Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Brush With The Big Boys

(For those of you that haven't heard it yet, here's the story that first put Allegro on the national map.)

John and Tim Crouch began their respective careers as classically trained musicians. When they entered the wine industry, they brought their interest in music to their winery through its name (Allegro) and the naming of some of the wines. When John created a Seyval Blanc and peach wine blend, he christened it “Opus 1.” Yes, “Opus 1,” just like any composer might.

Now, in the early 1980s, Robert Mondavi and Baron Mouton-Rothschild decided to enter into a partnership as a new winery in Napa, California. Millions were spent on the development of the winery and the vineyards. This “Napamedoc” wine needed a name. They chose “Opus One.” Wouldn’t you know it....

After the big announcement at a press conference, a voice from the back of the country was heard to say, “Ahem. We already are using that name.” (Actually, Jim Laube from Wine Spectator broke the news, and John wrote him a letter explaining the coincidence.) Therewith, a fleet of lawyers was sent to Pennsylvania. A deal was struck. Allegro was not allowed to use the name “Opus One” for any of its wines in exchange for a monetary settlement. Thus came to be the honorary “Opus One Bridge” and “Opus One Corker.” Both are still in operation.

Additionally, it was noted that there was a gentleman's agreement that Mondavi was to come to this small hamlet and taste the wines.

He never showed....

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Some Thoughts on Wine Competitions

When Kris and I came to Allegro, we found a winery that had enormous potential without very much recognition. Kris set herself to the task of making the general public more aware of what Allegro wines were about and basically increasing sales. We both thought that wine competitions were one of the key elements in a good marketing strategy.

Wine competitions exist throughout the world. This is where a select number of people of varying skills sit down and taste and spit innumerable wines in one sitting. At the end, a few wines are deemed unworthy of medals, but usually at least half receive some sort of hardware. The bar is usually not set very high.

I believe the last competition we entered was in 2004. We had had success in many competitions as evidenced by our medals, but I had noticed certain discrepancies. I would enter a wine in one competition and receive a bronze medal. The same wine in a second competition would receive a gold, and then in a third might receive nothing at all (case in point, our 2002 Reserve Chardonnay.) This did not make any sense to me, until I started to learn about how competitions operate (as explained above).

I truly believe that the judges are doing the best they possibly can in their task of judging wines. As a winemaker, I judge wines constantly, and I feel that I am only barely consistent as well. Lately there have been studies proving the inconsistency of wine judging.

Informally, I have noticed that most competitions are not friendly to East coast wines. The big fruit of California wines makes our wines seem small, where instead they are actually more complex and balanced. The wine competitions that are less biased against us seem to favor sweeter wines for the most part.

Medals are a great tool to market wines with. They make it easy to sell wines. Unfortunately I view competitions as one small step removed from gambling. Wineries send the organizers a few bottles of each wine (along with an accompanying $50+ per wine fee) and cross their fingers that they might get lucky. If they don’t, they send it off to another one. Eventually, most wines get medals and keep competitions in business.

From 2004 and moving forward, Allegro does not play this game. Coincidentally, John and Tim before me decided the same thing back in 1990 or so. I should have listened to them better than I did.

On a more philosophical note, I would just like to say that I am not interested in making wines that win competitions. I want to make good bottles of wine. I want to make wine that someone can drink a glass of and be captivated by. So captivated that a second glass is required to satisfy, and even that doesn't do it. One that makes you want to pour some for your friend and fix them a good meal to go with it.

I am not trying to make a sip of wine that tastes good while it’s spit into a dump bucket.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Blog about Comments

Hey, if you're reading this thing because the crap I write actually interests you, then thanks! If you're doing it to kill time, then I can think of a whole lot of better uses than this. Heck, I don't even get a sympathy read out of my own mother for this thing....

But if this stuff does spark some thought in your gray matter, why not make a comment on it? I sometimes feel like I am sending thoughts into the inter-nether-world, until someone prods me with a thought. I know that there are a lot of folks out there who think that the goings on in a winery and vineyard are fascinating. In fact, I'm one of them. It's why I write the blog. (Also as part journal, because my memory's awful.)

And most of the time I don't know what I'm talking about. Of course, that's in the big picture. Most of my colleagues don't know what they're talking about either. I just happen to admit it. The idea of growing grapes and making wine for a living is still kind of crazy. I mean, most of us know how to keep grapes clean and how to run a fermentation. But when it really comes down to making wine, as in directing it to a specific, high-quality end, there's really not much we can do. We're just along for the ride.

I mean, we can force the wine to go down a certain path, but it usually ends up barely resembling wine. Winemakers, in the words of my friend John Crouch, should actually be winesitters. And it's a whole lot easier to sit on something and not do anything than to be proactive. Especially when you're not sure of exactly what you want.

So, there you have it. We make good wine here at Allegro. Some day we'll make great wine. But that'll take years of my connecting the dots between the vintages and figuring out how to finesse the last final details. I'll probably figure it out right as one of my boys tries to kick me out of the driver's seat here.

But I digress. I'd appreciate your off-the-wall comments if you had any.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Thoughts on the 2005 and 2006 reserve red wines we made……

We have been fortunate that since 2005 we have been on a string of nice to great vintages here in Pennsylvania. (I think it may be one reason that I haven’t lost Ray greener pastures—he hasn’t had to experience a 2003 vintage where the wines were tough and the winemaking tougher.) I’ve always thought of Pennsylvania having perhaps 3 tough vintages per decade, maybe four average to good ones, and three great ones.

Here’s how I see the first decade of the millennium stacking up:

2000 – Tough vintage, cool summer, light wines.
2001 – Good hot summer, but early frost (October 8). Good whites, late reds were nice.
2002 – Great summer, rains in late Sept/early Oct. Great whites and early reds, Nice late reds.
2003 – Hardest vintage in 30 years.
2004 – Average vintage, average wines
2005 – Amazing year, amazing wines.
2006 – Very nice year, warm summer, rains. Nice wines.
2007 – Phenomenal vintage, legendary wines across the board.
2008 – Very good year with rains in late Sept/early Oct. Very nice wines.

So far, we have had 3 great vintages, 4 average to good years, and 2 tough ones. If my scale is accurate, we’re in for a rough one in 2009. (As a side note, in the past 15 years, every time we had a bad vintage a Crouch passed away. In 1996 it was Marguerite. In 2000 Tim died, and John died in 2003. Another way to look at it is that perhaps since we’re out of Crouches, the cycle is broken….)

John’s Cadenzas were almost always Cabernet-based. The first Cadenza was Cabernet Franc-based in 1994. His philosophy about Cadenza was that it was the best wine we could make. According to him, it didn’t even matter that the wine wasn’t grown at Allegro, as long as it was great wine. (In fact, I probably should have called the 2002 Reserve Merlot a Cadenza in retrospect.) I have followed John’s thinking by holding Cadenza to a very high standard.

The 2005 Cadenza is about 59% Merlot with less than a third Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Franc. This is a classically styled Right Bank Bordeaux-inspired wine, heavy on the Merlot and a backbone of Cabernet Sauvignon. The tannins are pretty well integrated and smoothed out at this point. What excites me about this wine are the layers of flavors and depth of the wine. This one speaks to the quality of the vintage by how complex and intriguing it is. You can lose yourself in a glass of this all night.

The 2006 was from a pretty good vintage. The color is great, and the fruit is right up front. The tannins are firm (another sign of a less-than-perfect year.) This wine is about 50% Merlot, with around 35% Cabernet and about 15% Franc. This is a “fruit-forward” wine, and it is extremely hedonistic and charming. What it lacks is complexity and elegance and depth. It’s more one-dimensional.

Both wines have good ageability. The 2005 because of its strength, and the 2006 because of its tannic structure. The 2005 should age gracefully, while hopefully the 2006 still has some fruit when the tannins finally resolve. I firmly believe that great wines age well, and that it’s not necessarily dependent on the grapes involved. Some of the most age-worthy wines in the world are not Cabernet-based. Think of the German Rieslings, the Australian Shirazes. Or Petrus from Pomerol which is 95% Merlot. Or the ’61 Chateau Cheval Blanc (from the movie Sideways) which is 2/3 Cabernet Franc and 1/3 Merlot.

Talking the other day with Ray, we thought about the idea of using the term Bridge like we did in 2001 for the 2006 wine. There’s no doubt in my mind that the 2006 is a very good wine. But it’s more like the 2001 Bridge (which was 2/3 Cabernet and 1/3 Franc) in terms of its quality level. We came up with the name Bridge as a way to talking about a wine (that John and I made collaboratively) as a bridge between his Cadenzas and mine. I am now thinking of Bridge as being a signifier of wines that are very good but not quite Cadenza.

We’ll release the 2006 Bridge at $27 (as opposed to the 2001 Bridge which was $25). We will also have a Cadenza from 2007 (and perhaps a Bridge as well, depending on how the blends work out.) 2008 will have at least a Bridge wine, if not Cadenza.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Winebuilder or Winefarmer

The damnedest things get into my head when I am out spraying the vineyard, and this morning was no different. Some days I get a phrase stuck in my head. Other days I struggle to stay awake (since I usually get up around 4 AM). Once in a while I can't keep John Denver's "Country Roads" from driving me insane.

Today I was thinking about the name for the person who grows grapes. The grape grower. My neighbor calls me the grape farmer. And that's more of what I consider myself. Farmer, in the truest, most honorable usage of the word.

There are some of my colleagues that refer to themselves as winegrowers. I don't have a problem with that, as it does link the idea of what we're doing with the end product. That's really what it's all about.

In France and Germany, they don't really have a word for "winemaker." Their thought is that the wine pretty much makes itself after you've grown it correctly. The person doing the vinification had just better not screw it up. In France, the term is vigneron (as in vignoble for vineyard), and for the Germans it's Weinbauer. The German Wein is, of course, wine.

Bauer has a couple of meanings. The verb bauen means to build. But a Bauer is a farmer. (And the jack in a card deck is also referred to as a Bauer.) So, for the Germans, the person who grows grapes and makes wine is called a winefarmer or winebuilder. I like it.

Like I said, I get the damnedest things in my head when I'm spraying.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Growth with age

OK, maybe not the kind of growth you were expecting. The growth I'm talking about it the growth of micro-flora on the top of the cork that you sometimes find on wine bottles. This usually occurs after some period of aging in a dank, dark cellar. This, by the way, is the recommended storage condition for wine. It creates havoc on the labels, but remember, you're not drinking the label.

This has been a wet year for us so far, and the Allegro cellar is showing it. Our roof is leaking in a couple spots--we're putting a new roof on this year--and the fact that we're underground has added to the humidity level in the cellar. If relative humidity could go past 100%, we'd be there.

There are positive side effects to all the moisture. First and foremost is the fact that our barrels don't evaporate off as much wine and hence don't need to be topped as much. (In some wineries, topping of barrels occurs every couple weeks. So far this year, I think we've topped three times.) The wetness also adds to the typical "cellar aromas" you get when you walk into our place. The place smells like a winery. And that character comes out in our wines at some level. I like it.

But the downside of all this is the aesthetics. We sometimes get mold growth on the tops of our corks. It doesn't happen uniformly across all bottles. Some wines never show it. But some do, and this is disconcerting to some customers in this age of blatant sterility. Keep in mind that you're not drinking the cork, you're drinking the wine. If the wine tastes good, then it is good. Simple as that.

Back in 2002, John wanted to open a 1983 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon for me. He pulled the bottle out, and as he started to remove the cork, we noticed what terrible shape it was in. Moldy and black and wet. And it smelled. Bad. He was about to go dump it out, when I asked that we at least put a little in a glass to get a sense of the wine. Heck, it was almost 20 years old and deserved at least that.

Turned out the wine was a beauty. Totally surprised us both. One of my more remarkable wine-drinking experiences. It just goes to show, you can't just a wine by its label. Or its cork, for that matter.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Wine and Hot Weather

OK, so here's the converse of what most people ask me about wine. ("What do people usually ask you about wine, Carl?" "Well, they usually ask me if it'll age and when they should drink it." "And what are you going to tell us that's different?" "Something different, I think.")

So, we all kind of know that for wine to age, it should be stored on its side--if it's a natural cork--and in a cool and stable place. I just wanted to put out a quick post about the heat we have in the summer. In case anyone was in doubt, heat is bad.

What we see happening from time to time in the summer is that someone will bring a bottle of wine back to us and claim it doesn't taste very good. We'll taste it and agree. It's usually very sharp-tasting. We agree to replace the bottle, and then after a little conversation we realize that the person left the bottle in their car in the middle of the day in the summertime.

What's happened is that the wine has oxidized due to the high heat it experienced. The hotter wine gets, the faster it ages. And it's an exponential factor. A couple hours at 100F kills any wine. A few minutes at lesser temperatures damages them beyond recognition. It's the whole reason we tell people to age their wine at a constant temperature in a cool dark place. That way we can avoid all this.

Sometimes there are tell-tale signs. Like the cork is pushed out. Or the wine has leaked past the cork. Or the bottle is so hot you can't touch it. Most times, you find the bottle after it has cooled down. You chill it in your fridge, pop the cork, and think, man, this isn't what I was expecting. At that moment, try to think back on the history of that bottle. Just don't tell me about it. It's too sad to bear.....