Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The past four or five days, the weather forecast has been for rain and thunderstorms. So far, I think we're at about 20% accuracy. It made for a nicer-than-expected Memorial day weekend, but it sure makes it difficult to plan our week.

We were hoping to get some work done in our home vineyard and a spray on Stewart vineyard, but the weather messed up both plans. We'll re-adjust and try again tomorrow.

Lots of wine work being done this week, as Ray preps the Forte, Chardonnay, and Red Lion Red for next week's bottling. We'll also taste through the 2007s and put together final blends to be bottled in the next couple months. This is where the last couple years' wait finally pays off, and we get to taste these wonderful wines and create something memorable. Something definitely to look forward to.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


We working on our weed control in the vineyard these days. We have had a nice spring with some good rain events. The heat has made the shoots really take off, and with that the weeds are going like gangbusters. Remember what weeds are: they're just plants that aren't growing in the places we want them to.

A couple well-timed, soft herbicide applications will make it so our vines aren't competing for essential nitrogen and nutrients. Our newly planted vines will appreciate the help as well. We try to make as few applications of herbicide as we possibly can. We're running a vineyard here, not a golf course. There needs to be a balance to everything, and monocultures aren't sustainable.

There are some folks who do cover crops right under their vines to control vigor. These are usually some types of grasses, and they're used in vineyards where there is an over-abundance of nutrition for the vines. This is not something we struggle with at Allegro. Sometimes we struggle with getting the vines just to survive.

In order to apply our herbicide, we usually do what's called suckering. It's not a fun task. Back-breaking is more like it. It involves removing all the shoots that are budding out along the trunks of the vines. Some vines will throw over a dozen shoots out, and these need to be removed before we spray. If you've ever done one thousand deep kneebends in a day, then you know what it's like. Any volunteers?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Barrel Work

This time of year is when I start to notice that harvest is coming up. I'll be out in the vineyard thinking vineyard things, admiring the new shoots with baby grape clusters on them, thinking of how to protect them.

Then it hits me that what I am looking at is future wine. Wine that's going to need a home in just three short months. And then I think of our full cellar. That's when I go talk to Ray and say "Let's bottle a lot next week."

The idea for Allegro is that we get all of our tanks emptied by the beginning of June. Now, we've never done that. But that's the idea. I'm full of unattainable goals. That's what keeps me on this earth.

My guess now is that we'll have everything bottled by the first week of June, which is probably the best we've ever done. Starting in June, we can start putting together our dry reds and bottling Aria as well. This is always the most enjoyable time of the year, especially since the past few vintages have been so nice. I've always described winemaking as 98% janitorial and 2% artistic. This is when we get to do the 2%.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Next Steps

Our vineyard year is starting to settle into its very familiar pattern. The vines are almost all shoot-thinned. For some of the vines, this isn't required. But for most vinifera, we like to go through and do the second crop adjustment at this time by eliminating the extra shoots found on some vines.

Our vineyard is trained to the VSP trellis sysem (stands for Vertical Shoot Position). During the dormant period for the vines (winter) we take two canes from the previous year's growth and (removing all other canes) attach these to the fruiting wire in opposite directions. From each node on the canes, a shoot bursts forth the following spring. Sometimes the nodes (buds) are not fruitful (water shoots) and other times they're completely dead. Once in a while they throw out two canes per bud.

We usually make a few passes through the vineyard (especially in the Chardonnay) to make sure we have about one shoot for every three inches. This will makes for more even ripening and also a more open canopy in the summer (leading to less disease pressure.)

Never let anyone tell you that that wine is a natural product. It is something that is shaped from the very beginning. We start in the winter bending the vine to our will, and in the winery we shape the wine to the best of our abilities. Without human involvement, there wouldn't even be vinegar.

That said, we try to respect what Mother Nature gives us every year. We can't make good wine from bad grapes, and you can't make Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc. But without us, wine would not happen, and that's not natural.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Strange Weather

It was supposed to be rainy yesterday. Well, it did rain some. But not as much as was predicted. They're calling for more today. We'll see what we actually get, as this little plot of land seems to miss the worst of the storms. I personally think that the forecasts are being thrown off more and more as climate change kicks in and the past computer models don't hold as true as they once did.

We're finally able to settle into a cycle in the vineyard. The planting is over, and Eric put the last of the grow tubes on last night. Most everything is shoot-thinned as well. We're doing a few trellis maintenance things, and then we're waiting for the canes to get longer. Next up is moving catch-wires on our VSP trellis and pulling leaves.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Little Details

Having adjusted to the near-term goal of having new vines in the ground, I realized I had to let my psyche know that we still had more to go. We composted the new vines on Saturday to give them a good start in this tough place called Allegro. (There's some irony in the fact that we have difficulty establishing young vines in a place we describe as "lively" in Italian.) This week we'll be about the business of putting grow tubes on them. The grow tubes act like single greenhouses for the vines, encouraging upward growth. We usually keep the grow tubes on them for the first two years in the vineyard. By year three the vines trunks are usually pretty well established, but we'll still leave the steel pencil rods in place to keep the vine trunk as straight as we can.

Some of the established vines are in need of suckering at this point. Most vines (until they're pretty old) tend to send out shoots along the existing trunk. These are removed manually every year to keep the vine from using extra energy in a fruitless direction. We'll start suckering the vines this week as well.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The End of Planting...for now

Thanks to Ray and Levi, the planting of the vines for 2009 was finished yesterday. It took longer--and was a lot harder--than I remembered. I always like having planted, but the actual act of planting--after the inaugural vine--is physically punishing. Many thanks as well to Steve, Janna, Eric, and Anthony who helped with the rest of the replants.

We still have more plant next year. The Merlot needs two more rounds of replants (the next of which will do in 2010), and the Chardonnay and Cabernet still need one more round. We should be getting about a half barrel more Cab and a full barrel more Chard in 2010 from our 2008 replants. 2011 should see us with an additional barrel of Chard and barrel and a half of Cab.

In the meantime, we are going to get these young vines composted today. This week we'll be about getting grow tubes on the vines (held in place by pencil rods.) And, of course, shoot-thinning everything.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Cabernet Down, Merlot to go...

We finished planting the Cabernet Sauvignon yesterday and started filling in the Merlot with new vines. The Merlot is planted up in what we call Block 5. (There used to be five vineyard blocks at Allegro--now there's only three.) The soil up there (at the furthest west and highest point in the vineyard) is much rockier (as Ray can attest to after digging holes for vines.) The Cabernet and Chard blocks had occasional rocks we had to deal with in the vine holes, but the Merlot field seems to be littered with them.

We took part in a vineyard soils workshop put on by Mark Chien (the state extension agent for winegrapes) in the summer of 2007. Paul Anamosa was the main presenter at for the two days of classes. We dug soil pits in two places in the property and were able to see some of the structure beneath our feet. I think we should have dug a third one, because of what we're seeing up in the Merlot holes. Turns out there's good reasons for why I like our grapes so much here at Allegro. We have a schisty/silty soil with lots of clay pockets, large amounts of iron in spots, and amazing drainage. The pits were six feet deep, and we didn't encounter any sort of hardpan or oher impediment to drainage. The expert from Napa thought these were good soils.

John and I talked numerous times about what makes Allegro different from most places. It was usually after a long day of work and involved a pizza and a couple bottles of Cadenza. He would throw out different ideas about the "poor soils" (for normal agriculture, meaning good for grapes), the southern slope, the airflow (or "winds of Broguandy" as he would call them), and the longer growing season (for Pennsylvania). After making wine here for twenty years, he still didn't know why Bacchus had smiled on this little plot of land. But smile he did. And so do we....

Thursday, May 7, 2009

More Planting

Yesterday was a bit easier on us here. I was able to get our first fungicide spray on the vines to start protecting them from the five major diseases we have here in the East. We also got caught up in a couple of our other vineyards as well.

This year we are once again running James Vineyard over in New Bridgeville. It's about a 2.5 acre vineyard planted to hybrids. Mostly Chambourcin and Cayuga, with some Traminette and a little Chelois. We use the Chambourcin for our Forte and dry red, the Cayuga goes into our Brogue Blush, and the Traminette is for our Serenade. The Chelois is usually part of our Nouveau. This is our third year managing this place.

For the first time, we are going to manage part of Stewart Vineyard. This has been the source for the Cabernet Franc that is usually blended into our Reserve wines or Claret depending on the year. The vineyard is about 2.5 acres as well (bringing our total up to about 11 acres) and is comprised of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. With more Chardonnay at our disposal, we'll probably try another shot at our Steel Chardonnay in 2009. (I know, I said I'd never make it again, but that's what I do...I change my mind...constantly....just ask Ray.)

Today we're going to finish planting our Cabernet Sauvignon I hope. The weather looks like it may cooperate. We'll see.....

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Planting, Take 3

We did get more vines in the ground yesterday, with still a bit to go. The weather held off, which was nice. I was amazed to see how many earthworms we had in each hole. It was a good sign of the life coming back to these soils. We've done two compost additions in the past four years and that must be most of the difference. The vines are starting to show better health as well, although we still have some soil micronutrient issues to address at some point.

Had a wonderful time with Mark Chien (the state viticulturist) and Nelson and George. Worked our way through the barreled wines. It's always a pleasure and a great learning experience to taste wines with such knowledgeable people with such good palates. Having different peope to bounce ideas off of is what makes winemaking and grapegrowing such a collaborative effort and such a great community to be in.

I'm going to try to sneak in my first fungicide spray in today between the raindrops. Then we'll go back to planting tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

More Planting/Less Rain

We're going to try again today. We got some vines in the ground yesterday (just shy of 200) before the rain kicked in too hard. When your gloves fall off due to the weight of the mud on them--it wasn't "soil" or "dirt" any longer--then it's raining too hard. It's supposed to only drizzle once today, so we should be able to get most of the Cabernet replants done.

What we're doing is replanting the empty spots we have in a few vineyard blocks due to to accumulated mortality of the past 30-some years. Replanting is one of the hardest tasks to do in the vineyard. The vine that died probably died for a good reason, and we're trying to put another vine in its place and hope for the best. Odds are good that the same thing that took out the first vine will take out the second. Of course, if it doesn't, then we're ahead. It makes me feel a little like the mythical Sisyphus pushing the stone up the mountain and having it roll back down again.

And, of course, you can't mechanize any part of it. It's just us and a shovel and the dirt and the vines and on our knees. Over and over again. Makes me remember why I didn't want to get older...

Monday, May 4, 2009


We're going to try to get some vines in the ground today. This old vineyard is comprised of three different blocks, two of them still containing original vines going back to the initial planting in 1973 (the Chardonnay and the Cabernet Sauvignon). We believe these are the oldest commercial plantings of these varieties in Pennsylvania still producing. That said, the block is nowhere near 100% made up of vines that are that old.

Vines have a lifespan of 20-30 some years usually (under normal conditions.) In unusual cases, they can go past 100 years. But Pennsylvania isn't normal (for more reasons than just weather), so individual vines tend to die out from time-to-time. This calls for replanting those spots. This is what we're up to this week.

Our vineyard was originally planted with twelve foot rows and eight feet between vines. Pretty standard California spacing from the 1970s. This comes to about 454 vines per acre. These days, the thinking is that denser is better for wine quality, so I decided last year that we needed to plant vines in between each of the older ones. We started that project then, and we're trying to finish it now.

On Saturday, four of us planted 250 Chardonnay vines. The goal was for even more yesterday, but the rain changed those plans. We're trying again today with the Cabernet Sauvignon. Wish us luck....

Sunday, May 3, 2009

No promises.....

I've always thought a blog would be the best way for me to work out some of my day-to-day issues at Allegro, as well as keeping some of the few folks who are interested in keeping in the loop about what we're doing. We just started a FaceBook page, and I started putting up a few posts there, but that doesn't seem to be the right outlet for most of my ramblings.

I'm pretty good at writing a few sentences periodically about what we're doing. Extended blogs are probably not quite up my alley, but we'll see what happens. So, no promises, but here goes.....