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Philip Wagner was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1904, and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father was Professor of Romance languages at the University of Michigan. He received an A.B. degree from the University of Michigan in 1925, and worked in the publicity department of the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York, from 1925 to 1930. In 1930 he moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he began work at the Baltimore Sun newspapers. He was editorial writer for The Sun 1930-1936, London correspondent for The Sun 1936-1937, editor of the editorial page of The Evening Sun until 1943, then The Sun until 1964.

His interest in grapes and winemaking is evident in a photograph circa 1910 showing him attempting to work a basket press. He became seriously involved in vineyard cultivation and winemaking after moving to Baltimore during Prohibition. In 1932 he rented a property in Riderwood, Maryland that had the remains of a twenty vine vineyard. After working on the vineyard for a year, he purchased the property and planted his first vines. In 1933, his first book, American Wines and How to Make Them was published, and it was at the time the only available book on the subject in English. For a few years he experimented with grape varieties, and while on assignment in London he discovered the French hybrids during a visit to an agricultural station in East Malling. This led to his importing vines from Maurice Baco in 1938, which in turn led to the nursery that supplied stock for the thousands of Baco vines in the East today.

In 1940, he and Jocelyn McDonough were married and formed a lifetime partnership, "J. and P. Wagner, Props.," subsequently expanding the Boordy Vineyard and establishing the Boordy Winery, the cornerstone for which was laid in 1943. In 1945, he published A Wine-Growers Guide. This volume became a crucial reference for grape growers in the East. Philip and Jocelyn traveled extensively to the wine growing regions of France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Yugoslavia, and Russia in their search for disease-resistant varieties of grapes that would also be suited for cooler climates. After thirty-five years the winery was sold in 1980, but until 1994 Philip and Jocelyn operated the vineyard, selling vines and supplies to private individuals and business concerns before their health became too poor to continue. Philip Wagner died in 1996.