have moved from strength to strength in the late 1980s and early 1990s.” Baltimore Sun wine columnist, Michael Dresser, wrote, “Buying Maryland wine is not just a matter of home state pride. Boordy Vineyards, the state’s oldest, is an especially good source of whites for under $10. If your purpose is to confound a wine snob, you couldn’t do better.” 

Landmark Project
The Landmark Project was a bold new move by the Defords to change the face of their winery and keep up and in fact take a leadership role in the making of fine wines in Maryland. Wagner was the world’s staunchest hybridist. It was pushing against his legacy to plant vinifera. But it was in fact a bold master stroke and a necessary one as well. With new vineyards and wineries coming on the scene making fine wines, Boordy needed to keep pace in the brave new world of vinifera wine making or be left behind.

In 2006, Boordy initiated the Landmark Project, a comprehensive effort focused upon producing the highest quality wine from their estate grown fruit, represented by the family of wines called our Landmark Series.  Our first step was to engage world-renowned viticulturist Lucie Morton to guide us in replanting most of our vineyards to new clones in a closely spaced format.  This is an expensive and patient process which would not yield its first wines until 2009.  By 2012 about 40 acres of vines at their two vineyards will be planted under Lucie's guidance and Ron Wates' management.
The investment in the vineyard is being matched by an equally impressive investment in equipment, buildings, and personnel to make this vision a reality.  By the 2010 vintage, the vineyard replanting had progressed sufficiently to enable the use of exclusively Maryland fruit in all their Landmark Series wines.  In 2012, construction will begin on a new winery building to house not only the Landmark wines, but also to provide a more controlled environment for production of their Icon and “Just for Fun” wines as well.

“It is a very tricky job to make changes to an already existing winery. Suffice it to say, it’s taken years to be in a position to make the best possible wine from our region,” said Deford. “We have made certain transformative steps over the years that we have owned Boordy. The Landmark project is the big one. We began by hiring a designer from Australia. We corresponded with him over the internet, and bad scratchy phone calls. He arrived in Maryland in a damp, cold February of 2002 with nothing but a sport coat on. He said, “Where are all the vines mate?” I told him they were right in front of him. His name was Ian Kidd and he was one of Australia’s leading wine label designers. He’d worked with some very important wineries. He took our small business very seriously.”

“He gave us three very impressive labels to differentiate between our lines of wines.  I’ll never forget, he asked us, “Are you ready for this?” Looking back, we could barely hold onto the reins once we did it. We nearly quadrupled in size over the next six years. We were averaging 60% year over year results. The most important thing Kidd did was to create an image that we had to live up to. We still feel the drive to live up to the promise of Kidd’s labels.”
“I recognized throughout this period, however, that we’d hit our own glass ceiling. I had begun tasting exciting wines from Virginia and Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic region. Wines often made from grapes planted and grown by clients of Lucie Morton. She was espousing close spacing. It seemed to me you could taste a profound difference.”
For over a decade the Defords had been searching for a site to grow red wine varieties that would complement their vineyard in the Long Green Valley, which was more suitable for white grapes. Ultimately they found a 115 acre farm on the shoulder of South Mountain in Burkittsville - a Civil War era town southwest of Frederick, Maryland. Owned by friends Jerry & Ann Milne, the vineyards on the land had fallen into neglect, but there was no doubt that the site had the potential to produce superior red wines. Boordy assumed control of South Mountain Vineyard in 1996, and immediately began renovating the vineyard, ushering in a promising new era for Boordy’s line of red wines.
“Another critical factor in our transformation was that in 1996 we acquired a 50 year lease on the South Mountain Vineyard, which had been planted by a friend, and subsequently abandoned. The site was great, but in a sad state.  We tried very hard to rehab a very badly planted vineyard. Lucie and I were walking around, and afterward she turned to me and said, “Well, you’re going to have to replant all of your vineyards” I was devastated. I said, “Do I fire you right now?”
“We can work with what you have, but you really need to replant,” she replied.
“We decided to follow her advice, but instead of ripping everything out at once we did it, piece by piece, starting in 2005. The 2010 Landmark meritage blend , which won the Maryland Governor’s Cup Competition last year, is the first wine that was fully from the newly replanted vineyard. It’s all close spacing. And the vineyard work is intense. We touch each plant at least eight times a year. Adding a vineyard manager made a huge difference. Don’t tell his wife I said this, but I think Ron Wates is sleeping with his vines. And I think our winemaker, Tom Burns, is sleeping with his barrels. They are both unbalanced individuals (in a good way) – they are both absolutely devoted to their craft.”
“Ron learns a lot from Lucie, and I think Lucie learns from Ron. She has a gathering once a year, where she gets together 25 or so clients. These are small gatherings, great events. Everyone brings wines. One year someone snuck a Lafite Rothschild into the tasting, and it only ranked in the middle of the pack. I think Lucie is even getting good red wines out of Virginia’s eastern shore. It’s tough to grow good reds there, but she’s doing it. That’s impressive.”
Replanting our vineyards has been a huge investment. How does a small winery pay for all that?
“In the mid 1990’s, after finishing graduate business school, I realized that we needed to assume greater risk to advance our business,” answered Deford. “We took on more bank debt, but we also changed the way we held events at our winery.  In our early years we offered small high-end affairs such as wine dinners and tastings.  They were very nice, and also successful, but we tended to see the same good customers time after time, and we weren’t growing adequately. Going forward, we decided to embrace a broader market. We started hosting more open events, with a lower admission price. And at the same time we broadened our line of wines. The “Just for Fun” and “Icons of Maryland” wines, which we introduced with the redesign of our labels represent the larger part of our business. And those wines do very well in the trade.”
“We wanted to fund the Landmark Project, and the revenue needed to come from somewhere. These two other lines have been great to generate the necessary revenue to devote toward the Landmark Project. As our new wines from the Landmark Project take hold we’d eventually like to see our revenue shift another 5 to 10 points toward the newer Landmark line.”
And wine writers have taken notice of Boordy's newest wines, including influential wine scribe Dave McIntyre of the Washington Post, seen here above, apparently not quite ready for the morning chill of a recent visit. 
“But we need to obey the 11th Commandment – Thou shalt make a profit,” chuckles Deford. But he is serious. “The notion of a credible wine industry goes hand in hand with a viable, sustainable business. Many people get into this business for different reasons. But ultimately, they need to stay in business, and make a profit.”
In 1995, Boordy marked its fiftieth anniversary with a celebration at the winery. The following year, Philip died at the age of ninety-one.
“Another watershed for Boordy was in 1998 when we stepped up our marketing by adding Susan Rayner,” remembered Deford. “ I was pouring our wines at a charity tasting event, when this woman came up to me and said “You need me.””
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. I said, “Excuse, I’m not sure I heard you correctly.”
“I am your number one customer and you don’t even know who I am,” said the woman.

“It turned out that she was a restaurateur who had sold a lot of Boordy wine, and our distributor had never taken the time to introduce us.  She had sold her restaurant and was looking for a new career; she offered to work for us for a short period for free, so that we could see her value. It was instantly evident we needed her. She has made an enormous difference,” said Deford.
“Our relationship hasn’t all been easy. There have been a lot of battles behind closed doors. The first year we held summer concerts at our winery, we did four of them, one per month. We thought we were heroes. We were very proud of ourselves. Susan said to us, “Are you doing this or not? Are you going to jump in with both feet? If you’re going to hold concerts, then hold one every weekend”. Now we not only have an event almost every weekend, we also participate in about 100 off-site events as well,” reports Deford.

Boordy in the New Millenium
This stewardship of the land was a big first step for the Deford family and the winery, and has created an entirely new legacy. In 2000 they preserved a large portion of their farm.

Deford pondered the preservation question I asked him. “Regarding land preservation, it is incredibly important to me and to my family. First, you have to be driven by a strong connection to the land. I’ve been active in land conservation since my teens. I grew up in what was at the time a fairly remote area. Over the years I’ve seen one badly planned development after another take over the landscape. There was in me a feeling of invasion and erosion. I felt a sense of desire to defend the countryside and the area.”
“I started doing what I could do as a citizen by playing defense on the zoning front. But you’ve got to practice what you preach and take steps to preserve your land in perpetuity. While you may think you own your land, there are a lot of other people who drive by or visit for many years who feel an affection for it as well.  Land conservation is a social policy.”
“How does conservation work?” Deford asked me rhetorically. “Different organizations offer different options. They tailor it to the specific property. You take the property as it stands today. Then they determine how the property could be subdivided and developed. You have to determine its value under each scenario, and the difference is the “value” of preserving the property. You want to see that the land remains as it is, in perpetuity. We preserved our entire 240 acre farm with the Maryland Environmental Trust in 2000, carefully carving out an area where we could continue to operate our winery along the same lines that we had found to be successful. It takes a card out of the deck when it comes time to sell the land later: development is not an option.  In one sense, a preserved property has less long term value so taxes are then lowered, and generational transfer is much easier. Absent these plans, I might not have made some of the investments we have made like replanting in the vineyards, adding new buildings, or improving old ones.”
“I didn’t intend to be a leader on conservation. We were not the first to do it, but we were certainly the most prominent  farm in our community to do it. It seemed like after seeing us do it, many people in the area followed suit. There are now 3,000 acres in our valley that are preserved.”

As Boordy celebrated its 55th year and calendars rolled into the new millennium, Boordy's management undertook a complete review of the company. The first order of business was to update the winery’s image to reflect the many improvements that had been implemented over the past fifteen years; contrary to conventional wisdom favoring incremental change in an established brand, it was decided that a radical shift in the winery’s graphic identity was warranted. Ian’s designs divided Boordy’s wine offerings into three ranges: “Landmark”, “Icon”, and “Just for Fun”, each fulfilling a distinct role in the market.  The redesigned labels were affixed to bottles in the spring of 2004, and the results in the marketplace were immediate and dramatic.
While this process unfolded, concurrent investments were made in the vineyards and winery. Ron Wates, who had eight years prior experience growing grapes in Maryland, was brought on as vineyard manager, enabling winemaker Tom Burns to focus fully upon his wines. On the winery side of the ledger, this busy decade included the construction of a new building for wine bottling and storage and the upgrading of nearly every critical piece of winery equipment.
2010 The Road Ahead
In September 2008, Rob’s son, Phineas Deford, joined the winery ushering in the third generation of the Deford family to work in the company. Phineas will earn an MBA from the University of Baltimore School of Business in the summer of 2011. He is currently working in the vineyards, but ultimately his areas of responsibility will extend throughout the company, with a focus upon the management of special projects such as the construction and renovation of buildings, development of alternative energy sources, and sustainability initiatives.
In the summer of 2009, John Levenberg, who holds a masters degree from the UC Davis School of Enology, was engaged as a consultant to work with the vineyard and winemaking teams.
Stewardship of the land and sustainable farming have always been core values within the Deford family, and will continue to be central themes at Boordy for the years ahead. In 2000, Long Green Farm was placed in perpetual preservation with the Maryland Environmental Trust, and the Deford family is active in land preservation efforts in the Long Green Valley, where over 2,700 acres are under easement. Boordy works closely with farmers in the region to promote locally grown foods and to strengthen the agricultural economy, with its attendant benefits of open space conservation, improved food quality, and energy efficiency.

The Current Vineyards and Sustainability
Boordy grows forty acres of grapes in two distinct microclimates of Maryland: Long Green Vineyard in the rolling Piedmont Plateau northwest of the Chesapeake Bay, and South Mountain Vineyard in the Blue Ridge Province, a band of mountains that splits the state.  Our vineyards are managed for quality, not quantity.  They strictly control the size of their crop through pruning and cluster thinning; maximize photosynthesis through careful canopy management during the growing season,and selectively hand harvest all of their grapes. Among their objectives are reduced dependency upon pesticides; healthy, balanced soils; and an environment where beneficial plants, animals, and insects can thrive. 
According to the University of California, sustainability in agriculture: “…integrates three main goals--environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Therefore, stewardship of both natural and human resources is of prime importance.”

On the economic front, Boordy has been a profitable – and hence sustainable – farm enterprise for at least two decades. The winery has revitalized the family farm, contributed to the regional economy, been a catalyst in land preservation, and provided a steady source of employment to a growing number of people.
On the environmental front Boordy’s vineyards are an inherently beneficial form of agriculture because they do not require repeated denuding and disturbance of the soil, and do not rely upon heavy applications of synthetic fertilizer.  Permanent cover crops are used to stabilize the soil; waste products from wine production are returned to the field; tillage tools incorporate compost and raise organic matter content; plants are trained to promote natural drying by air movement, thus reducing the need for pesticides; weeds can be mechanically controlled; and tractors, mowers, and other vehicles operate on bio-diesel in the spring, summer, and fall to reduce pollution. Boordy’s wine bottles & boxes are recycled.
Robert Deford, along with his entire family, and their staff, have forged a new and separate legacy that now looms large over the Mid-Atlantic region. With their commitment to land preservation, sustainability, and dedication to fine quality wines, as Maryland’s biggest producer, and one of the biggest producers on the east coast, Boordy is an impressive accomplishment. At 97,000 gallons a year, Boordy is comparable to a mid-sized quality California winery. And has the portfolio and wines to compete both at the local level and at a regional level, at events, and in the liquor stores. On the east coast, and in the rest of the country, it’s a lesson on how to turn a local winery into a regional powerhouse.
Simply put, amazing.