Saturday, June 27, 2009

Post-Bloom

This is the time of year when I start to see fruit in the vineyard and get greedy. I start to think about all the barrels of wine we have sitting out there, and I can't wait to get them in to the winery. Of course, it's not that easy.

The berries have set, and most are between BB-size and pea-size. Here's an idea of what they look like. A few more weeks from now and we'll be past the critical stage of fruit development as far as disease concerns go. This spring has produced some of the most intense disease pressure I have seen. The only thing in our favor has been the fact that all the moisture was coupled with cooler temperatures which kept the vine growth a little in check. This meant that the vines weren't outgrowing the fungicide sprays we were putting on them.

Bottom-line for this climate is that we can't grow grapes organically. Perhaps more accurately, we can't grow them organically on a successful, commercial scale. I really wish we could. Nobody I have ever met has ever said that they would prefer conventional farming to organic. Fungicide sprays are expensive, time-consuming, not always environmentally-friendly (although we all do our best), and not completely reliable.

If you look closely at the picture, you can see some spray residue on the leaves and the grapes themselves. This is mostly sulfur (an organic fungicide) that I use to fight off powdery mildew in our vineyard. The grapes are Chardonnay, and in 2006 I lost two-thirds of my crop to this fungus. I am religious now about keeping vigilant against these mildews. I have become the nozzle-head with tractor-butt, but my grapes are clean. So far.

Naturally, anything can go wrong. Best laid plans of mice and men, etc. What happened for me in 2006 was that I could go back and look at the history and say, yes, I did work really hard at disease-prevention, but I didn't work hard enough at it. These days, I take no prisoners. It's always the things you can't see that tend to bite you in the ass, and it's hard to see microscopic bad guys. I'm out there every 6-7 days for until we're past the critical time for the fruit.

It's the dream of barrels of Allegro wine sitting in our cellar next fall that gets me out of bed before 4 AM to put on the sprays that let me sleep till 6 AM the other days. And as I try to stay awake on the tractor in my Tychem suit, I also dream about the future when none of this is necessary. When we've mapped the grape genome and have been able to breed mildew resistance into our European grape varieties. That'll be the day....

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Weather Data

The other night as we were finishing off some wines, I started thinking about the unbelievable weather we had been having. I started checking my favorite weather site for historical data (Weather Underground). 2009 so far has been pretty wet, and I wanted to see how we were faring against a couple of other wet years.

In the past decade or so, we have had a couple years that really standout insofar as making grapegrowing difficult. 2004 was really tough, and 2003 was even harder. I learned more about winemaking in both of those years than I thought I could. Some things I wish I never have to learn again. Like how to slog through bottling wine that doesn't excite me. That's still one I haven't learned.

So, I took a look at the months of May and June for 2009 and 2003 and 2004. In very rough, broad strokes, we're not doing well. We are just as wet as 2003 and 2004, and even colder (as measured by maximum temperatures and mean temperatures.) This does not bode well. But I will say, I learned a lot about disease control, and so far we are very clean in our three vineyards, as opposed to 2003 when I had downy mildew outbreaks everywhere.

Now, 2003 and 2004 ended pretty poorly as well. We had a total combined days over 90F of 3 (yes, three.) It was cool and rainy and overcast throughout. We still have a chance in 2009, as we still don't know what July and August and harvest hold for us yet. If we do the right rain dances, perhaps we can pull out a good year yet. I'll just try not to get too depressed just right now.....

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Cult of the Winemaker

I just noticed something crazy. It's Saturday morning, and I thought I'd get a few computer things done before going down to the winery to rack a wine from wine tank to another. I checked our Facebook page (that I think we started about two months ago.) I try to put some little one sentence blurb on it every day or two, just to let folks know we're alive and that we do stuff here even when you're not drinking any of our wine.

So, I noticed we just clicked over a hundred fans..... In two months. Without even trying. I knew how viral this social networking one, but for crying out loud, we're not even trying. What amazes me is that folks find some of the stuff interesting. Ok, admittedly, I am really not sure what folks on Facebook want from a fan page. I do know this: they probably don't want boring, long-winded descriptions of petiole analyses and the benefits of leaf-pulling and its subsequent impact on fruit-bud initiation for the following season.

They are probably wine drinkers. And, more than that, they seem to be predominantly female. Female probably younger than me (which is strange, because I'm not 40 yet.) This is where I run into a problem that I wish people would explain to me. What do people want from Facebook?

These days I am realizing more and more something that I remember figuring out years ago. I remember back when I was about 24 years old, I went to my first winery tasting room. (It happened to be Kolln Vineyards up outside of State College, PA.) I remember talking to Jack Kolln, hoping he would show me around the tank room I could see over his shoulder. Nothing doing. But I still remember my fascination with they guy who made this beverage.

Years later, at Mount Nittany, I would realize that--even though I was pretty clueless about winemaking at the time--people would listen to everything I said. And not only that, I knew that my small amount of knowledge was already much more than they had. The folks that came to tasting roooms wanted to know more about the specific bottle of wine they were tasting. And they really wanted to hear it from the person who had made the wine.

Having been in the industry for as long as I have, this day-to-dayness is all very mundane. But every once in a while, I meet someone who really has this fascination with winemaking and who we are. Years ago, I started referring to it as the "Cult of the Winemaker". It really doesn't have much to do with who I am, what my personality is or where I'm from. It has solely to do with the fact that I create this symbiotic relationship between people and grapes and alcohol. Every winemaker carries this sign that says, "I make wine." And people associate their good feelings from and about wine with this person. It sounds a little crazy, but every time I meet someone new I try not to let people know what I do. If they find out, that's all they can talk to me about. It's crazy behavior.

Maybe I should run for political office with all this......

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Overwhelming.....

I knew it would happen. I got caught up in the details of the every day and let numerous days slide by without a post. Of course, it wasn't just any old detail, but Split Rock.

I've been pouring wine there since 1999 back when I was with Mount Nittany. Just the name "Split Rock" makes me tired. Don't get me wrong, it's hard to beat any weekend anywhere for the sales we make there. It's mind-boggling how much wine we sell in twelve hours. It takes a couple days to gear up for it every day (load-up and load-in), and a couple days to put everything away. But for six days of effort, we move huge amounts of wine and win innumerable new converts to Allegro.

Granted, we sell mostly sweet wines to lots of sweeties. But let's not lose sight of what wineries are around for. It's not for making wine. Wineries only exist to sell wine. Winemakers make wine, and wineries sell wine. The two do meet from time to time. I have ongoing arguments in my head almost daily when the two don't see eye to eye. Luckily for me, the winemaker wins on the dry wines, and the winery wins on the sweets. And it's the sweets that keep our lights on and pay for the French barrels and low yields in the vineyard.

So, we survived another Split Rock Wine Festival. As the years go by, either I am getting numb to it, or the festival is getting tamer. I remember years ago that there were way too many people falling over and sirens in the distance. This year, we only had to flag one group. It's hardly Split Rock anymore. Maybe Pennsylvania wine drinkers are growing up. One thing's for sure, they're buying more wine than ever. Even in this economy, we sold almost as much as last year. Imagine that. I'd like to think it has something to do with the wine quality we put into each and every bottle of Allegro wine, from the dry wines to the sweets.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Opening in the Rain

I think every vineyard in this part of the world was getting sprayed this weekend.  After what seemed like a week of wet weather, the skies cleared on Saturday, and for those of us who struggle with Mother Nature (the good and the bad), we go on it in a big way.  I sleep a whole lot better knowing there's a dose of protection out in the vineyard keeping our future glasses of wine healthy.

It's been a real juggling act this spring in our vineyards.  I decided to run a third vineyard near Stewartstown.  This is the source of some of the best Cabernet Franc we've had since 2001.  The Franc has ended up in our 2001 Bridge, 2002 Proprietor's Red, 2005 Cadenza, 2006 Bridge, and 2007's Cadenza and Bridge.  Driving up to it, it's obviously not the most ideal site for a vineyard.  It sits rather low near surrounding hills, and it stays shaded through some of the earliest mornings sunrises.  But it does create nice wines for us.  

Trying to balance that vineyard with James (that we are now managing for the third or fourth year) and our own home vineyard has been akin to mental gymnastics.  It's been tough staying in touch with all three places, and making sure tasks are done properly in timely manners.  Luckily I have had four guys (Matt, Steve, Eric, and Levi) who have kept up with all my instructions.  We're almost halfway through the major work for the summer, and things look pretty good out there.

Our reds (across the board) have set too many clusters.  After leaf-pulling in a couple weeks, we'll go through and drop the extra clusters.  The Merlot, Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon have all put on too many third clusters on their canes.  These will never ripen and will cause the other clusters to not ripen sufficiently.  It's never easy to go through a vineyard and drop fruit, but it has to happen to make the wines we want to make.  Every cluster is a couple glasses of wine, and we probably are carrying hundreds of extra ones this year. 

But, if this year keeps up the way it started, we need to lighten our load.  We need some sunshine.  And lots of heat.  Start doing your No Rain Dances.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My Philosophy of the Art of Winemaking....Part One......Section B

There are some in the wine world that wax poetic about the artistic side of winemaking. These are usually the enologists who are hired to make "masterful blends" for wineries around the world. A lot of times, they are the owners who come and sit in on blending sessions prior to bottling. I'll give them that those take skill and that there's a sense of art to them. But for me it goes a little bit in a different direction.

At one point, while reading a wine magazine, I read some importer describing the wines in his book as being made by winemakers who drive tractors not Jaguars. That's what I am. I drive a tractor and dump lugs. As do the people I surround myself with. And this is key to what I think winemaking is about.

There is definitely art in the glass. A sense of quality that happens in the interaction between the wine and the winedrinker (and perhaps the winedrinker's surroundings.) It takes a winedrinker in the act of drinking wine to sense that there is quality in the glass (or a lack of quality.) It's my opinion that art leads to this quality.

The word "art" comes from the Greek, I believe. "Arete" is a sense of goodness reached by "techne" (loosely translated as skill.) Through a technical ability, something good is created. This is art. And, for the Greeks, there was the addition of the divine. An inspiration that occurred, that could usurp techne and lead to even greater goodness.

After reading way too much Plato, I realized that Quality (with a capital "Q") that can be found in art is probably just as much a result of the process as it is the end product. Sure we like to drink the glass of wine. But sometimes knowing where the glass of wine came from and how we struggled to make it sometimes makes it taste better still.

Our winemaking here at Allegro is driven by my need to make better wine. In order to get there, we change our process constantly. And hopefully it shows in the glass.

My Philosophy of the Art of Winemaking....Part One......Section A

This is a sizeable topic, and I expect it'll take many years for me to finish it out. But for now, having been making wines for over a decade, I am starting to understand why I am a winemaker.

I come from a family of artists. Most of them disgruntled for one reason or another. One left his home country of Sweden. One became an engineer. My brother is a story unto himself. Each one of us seems to have been firstly hindered by a commitment to a certain medium. Pen-and-ink, oil, watercolor, ceramics, motorcycles, woodworking.

I don't draw. Doesn't mean I can't. But I never spent the effort and put in the time to learn how. But I did know how to drink. As a teenager, you go through all sorts of phases, most of them preoccupied with quantity rather than quality. But somehow early on I was attracted to the taste of really good beer. I started homebrewing when I was 23, with many failed batches of pilsners, IPAs, and meads to learn from. All homebrewers--if you didn't know it already--will drink just about anything. And I was a homebrewer, I had paid good money for that barley and hops, and damn it, it was going to be drunk.

Unfortunately, my palate couldn't handle it after a while.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Next Big Reds

I had the most enjoyable experience last week in the winery.  Ray and realized that we needed to finalize the blends for our 2007 reds.  This is probably one of the few tasks that makes winemaking really worth its while.

It used to be that I described winemaking as 95% janitorial and 5% artistic.  Most days winemaking to me meant sanitizing equipment so I could make a mess with it and then cleaning up afterwards.  It's still all that.  The only thing that's changed is that Ray is the responsible janitor now... I mean, assistant winemaker.  These days, I get stuck managing retail locations, looking at spreadsheets and writing emails more than anything else.

The one thing I won't give up is harvest, though.  There's nothing like getting up in the morning for two months straight and trying to create the best damn wine humanly possible, fighting the elements, Mother Nature, fatigue, and my own stupidity sometimes.  Slightly insane, but if I let you know that I used to run cross-country it probably all makes sense.  (In a similar vein, Ray is a soccer player.....)

So, tasting through the hard work from almost two years ago was immensely satisfying.  Ray said, "You know, we can't go wrong with any of this."  And he's right.  These 2007s are special.  It'll be a while before we see wines like this again.  (I hope not, but that's probably reality.)  We have twelve barrels that we saved out from 2007 to take for a second year in oak.  And from that lot, we developed two blends.  We'll have a Cadenza and a Bridge blend, both of which are going to be impressive in their own respects.  

This will be the third year for Bridge.  What started out in 2001 as a "bridge-wine" between John's tradition of Cadenza and mine had now turned into something akin to a Bordeaux second-label wine.  

The Cadenza we put together is one of the richest wines I think we've ever had here at Allegro.  It's heavy on the Merlot, but with good structure.  It should remind people a bit of the 2002 Reserve Merlot hopefully.

All in all, those kind of days are what making being a winemaker worthwhile.  And luckily we'll get to share the fruits of these labors for the next dozen years or so.