Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Why We Left....

You know, every once in a while something happens that makes me question myself.  Or why I'm in business.  Or why I tend not to engage my brain before putting my mouth in gear.

We recently had a review put on Tripadvisor (here's the link: https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g52265-d7303083-r357673480-Allegro_Winery-Brogue_Pennsylvania.html).  It's interesting in its tone, and believe me, like everything, there are two sides to the story.

At one time, our winery desperately needed the wine trail and the events that went along with it.  When our family took over Allegro, we were extremely under-capitalized.  I remember talking to a consultant and showed them the asking price....he said, wow, it will probably take twice that to get it back into shape.  We, of course, didn't have twice that amount.  Hell, we didn't even have that amount.  But through borrowing from family, credit cards, and AgChoice Farm Credit, we pulled off the sale.  After a year of running the winery, we realized we were up a creek with regards to sales.

The only thing we knew to do at that point to save our collective butts was to ramp up sales.  So, my wife Kris re-started the Mason-Dixon wine trail single-handedly.  (This was before the UnCork York wine trail was bequeathed the name.)  She was also part of the formation of the UnCork York wine trail.  (She was the one who came up with the name "Tour de Tanks"!)  We desperately needed the sales and exposure that these events brought us.

We did all the events, everything it took, and we stayed in business barely.  Just barely.  Then after a dozen years, we realized we still were around and hadn't closed our doors.  (And our loan officer started to make more positive comments--thanks, Bruce!)  It was at that point that we knew things were starting to change for the better for us.

Last year we looked back and noticed a few things.  In our desperation for sales, we had asked a lot of our staff.  They were the ones who had to put in the hours of pouring and talking about our wines (which they say they enjoyed!)  But they also had to put up with the bad situations, and these were becoming more and more frequent.

This all came to a head last year when a large group who had obviously been on the wine trail all day decided to make us their last stop.  We ended up having to refuse service to three women (something we have fortunately rarely had to do at the winery), and they ended up becoming belligerent.  Their boyfriends weren't happy about it either when they came inside after drinking beer in front of our winery.  Needless to say, this was one of the most unpleasant experiences for our staff, and something I don't ever wish to put them through again.  My staff mean a lot to me, and they are dedicated to Allegro and our wines.  But this was the limit.

So, out of respect for my staff, we have been trying to eliminate this element from our tasting room.  The first and easiest way was to drop out of the wine trail.  I know that doing so upset people out there, probably because we had a reputation for the best food spread on the trail.  And, even though the guy in the back (me) would rant on and on and say bad things about Chambourcin, people still came back.  

What we've noticed since leaving the trail is that we now sell more wine at our spring and fall events.  In the past, we would average about $11 in sales per person on the wine trail.  Without the wine trail, our average is up to over $40 per person usually.

Why is this?  I think it's because the people who now come out to our winery aren't coming out for a chance to drink some wine....they're coming out because they want a good tasting experience, they want to learn about the wines, and they want to purchase some to take home.  And that works out well for us, since we're a winery and not a bar or a nightclub or a restaurant.  Our customers tell us that they appreciate our signs about no large groups, no buses, no limos.  It makes their experience better, and my staff happier as well.  And that's what our winery is about.

So, yes, we don't need the wine trail anymore and we don't like dealing with drunks.  If that makes us arrogant, then so be it.  But for me, it's about taking care of my staff and taking care of the customers who take care of us.  And maybe not second-guessing myself so much anymore.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Cost of a Typo....Or, How Important it is to cross your i's and dot your t's......

Full disclosure and transparency is important.

I stopped in at my local garage the other day to get my truck worked on. (Urey's Garage in Brogue on Rt. 74--they do a great job!) He mentioned he saw me in the paper. Having been in the paper a lot recently, I asked him what he saw. He said it was for a liquor violation.

Not what I hoped he would say.....but he was right.

Gulp.

Here's the article from the York Daily Record: http://www.ydr.com/crime/ci_28925786/5-york-county-establishments-cited-by-state-police

Here's our side of the story.  The headline makes it sound pretty bad, but it's actually pretty simple. It was an honest mistake.  In fact, it's a typo.

For any off-site event we go to, we have to apply for a permit. They cost us $30 each day (payable to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board), and are usually rubber-stamped by the licensing division in Harrisburg. We will do a total of about 35 days of off-premise licenses in 2015 (some of which are multi-day events.) Since we started doing this in 2002, we've probably filled out over 300 individual permit applications.

These days, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board supplies an online form that you can fill out, which works great if one remembers to over-write every field on the form from the last time it was used. That's what happened for an event in mid-August. We had the license properly displayed and the fee paid for that festival, but unfortunately the form's date was from a different festival. It was a typo, an oversight and it meant that we were in violation of a state liquor law.  A member of the State Police Liquor Enforcement dutifully noticed this violation and reported it.

The date on the license was a month removed from when it should have been, and the officer said that if it had been a little less, maybe he would have just given a warning. PLCB--rightfully so--takes violations like this very seriously and are recommending a $250 fine. We will pay that.

For a typo.

There are, of course, wineries who try to sell wine without licenses. (I have heard of numerous wineries that have knowingly or unknowingly done it.) We, on the other hand, naively displayed our invalid license not knowing it included the wrong date. An honest mistake. Just a bit costly.

Even crazier is the fact that the reporter, Mark Walters (mwalters@ydr.com @walt_walters on Twitter) at the York Daily Record, decided sending a message to our winery's Facebook page at 6:30 PM was enough to justify that he could write that we "could not be reached for comment" a few hours later when he posted the story.

Now, I don't have any journalistic background, nor do I claim to know what journalistic integrity it.  But with a story about something as serious as a violation of a state liquor law, I'm thinking he should have tried a little harder.

(FYI: I posted a comment on his story and emailed him.  Turns out he "could not be reached for comment" either.) (11/7/15: see postscript below)

Anyway, I thought you all should hear our side of it before the rumor mill gets going too far.  And, just to be clear, this isn't about the PLCB or state liquor laws.  They are fair laws, fairly enforced and adjudicated......and we simply screwed up one little part of one form.  This is more about letting you all know that the news story may have made it look like we were doing something illegal--which we were--but there's more to the story than what you may have heard.

So, in the end, feel free to share with me in the comments section any of your stories where a simple typo cost you some serious bucks and mud on your face....just think how you'd feel if you were caught speeding and had it published for the whole world to see.

Cheers!

Postscript: On 11/7/15 Mark Walters called me.  We were both able to tell our side of the story to each other.  I sympathized with his need to make a deadline with his story, while at the same time I tried to stress with him the PR damage this causes a small business.  I'm hoping that in the future this doesn't happen again....mostly because we're going to watch our typos, but also because he has my cell phone number now.  I commend Mark for reaching out today.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Why We're Using More Barrels at Allegro

I think it's almost impossible to make great red wine without barrels. It's also impossible to make great red wine without great fruit.

Barrels are only useful if the fruit demands it and can handle it. It has to do with the structure of the wine and it's phenolic content. Most red wines that I've made I now look back on and wonder if the fruit was good enough to take advantage of the use of barrels.

Winemakers have a love/hate relationship with barrels. We love what it can do for a wine, but at the same time they're a pain in the ass. They're heavy, they're hard to clean and keep sound, and they're expensive. But if you get the right fruit in the right barrel, magic happens.

There's nothing wrong with not using barrels. Most consumers probably think most wine is made in barrels. It's not. If you're paying less than $13 for a bottle of wine--which is the majority of wine in this country--chances are it never saw a barrel. The way the economics work, you can't sell wine in barrels cheaply. Most wines are made in tanks and have added oak chips for the flavor aspect, and then have oxygen microbubbled through the tank to simulate barrel aging. Again, nothing wrong with this, it's the reality of the price point.

 Keep in mind that winemakers don't use barrels for oak flavors. It would be a whole lot cheaper and easier just to add oak chips or sawdust or oak flavorings. Most well-run wineries do. But if you're trying to make great wine, nothing replaces a great oak barrel. It's through the micro-oxygenation of the wine through the oak staves and the interplay of that oxygen with the tannins in the wine where the magic happens. Barrels are mostly for affecting the mouth-feel of the wine and more lifting the fruit. They are meant to be a nuanced spice, not a condiment.

Every region needs to find the correct type of barrel for its wines. Most great wines in the world use barrels where the oak is sourced from France. This is a cold-climate region where the trees grow slowly with a tight grain. The French oak barrels are known for their subtle flavors and ability to enhance wines from cooler climate regions (like Pennsylvania.) If I were to use American (or even Pennsylvania oak which I have done in the past) on my wines, they would be over-powered by the barrels (see the "condiment" comment....) At Allegro, we use almost entirely French oak barrels.

The only reason to use barrels other than French is a financial one. American oak barrels are $300-400 each. You can find Eastern European barrels for $500-600. Good French barrels usually run $1000 each. Now you know why wineries here in the east might not use French barrels.