Sunday, April 26, 2015

Thinking about Chardonnay

So, I've been thinking about Chardonnay recently.  We're getting ready to add to our planting in a couple weeks, and the Chard vines will fill out our last section of white in our established vineyard.  It may be the last Chard we plant for a while.

Vineyard Manager Nelson checking out the newly-arrived vines

I got an email from Mark Chien the other day who had some remarkable observations about Chardonnay in Oregon.  Not sure if you all remember him, but he was an amazing mentor to me in grapegrowing through his position as the Winegrape Educator for Penn Sate.

What struck me most was his mentioning of the "essence of Chardonnay." Of all the grapes out there, I think of Chard as the most malleable by winemakers. It's like making a bowl by a potter. Every potter (winemaker) needs to make a bowl (Chardonnay) and they're all different. Who's to say which is the best bowl (has the essence of a bowl)? I think we can all agree on bad bowls (Chardonnays), but what is it that truly separates great bowls (Chardonnays) from good ones? And why are great bowls (Chardonnays) sometimes very dissimilar?

I think what's missing in the discussion is the consumer (to be crass about it.) Any apperception of quality is dynamic, involving both a perceiver and a perceived. This is all very Kantian. But with Kant, everything perceived was seen through the lenses of a priori concepts that not only determined that perception occurs, but also how it was perceived. If you don't have a tool to measure it, you can't measure it.

Allegro Chardonnay
It's like when I tasted Raj Parr's Santa Barbara Chards picked at, what, 14 Brix? Totally out of my wheelhouse. Are they really good? He seemed to think so. I had my doubts. But maybe it's just because I didn't have enough experience with them. They were outside of my ken. Were they close to the essence of Chardonnay? Maybe. But it definitely showed that wine is subjective, and once we agree it's subjective, I think all talk of "essence" needs to leave the conversation.

And talk of terroir is probably the right way to go, but is the fact that the big, blowzy wines sometimes aren't liked could be because the tasters don't like that style? Or is it that it's actually wrong?

I feel like I am starting to dial-in my Chard winemaking here from fruit from our estate. It's a big style, but I think it works for us. Even in the lighter 2014, it still stands up to the 2013. It's totally anathema to the Chard that some of my friends made from both vintages. So, which is correct? I have no clue.

So, what is Chardonnay?  For me, it's good wine.  And more than that, it's wine that speaks of a place AND people.  The winegrower and the winemaker.  Who cares if it tastes different?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Our New Vineyard and the New Wines in 2019

As some of you may be aware, Allegro is beginning a pretty aggressive and bold new vineyard planting this spring.  In fact, it all breaks loose in about three weeks when the vines show up from the nursery.

This is the culmination of a dream of sorts.  I came to Allegro thinking I was going to make great wine, fully realizing that it may only be a few vintages in my lifetimes that I pull of something spectacular.  That’s just the way Mother Nature works.  But as I matured in this industry, I realized a little more.

It turns out that our viticultural skills have increased.  We are much better than we ever were at growing good grapes as an industry, let alone at Allegro.  (And with the addition of Nelson Stewart as our vineyard manager, things will only get better.)  (Nelson has a long association with great wines, from Black Ankle and Boordy in Maryland to Karamoor in Pennsylvania.)  We’ve always known our site was perfect for grapes, and now we’ve added better skills to its management.
Pit at Allegro.  Perfect soils.

Finally, we’re adding better grapes.  As with anything, there has been evolution in the vineyard world with respect to clones and rootstocks.  Where the original Allegro vineyard planted in 1973 used the highest technology from California at the time, this year’s planting will be very Euro-centric with better materials, vines, and understanding of what works best with our site.

Our goal is to produce world-class wines from our vineyard on a yearly basis.  And, with that high-requirement will come a higher-than-normal price tag for the wines (unfortunately).  In order to produce better fruit, the density of the planting is increased exponentially and therewith the cost of the planting is increased exponentially.  It's not cheap to grow grapes, and it's really expensive (planting and yearly labor costs) to grow great grapes for great wine.

Here’s where I am hoping that you all will come through and support what we’re trying to accomplish.  These wines will be priced starting at around $25 per bottle (that’s my guess), and I have a sneaking suspicion that the top wine will be around $50.  Yes, that’s a wide-range, I know.  But, we won’t really know until all the costs shake out and we actually have some of this wine in the bottle and ready for sale.  We’re talking 2019 before we’re there.

That said, we all know that Brogue is not a hot-bed of wine sales.  My goal isn’t just to make great wine, but to do it at a price point that more people can afford.  You all know me, and I hope you know that this isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme on my behalf.  Vineyards are expensive, and there’s no money in growing grapes.  Considering Allegro has already started paying for the vines last year and won’t see any income for five years, you can guess how well our cash flow is.  (Now’s the time I put in a plug for AgChoice Farm Credit…..they’re the ones who are making this possible….as well as everything we’ve ever done here at Allegro…Thanks, Bruce!)
Karamoor Vineyard....similar to what ours will look like.....

So, our wines from this vineyard will be priced at a point where there’s a great ROI (return on investment.)  If I was in MD or northern VA, you can bet I would be pricing them a good $20-$30 higher.  But, I’m not.  We’re here in southern PA.  In York county.  In the Brogue, for crying out loud.  Nobody would take me seriously if I tried to sell a $100 bottle of wine…..or would they?  I don’t know.

Someday, maybe.  But, I promise you, that our top-end wines, when they finally get ready for sale from this amazing new vineyard we’re planting, will blow your mind in terms of what you ever thought about Pennsylvania wines.  And they’ll be at Brogue prices.

I can’t wait to share them with you all.  This is an adventure of a lifetime, and we’re glad you’re along for the ride.



Sunday, March 22, 2015

Honoring John Crouch, winemaker and musician, Part 2

 (Here's the second part of our guest blog from Doug Miller.)

Honoring John Crouch, musician

At the end of my first guest blog I had learned from John Crouch’s friend Ray Hearne that another of their mutual friends might have more manuscripts of John’s compositions.   Well, that tidbit of information has turned into a fascinating flood of new revelations about our good friend John.

John working the barrels
The “mutual friend” turned out to be Tony Norris from Baltimore, who Ray reported back to us did indeed have at least one full box of manuscripts.   Being in sleuth mode, I decided to see if I could learn anything about this friend of John’s before contacting him.    And I soon learned that John’s friend’s life paralleled his in two significant ways:  Tony is a very successful musician---a classical guitar performer and teacher;   and Tony and his wife Laura launched into a creative business project at about the same time John and Tim founded Allegro:   they created the now-famous restaurant Bertha’s in the Fells Point area of Baltimore.  (notorious for its bumper stickers “Eat Bertha’s Mussels”)

About the time we finally made the Tony Norris connection by email everyone at Allegro was fully into harvest season mode, about which Carl has recently written.   So it was only last Friday, a week before Christmas, that Carl and I were finally able to trek down to Baltimore to meet Tony and Laura, learn more about John, and bring back the two boxes of John’s scores for which Tony had generously offered to allow us to become custodians.

That trip would have been a highlight event for us, even if it had only consisted of being hosted in Tony and Laura’s historic restored home a block from the waterfront and at Bertha’s, their successful creation.   They are iconic beings, fascinating beyond description.

But between our hours of conversation with them (accompanied by Bertha’s food and Allegro’s wines) and the boxes of materials we now have in hand here on the estate, I have come to have a new appreciation for John Crouch, musician.

John and Tim grew up in Washington D.C., and it was there that Tony came to know John.     I mentioned in the first blog that we had always heard that John was “an oboist.”    What we learned from Tony last week and from a bio I found among the materials in the boxes is that John was apparently a really good oboist.    Tony described him as that when they first met as fellow musicians in the Washington, DC area when they were in their early 20s—not just “an oboist” but “a really good oboist.”    
John prepping lugs for pressing

Furthermore, what I’ve learned from the bio is that during his early years in DC John learned to play multiple instruments—cello, string bass, tuba, oboe, flute, clarinet, and sax, and then "majored in music at Boston University, studying oboe with Ralph Gomberg.”  (italics mine)   Well, since I spent several decades in the orchestral world I am well aware that Ralph Gomberg was the principal oboist for nearly 4 decades with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.   (His brother Harold held the same chair in the NY Philharmonic).   

So as a young man John was an oboist who was talented enough to become a Gomberg student at BU, and then to impress a fellow musician back in DC (Tony) as an outstanding oboist.   None of us at Allegro had any idea that John was that talented and skilled as a performer.   And of all the orchestral instruments, oboe is widely regarded as one of the most challenging (and also most expressive.)

Then there’s John the composer.   Here’s an incredible brief excerpt from that same bio: 
 “The Exxon Corporation placed in a time capsule to be opened in 2076 a tape of John’s Theme and Variations for Woodwind Quintet. “  
That, my friends, is that same Theme and Variations whose first page of manuscript sits on the front of Allegro’s 2012 Bridge!! 

Tim (left) and John in the tasting room
Perhaps, if Carl will have me, I’ll someday submit another blog about John the composer, once I’ve had a chance to spend time with the two boxes of scores Tony passed on to us.    But I’ll close out this one with a family aside, growing out of our encounter with Tony and Laura Norris.   

Our son David earned his bachelor’s degree at the Eastman School of Music as a horn major, though he is also a violinist and, like John, has learned to play many other instruments.   For the past half dozen years he has become a very serious mandolin player.   He and a colleague have performed extensively on the east coast as a guitar/mandolin duo (and also released two CDs as Prester John), and he is part of a select mandolin ensemble, (New American Mandolin Ensemble—NAME) which this summer represented the United States at a major conference in Germany.

Well guess what?   Tony and Laura Norris are two of the four members of the Baltimore Mandolin Quartet, and both are active in the Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra.  Laura has founded a significant “Mando Kids” program for young people which is becoming utilized throughout the country----David was well aware of it.   And the three of them, without knowing each other, have performed together in at least two large ensembles at national conventions.

Talk about multiple interwoven connections!    John must be smiling!