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Horace65-8 B.C.Greek poet. 


Phillip Wagner: Wine-grower 

Winery Insight Featured Article - March 2006 by Timothy O. Rice

In 1945, an editor for the Baltimore Sun opened a small commercial winery in Maryland. The times were not propitious for new wineries.  America, never truly a wine-drinking country, never returned to fine wine after Prohibition.  Overwhelmingly, most wine came from California and sold in bulk or in jugs. 


That man was a major force in changing that situation.  His name was Phillip Wagner and the winery he founded was Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Maryland.  Without Phillip Wagner or someone like him, the face of American wine might have been much different.


Born in 1904, he had been an enthusiastic force for the promotion of wine-growing from the early 1930s on.  His stance was that the nation needed to have a web of small wineries, local wineries, from coast to coast.  He wanted those wineries to produce good, inexpensive, unpretentious wine for local consumption.  He wanted to see Americans enjoying a glass of wine with their evening meal or a hamburger.


Naturally, the years of Prohibition had made him into a home winemaker.  With Repeal, he bought a languishing vineyard and began to write on the subject and encourage others to begin growing grapes to produce their own wine.  “Wine is made in the home”, he said, “whether the home be a farmhouse, a peasant’s cottage, or a great estate, and is made of grapes grown on the place.”


He used his vineyard and winery in Maryland as an experimental station.  The state, he claimed, was the perfect place to test for varieties that would grow and thrive throughout the country.  To prove his theory out, he devoted great energy to importing and spreading French-American Hybrids (originally developed as a solution to the Phylloxera crisis in France).  These he felt would be resistant to the extremes of weather found across the United States.  From his vineyard, cuttings of various hybrids went across the nation.  Originally known by numbers, such as Baco 1 or Seibel 4986, the successful ones are known today by other names: Chelois, Chambourcin, Seyval, Vidal, Dechaunac, Baco Noir.


His activism encouraged others.  New generations of wine-makers and wine-growers arose.  Most of them acknowledge the debt they owed to the man from Maryland and the books he wrote: American Wines and How to Grow Them” (1933), “A Wine-Growers Guide” (1945), “Grapes into Wine: A Guide to Winemaking in America” (1976).  A host of articles and speeches surrounded those books, educating and firing up the people who built what we see today.


As part of that effort, he was also a driving force for change in the laws that hampered the growth of the wine industry.  The tireless efforts of Phillip Wagner brought him to the support of his friend Leon Adams in his promotion of the farm winery legislation to develop small growers.  In 1968, Pennsylvania passed the Limit Winery Act.  Soon others followed: Indiana (1971), New York, Maryland and Mississippi (1976), Connecticut (1978) Alabama and Florida (1979), Virginia (1980), West Virginia and New Jersey (1981), Kansas and Georgia (1983).


These acts changed the laws and regulations that restricted or prohibited wineries.  Suddenly, they could stay open on Sundays, sell to the public, obtain licenses that never existed before.  New Jersey, for example, limited winery licenses to one per one million inhabitants before the 1981 act.  As part of the rising movement to save the small farm in America, Farm Winery laws were suddenly in vogue.


Wagner himself was active across the country, from Washington State to the Deep South and the corners of New England.  Advice he gave freely, never ceasing to present his vision of a simple wine for the people, everyday table wine.  Boordy Vineyards, the winery he created, never grew to be a giant, nor did he seem to wish that it would.  Finally, in 1980, he sold the Boordy Vineyards winery to the family.  He and his wife continued to run the associated nursery and vineyard until 1994, when failing health led them to stop.  In 1996, Phillip Wagner finally passed on from this Earth, leaving winemakers and wine-growers across the nation in his debt.


The Phillip Wagner Papers are now in the possession of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University.

 Last modified: August 07, 2007