Saturday, December 24, 2011

Making Authentic Wine

One of the wine world's most authoritative, creative, and combative bloggers is Tom Wark.  If you don't check out his blog periodically or follow him on Twitter, you're missing out on some of the best insights on our industry.  That, coupled with the fact that he has been working tirelessly to free the grapes (shippingwise) makes him one of my favorite reads.

His most recent post ( got me thinking about authenticity of wine.  I'm not going to try to define wine here--that would be like trying to define art, something only an idiot would try to do (see my last post)--but rather think about what it means to try to make wine here in Pennsylvania.

Tom's post takes on a recent book about "authentic wine", basically destroying the premise the book was written from.  The book tries to say that the wine industry is heading in an industrial/commodity driven direction and that the uniqueness of wine is being lost, or at least championed by a select few.  Tom's point is that there is a huge diversity to wine these days and that there are more artisanal wineries than ever.

My jumping off point here is that we're all trying to wag the dog to some extent.  Yes, I make wine in the backwaters of an industry that prides itself on pioneers from hot climates and respects cool climate entrepreneurs with a backhanded compliment smacking of condescension.  Am I bitter?  Perhaps.  At the tail-shakers?  Not really.  Let me explain.

As with most things American, there has always been a drive to succeed, and in this country, it usually means making  boatload of money by selling stuff.  Suply and demand is what built this country.  And the wine industry is no different.  The reason for the oceans of wine that has been created in this country is simply that there has always been a demand for it.  And as the demand grew, supply rose up to meet it as that's where the dollars were.

The problem with mass-producing anything is that you have to make sure the majority of the people are going to like it, or else you defeat your purpose.  But there's hardly anything out there when made in bulk doesn't lose its originality.  Beer, cars, chairs, hamburgers, wine.  It happens to everything.  Name one mass-marketed item that is unique.  It is, by definition, impossible.  An oxymoron.

So what does this mean for wine, and specifically my wine?  I can assure you that Allegro wine is not at all mass-produced.  We're a small place in southern PA, growing grapes for almost 40 years.  We have Cabernet and Chard vines older than most of the ones in CA.  So, why haven't you heard of us before?  Because we make small amounts of wine.  Would we like to make more wine?  Sure, but here's the kicker: there aren't enough buyers.

This is not because of the current "economic situation."  No, most people in this country cut there wine-teeth on Mateus, wild Irish Rose, or Sutter Home.  They then "graduated" to "real" wine....from California, where it all seems to taste like sunshine and fruit.  Slightly homogeneous?  Maybe.  Sure, there are subtle differences, but I would argue there's more difference between a St.Estephe and a Margaux than a Napa Cab and a Napa Merlot.....

And people--i.e. wine consumers and more importantly the wine retailers--like those wines.  What's not to like?  They're fruity and alcoholic and easy to drink.  Quite unlike what we're making here in Pennsylvania.  we're more akin to France 40 years ago than anything else.  Are we authentic?  We damn well better be, or our few customers will leave us.  But will we ever get the respect and success we hope for?  It all depends on whether America decides to follow what their brain and conscience tells them is right, or if they're slaves to their hedonistic palates.

This is what happens to "authentic" or "natural" wine.  When a wine speaks of place, is truly terroir-driven, is truly unique, that's when you find authenticity.  The problem is that most terroir-geeks only like certain terroirs, and if you're not on the short-list, you're probably in the backwater with me.....

Saturday, December 17, 2011

In Defense of Winemaking as Art

I tend not to read very many wine writers these days, nor wine bloggers.  Usually I get turned off by their arrogant attitudes or lack of actual winemaking knowledge.  And it really doesn't interest me to read about what others think a wine tastes like if I can't taste it with them.  It's like my own personal version of hell.

 But a couple weeks ago, a couple writers had a thread about whether wine was art, something that I feel pretty strongly about.  My family--specifically my dad's side--is full of artists.  It's not a big family, so there aren't many actual people involved, but here's the breakdown.  My brother, Dave, builds custom motorcycles after graduating with a degree in art and spending 3 or so years in art grad school doing ceramics.  My dad has been an artist--pen and ink, etchings, watercolors--whenever he wasn't professorializing about physics.  Even supported our family on it for a couple years in the 1970s.  His dad ran a construction firm building houses.  His dad was as an artist, and his respective dad's wife's dad was a court artist to the King of Sweden.  Art, art, art, art, art.

Notice, though, that this could be a long post, because I brought up the idea of motorcycle-building and house-building as art.  This speaks a bit to the concept the ancient Greeks had called "techne" (where we get our concept of "technology" from.  "Techne" was debated in Plato's dialogues as to its nature and whether or not is was an art.  (So, this argument has been going on for a really long time.)  Some translated "techne" as "craft" other as "art", but I think that's splitting hairs on the wrong side of the dialectical engine.

My sense is that "techne" or its end-product--whatever is created--is more about why it was created and how we interact with it at any given time than whether it's even a quality product. 

My young boys--when they were really small--would draw pictures of things on paper.  Would most think this is art?  Probably not, but for them it was.  They were trying to create something with meaning that people would derive meaning from.  They knew that their scribbles would elicit a response from me and that was why they were doing it.  For their enjoyment and the added benefit of getting a reaction from their audience.  Now, I know they probably weren't being conscious of it, but as parents we know that's what they're doing.  No way a kid is going to draw something without showing it off.

For me, the drive to create is art.  It moves us.  It moves us forward.  Moving forward, in many respects, is what technology does.  "Techne."

I remember as a 13-year-old boy being dragged to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  Not fun, and not the first time my dad had forced art upon us.  After standing for an eternity in different halls trying to get him to walk faster--or at least walk, as he stopped and stared at stuff constantly--I remember getting numb to all the paintings of pastoral settings, still life scenes, and portraits.  Then we came to the "Night Watch."

This was a monstrous piece.  My first impression was of the armed guard who stood watch over it.  (Kind of ironic, I know.)  The painting must be fifteen feet long and ten feet tall.  And dark.  After viewing all the other more uplifting artwork, this was in a different world.  This was Rembrandt's world.

The "Night Watch" was one of the first paintings done on such a scale that showcased common folks doing common things.  It's basically a picture of a bunch of guys strolling around a dark street, making sure everything's ok.  But after seeing what had come before, it really hit me.  Rembrandt amazed me at first, and then later as I started seeing his other paintings, especially the ones Biblical in nature concerning Jesus.

But the feeling I got from the "Night Watch" is how art reaches me.  It's subjective in that it requires a drive from the artist to create something and then it requires an audience, someone to appreciate it.  Both sides are involved in a messy dialectic that dances seemingly without purpose, but you know it works when it works.

My boys artwork needed me, but only they could have produced it.  My brother's motorcycles need riders.  My dad's drawings need people to see them.  Art is a two-way street.  It doesn't exist in a vacuum.

I've seen some art galleries where mundane pieces are placed next to paintings.  The aim is to get people to view them as art, but I think this is missing half of the equation sometimes.  If the creator of the toilet wasn't thinking they were producing art, then the viewer in the gallery will only see a toilet.  I think this is something we just know.

And here's where wine comes in.  Most wine is a commodity, produced to be sold.  Produced to hit a certain market segment,  Produced for enjoyment, to help with cash-flow, to control market-share.  I make that kind of wine.

But I also make art.  Not all wine is art, but without art in wine I would never want to be a winemaker.

Friday, November 4, 2011


It's these times of the year that I think about my friend John.  He and his brother started Allegro back in 1978, and Tim passed away in 2000.  I never met Tim, but heard him speak at a meeting once.  All I remember him saying, over and over again, was "Well, at Allegro it's a little different."  How right he was.

I met John in April of 2001, and he was the most depressed human being I have ever encountered.  His brother had passed away, and he was the last of his family surviving.  He couldn't bring himself to finish the wines he was working on at the time.  He could barely get out of his chair.

By fall, he and I were working together bringing in the 2001 harvest.  He had come around the corner, and my sense was that he was enjoying harvest.  He showed me how he made Nouveau, and we tasted the Beaujolais offerings from Aubin and Georges de Boeuf to see how well we did.  It was--as John had always been--winemaking at its simplest and most pure.

For winemakers, the year doesn't really start in January.  It starts in September, and our spring really starts in November when we can start to work on our "spring cleaning".  This was my start as the second winemaker Allegro had ever had, and it was amazing to see how a guy who had been the master of wine here for twenty years gave up his control so readily.  It was almost as if he knew that I--with only two commercial vintages under my belt--needed to be thrown into the fire, albeit with a safety net of his expertise.

He was right, and I thank him for it.  When I was a kid, summer was my favorite season, but now autumn naturally is.  And during this time, I always think back to John.  Thanks, John.  You'll be happy to know everything's all right, and the Nouveau will taste like Beaujolais again this year.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Tired-ness

Time flies when you're having fun....or don't know what you're doing.  Harvest isn't over yet, although all of our grapes are in.  Still have four tons to receive in the next week, as well as a couple thousand gallons of juice for our sweeter wines.

It's that time in harvest when my boys start to ask, "When's harvest over?"  They don't quite get it yet; all they know is that I am not really here right now (even though I am around and with them, I'm not really.)

And it's hard to walk a tightrope between family and winery.  Especially when the exhaustion sets in.  When you fall asleep within minutes of lying down, but can't stay asleep past 5 AM, waking up after only five or six hours of sleep.  It's nuts, it drives me nuts, and perhaps make me think that I am just plain crazy.

It'll be over soon, and in a few months I won't remember all this.  It's a whirlwind that we winemakers live through, but I am not sure we are actually living during it.  At least I am not.  Who knows.

More grapes tomorrow.  More pressing and racking.  November is coming.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mason-Dixon Wine Trail

The time has finally come and we can bring it out from behind closed doors.  We announced it this morning.

For a while now, the UnCork York Wine trail has been working on finding a new due to our neighbors up north thinking that there would be confusion in the marketplace with their "UnCork New York" slogan.  Basically, they were going to sue us for trademark infringement.  I wasn't privy to all the discussions, but suffice it to say that we decided to play nice and give up on our six-year-old name.

And I'm thinking it's probably for the best.  With the Civil War sesquicentennial coming up, having a Mason-Dixon Wine Trail is probably not a bad idea.

I'm sure there are some of you who are wondering, "Isn't there already a Mason-Dixon wine trail?"  Of course, there was, with "was" being the operative word here.  John Crouch (of Allegro) and Mike Fiore (of, obviously, Fiore) first dreamt up the Mason-Dixon wine trail back in the '90s.  Early on it was only 6 wineries, but we later expanded it to eight.

Managing a trail takes a lot of effort, and getting eight wineries to all be on the same page is akin to herding cats....although that might be easier.  Maybe, it's like herding drunk cats.  Anyway.  After getting the trail up-and-running on two separate occasions, we were looking to try it for a third time.  That's when we realized we were just duplicating what the UnCork York Trail was doing.  Do some simple math, and it was pretty clear that we should just give up.

Mike Fiore is pretty clear in that he sees the continuation of the name as a tribute in memory of his (and my) dear friend John.  I like the way he sees it, and like all good winemakers, we're honoring the tradition of the past as we move forward.

The trail will be different.  It'll be new. But hopefully it will be good and better than it was.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

They're baaaaack........

The grapes, that is...

I think--insofar as I have any control over it--that tomorrow is the first day of harvest for us.  Sure, we have had a couple juice deliveries in the past week, but it really doesn't get going for us until we deal with fresh fruit, especially our own fruit.

We were doing so well.  Everything was clean, only a bit of mildew, no rot, nice canopy, no bird damage.  And then came Irene.  We sustained about 5" of rain with lots of wind.  Sure, we had some rows pushed over and some berries swell.  But the shit didn't hit the fan until I was walking through the Pinots (Noir and Meunier) and started to smell botrytis.  Crap.

Our Pinot is mostly old Champagne clones, very tight clusters.  All that rain and swelling caused some to burst--to the best of my knowledge--and in walked the rot.  It'll take a bit more effort to cull out the bad fruit as we pick it.  But even more at issue here is what to do with the fruit once we get it into the winery.  It was destined to be our Nouveau for this fall, but that's not going to work now.  At this ripeness level it's really meant for sparkling production, but fat chance I want to go through that, no matter how much I love bubbly from Pinot.

So, not sure what we're going to do tomorrow, except i do know we're going to be picking some grapes.  Wish me luck as I try to figure out what the heck I do with them......

Sunday, August 14, 2011


August 14th is a pretty special day around here for me.  Eighteen years ago my wife Kris decided that there was something about me that made her think she could spend the rest of her life with me and that I might somehow be the right person.  Even though there have been numerous times when I have shown her otherwise, she has stuck by me this whole time.  We have two wonderful boys, and I love her more each day.

Ten years ago today was the first time I spent the day away from her.  This day in 2001 was the day I moved to York county to start our collective lives at Allegro.  I moved here without her, without our one-year-old son, and started this big adventure.  They joined me a few weeks later, driving back-and-forth weekly from State College initially.  That fall was the start of the biggest learning curve of my life, both personally and professionally.

The following year brought us our second son and the hardest harvest I ever had.  (There's a zombie-like picture of me from that time that even worries me.....)  The next year, my friend and mentor John passed away and we were truly out on our own.  Those were frighteningly exciting times as we both thought we knew what we were about, although hindsight proves otherwise.  Somehow we made it through, not the worse for wear.  Looking back, it seems we have been here forever, almost a lifetime.  Although it also feels like we've just started.

We're now officially at the opening of our second decade.  For businesses, that usually means your survival rate is pretty good.  Kris and I are already into our third decade with each other, so that experiment seems to be going well, too.  All in all, it's a great place to be. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Really.....? (About the Best Wines in the East.....)


Again, I knew it would happen.  I get so caught up in things, I forget about the old blog.  Even the reminders of reading other blogs isn't enough to shake the cobwebs from my brain and get my ass into gear.

Of course, it always helps having something to say, and those of you who know me realize there's never a lack for that.  I always wanted to be one of those guys who would look pensively when posed a question and slowly respond with a thoughtful and insightful answer.  But it's just not me.  Do you think those thoughtful guys wish they had the guts to turn off the filter between brain and mouth like I do?  Perhaps....

So, a week or so ago, I had the opportunity to taste a few dozen of some of the best reds the Right coast has to offer.  The tasting ran the gamut of Pinot Noir to Syrah to Bordeaux blends (my wheelhouse.)  The first thing that hit me was that ten years ago this would not have been possible.  The quality level was sky-high, and it blew me away. 

Now, you all know that we're out here in Brogue, and it tends to be a bit insular and isolated out here.  It's easy to start to think that we're the center of the universe as no one comes out to tell us otherwise.  But these other winemakers brought their A-game, and some crazy-good wines.

Now, I've always been a believer that hard work will get you what you want.  As I have gotten older, I've realized that it helps to have some capital, some talent, and some luck.  Lucky for us, two out three ain't bad.  Some of the wines being made (in PA, MD, and VA) are the synthesis of all four of these strengths, and they are dynamite.  When I first started making wine in PA, people asked me why I chose PA.  The obvious reason is that my wife wouldn't move to Idaho with me....ok, not quite true, but I think you get it.

Secretly, though, I realized I liked being a sizeable fish in a small--yet growing--pond.  What this past tasting made me realize is that the amount of big fish out there is growing, and it's frightening (in a good way.)  The wines are benefiting from better viticulture, better plant material, and more experience making wines in this area.  But perhaps most of all, they are benefiting from being made in this small pond.

Most of the people around the table were familiar faces, and I have the extraordinary honor of calling some of them my friends.  It's this community that allows for the sharing of successes and failures that has brought our wine quality to the level where it is today.  Think of it as a Jungian subconscious that we all share in...or perhaps it's more modern equivalent, Wikipedia, the information source we all share and modify.

How many winemakers does it take to make wine?  One.....but how many does it take to make a great wine?  A whole boatload.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Touching base on the 2010 early-releases

I know, I know, I've talked till you were tired of hearing about it, but the 2010 wines really are that good.

Believe me.  It's the real deal. 

First out of the blocks was our Riesling, which for a hot year retained a lot of freshness and acidity.  This one ranks right up there with the 06 and the 09 for great refreshing summer wines.  (I've heard that the Finger Lakes is putting on a "Summer of Riesling".  This ain't no FLX wine, but it's as racy as PA gets.

Next up was out 2010 Chard.  I've been playing with the oak levels and fruit/complexity components in this wine and decided to try something a bit different.  This is a bigger, more modern style (without the over-blown blowziness of a Cali Chard...)  Let me know what you think....

And the last white for us was the 2010 Viognier.  What can I say about this wine.  First, give it a chance of a few months yet.  It's a big-ass wine, that's going to take a little cellar time.  Say 6-12 months.  This is full of peach and pineapple and citrus characters, with a body that just blows me away.  It's silky smooth, but having just come through bottling, the aromas and the mid-palate aren't yet conjoined.  Give it a bit o' time, and this will be a rich white that'll warm your soul on a cold winter's night.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The French Winemaker

This title is slightly misleading, purposefully.  You see, the French don't really have a term for winemaker.  They call them vigneron, or basically the person who works the vines.  For us, that generally means "grapegrower", but some folks like to get a bit fancy and refer to themselves as "winegrowers".  There's a distinction, of course, because a person can grow grapes without thinking of what they are to become--juice grapes, for example.

Winegrowers, on the other hand, do tend to aim more for quality than quantity.  We tend to think that the reason we are growing grapes is not for grapes to be harvested in the fall, but for wine to be enjoyed a year or three down the road.  It's a whole other way of approaching viticulture.

That aside, we make wine.  While the French term of vigneron implies a tending of vines, here on this side of the big Pond we MAKE wine.  We are "winemakers."  Not winetenders, not wine-nurturers.  We're winemakers. 

And with this shift in terminology comes a twist of focus as well.  I've written about what I consider the cult of the winemaker.  (This seems to go along with the cult of the chef, musician, writer, etc.)  People are fascinated by the creation of creative arts, in one way or the other.  I am, too, but I am not so interested in winemakers as people but winemakers as winemakers.  I guess what makes us a little different is that we not only create, but we create with alcohol, the feel-good classic influencer of the past couple millenia.  We make stuff that tastes good AND makes you feel happy.

This shift in thought--from tending vines to making wines--also changes us who are involved with it.  It makes us think that we are actually in control of the process.  And it is true to some extent.  We definitely have a lot more control over our day-to-day actions than the farmer trying to raise some grapes.  When bad weather hits, there's not much you can do.  But when a bad ferment takes off, we can spring into action.

Is all this just a bunch of ego-stroking?  Perhaps.  But in that sense it would seem that we're missing out on a key part of the puzzle.  Or at least my puzzle.  My long-gone friend John once told me that he aspired to be a wine-sitter.  Not a maker, but a sitter.  Kind of like being a babysitter.  Don't push the wines, just let them be raised up, like kids, as you watch them.

All of which brings me to the French term for the general procedure for making wine: elevage.  It means "raising up".  They view making wines almost the same way as they see raising kids.  Interesting.  Now, only if I could get my kids to follow me as easily as the wines do.....

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Looking back on what I could have said better....

I just wrote a little piece for our newsletter, basically summing up what our Tour de Tanks event was like for us this past month.  It was a warm-and-fuzzy, feel-good essay which in retrospect isn't quite what Tour de Tanks is all about, at least for us on the work side of the equation.

First off, it's not warm.  Average temperature back in the cellar was 53F.  And, second, after a long day speechifying, the only thing that made me feel good was a glass of wine or four.  And the only thing fuzzy was my beard.

Granted, we all try to make everyone's visit as nice as possible.  And I, for one, have a unique position in that I get to get up in front of almost two thousand people during the month and say something.  Stuff.  Whatever seems to come out of my mouth.  I've learned over the years that it's sometimes best to not put too much of a filter between my brain and my tongue, even though I think I've said a couple wine-world shocking comments.  (It's kind of the point in making a point: nobody ever remember the safe slow talker, just the loony who let his mouth run and made a couple interesting points.)

I spent a lot of time trying to push the idea--that I have been pushing since the very beginning--that we in this part of the world need to get off our collective asses and focus on something.  The idea of "diversity is our strength" has reared its head in our grapegrower/winemaking conferences, and I have to say it makes me sick.  Just think if there were 50 varieties of grapes in Bordeaux or Burgundy?  Those places would cease to exist in anything that even mildy resembles their current form.  Additionally, I doubt we would have such unearthly pleasures as Chateau Cheval-Blanc and Domanine de al Romanee-Conti.  Generalization is anathema to beauty and wonder.

I harped on Chambourcin a lot during the past month.  It's an easy target here in PA because for some reason it seems to be ubiquitous for a local winery.  It usually produces an tart, acidic nicely colored red wine with an interesting flavor profile.  Most importantly for local growers, it yields well, is disease resistant, and seems not to exhibit any of the obnoxious herbaceous flavors that vinifera reds seem to show when not ripened fully.  But ultimately my issue with the grape is the fact that it allows us to lose focus on the task at hand.

Chambourcin is grown in the Beaujolais region of France with perhaps 6000 acres planted (so I'm told.)  The French who have been making great wine for many more years than all of the wineries in PA combined relegate the grape to their table wines.  Mind you, this isn't a bad thing.  Chambourcin makes really nice red wine when it's grown properly.  It's good juice.  (I personally think it's best as a rose or perhaps a Port-style wine.)

See, I got distracted again.  The task is to find out what our region can be known for, what we're best at, and what can put us on the map.  What will make world-class wine in our region?  I have stuck my neck out time and time again and said that Merlot is probably our star, or at least one of them.  It's not easy to grow, it's not easy to ferment, but once it's in a bottle, it's easy to sell.  (Don't kid yourselves....Sideways the Movie did not slow down sales of the variety.) 

So, what does it take?  If I knew, I'd be doing it already.  Maybe we need consistency.  Maybe we need a little luck.  Who knows.  If you have any ideas, I'm game.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Winemaking Trio

A lot of you might know that back in 2009 I teamed up with a couple other winemakers in Pennsylvania to create the first cooperative red blend in the state.  We took as our model the wine Tierce produced by Fox Run, Red Newt, and Anthony Road up in the Finger Lakes in New York.  But, being more interested in reds, we turned our thoughts to the really nice, full-bodied wines from the 2007 vintage.

The winemakers in question were myself, Joanne Levengood from Manatawny Creek Winery (Douglasville), and Brad Knapp from Pinnacle Ridge Winery (Kutztown).  Every year the three of us get together and bring samples of all of our barrels to a central non-neutral location.  Not that it matters.  We all know each other well enough after years of doing this that there really is no home-field advantage.  For that matter, it's not a competition either.  At least that's what we say.....

Suffice it to say that we start early in the morning tasting wines, beginning with the Chardonnays as a way to get the ball rolling.  We all make Chardonnay, but I've been starting to wonder why.  We can make blockbuster wines from time-to-time, but since when does anyone expect a world-class Chard from PA?  And, to make matters worse, who would pay for one?  It gets depressing when we don't get the full respect we deserve.  So, we're still playing around with different things.  Chardonnay is a great experimental wine as it takes a winemaker's influence readily, and it's easy to mold and shape.

But we quickly move on to the reds, the real reason most of us winemakers are winemakers.  I'm sure that if I was in a cooler climate, I would come to love white wine production.  But for me, there's just something about punching down the red fermentations in the fall, racking the wines to barrels, sampling from those barrels, and then creating blends at the end of the process.  It's more hands-on, nitty-gritty, getting-into-it winemaking.  It's why I'm a winemaker.

We spend numerous hours in the day sniffing and swirling and spitting--yes, spitting--stopping barely for a break for lunch.  After doing this for years, we have a comfortable rapport with each other, and we not only expect honesty from each other, we also have to deliver honestly.  We all have egos, of course.  You can't make great wine without one.  But with that you need thick skins.  If someone says, "Carl, it smells musty, like earthy concrete" when it's not supposed to, I have to check myself from saying "But that's what I was going for" because we all know the wine shouldn't smell that way.  So, I re-examine what the hell might have made this nice barrel smell offensively, trying to figure out if I have a TCA infection or some other weirdness.  It's like when the doctor orders more tests because they can't figure out what's wrong....  Then I realize that it was probably a dirty sample bottle that I re-used this past time--a hypothesis confirmed when I got home and the barrel was fine.   

After years of doing this, we finally made a wine together.  Which is somewhat of a nice culmination of events, because in one regard we've been making wine together all these years.  It turns out that we forgot about all the headaches of finding a label that worked for us, bottles that would work, and all the rest of the logistical problems we dealt with almost two years ago.  And so we thought we might give it another try with some 2010 reds.  We think.

We'll just have to get together again and try some more barrels this summer to find out.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Renewing Things

So the craziness that is Tour de Tanks has taken off.  We had a bit slower weekend as our opener, not surprising considering the bad weather on Saturday and the terrible weather on Sunday.  Only 320 people came through for the whole weekend, down from around 750 in 2010.

This is not a complaint.  Far from it.  We have been working since the holidays to renovate our tasting room into a bigger space.  Last fall we experienced four separate days when we didn't have enough space our tasting bar to accommodate all of the people wanting to taste wine.  (Apologies if you were one of the ones who had to wait.)  So, we decided to rip out a wall and open the space up a bit more.  My father-in-law Doug did the lion's share of the work, including most of the demo and the studding out of the walls.  With new paint on the walls and ceiling, it almost looks as if we have a new place.

The piece de resistance is our new bottle storage system on the new wall we created.  It's something I saw originally at Deloach winery (a well-known Pinot producer in Sonoma.)  The bottles are stored horizontally on metal "fingers" that stick out from the wall.  It creates a large wall of wine that really shows off the great labels Kris created.  We punch it up a bit by highlighting the bottles with some spotlights.  All in all, I think it looks pretty sharp.

How does this tie in with Tour de Tanks you might ask?  Well, we suffered from lower attendance (but still the third highest of all the wineries) and yet our sales compared to last year were the same.  That's just crazy. 

I'm not sure what the reason for this is, but I would like to think it's my great presentation about Merlot and how much better a grape than Chambourcin it is.  But I'm pretty sure that's not the reason. 

It's probably my staff.  I added extra people on to help this year, and so all the visitors coming through get extra-special attention.  My folks are great, and I can't believe how lucky we are to have them.

And yet, the look of the new space could be making people like our wines a little better.  As a winemaker, I'd like to think this wouldn't be the case.  ("Since when should surroundings affect the taste of what's in the bottle!")  But humans are strange, complex, and predictably irrational beings.

Next step is to finish tiling the floor.  We'll see if that helps, too.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Coldness

Yep, it's winter.  Not sure what you all see out your window right now, but here in the Brogue it's cold and wet and foggy and white.  It's February in southern Pennsylvania, and I know I don't have much to complain about compared to our neighbors in New England, but I'd give a lot right now for a little sunshine and green grass.

The winter months are when we prune our vines back down.  After harvest, the vines drop their leaves after sucking up as many carbohydrates as possible.  These they will store through the winter and actually use to push the new growth for the first couple of weeks next spring.  This is the time in which we cut off around 90% of what grew from each vine the previous year and start to form the shape and manipulate the yield for the coming season.

We're trying a new pruning/training system this year.  My viticulture consultant--Lucie Morton, the best in the east--calls it "cane and a half".  Usually, a person either cane prunes or spur prunes.  This is a modification of the former.  Hopefully, it'll give us more consistent fruitfulness across the buds we leave, and therefore perhaps a better yield without compromising quality.

We're at least a third done at this time, with about 6 weeks to go.  I'd like to be done by the first of March, and then tied down by the middle of March.  These days, the majority of the actual pruning is done by Matt, my vineyard go-to man.  He's been pruning for over fifteen years.  I'm not sure he's sold yet on this new-fangled method.  I don't blame him.  Not sure I'd like to prune this way either.  But the proof will be this fall. 

We'll just have to wait and see.  Like most of the best things in life.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bottled Up

There's a significant movement in our industry with regards to innovative packaging.  A lot of it is driven by the desire for a smaller carbon-footprint with regards to wine consumption.  A lot is also influenced  by the desire to have a unique package out there, and sell a little more wine.  Let's remember that it took the milk industry years to figure out that the shape of their cartons and the shape of the cupholders in cars meant that no one bought their product at convenience stores and instead bought other beverages.  They probably lost marketshare permanently.

I know that there are lots of different types of ways to bottle wines, including funky-style bottles and pop-top cans.  As a small winery, I'm probably never going to be able to afford the equipment for a lot of the different "bottles" out there, but I've seriously considered screwcaps and box wines.  Keep in mind, this is not for our premium wines.  Our vinifera-based wines (dry reds and whites) will never see any container other than a bottle with a natural cork.  It's traditional, yes, but that's not a bad thing.  It works for us.

Boxes and caps are probably the wave of the future for everyday wines in the under $15 range.   They come with their own issues, because people seem to think that they signify bad wines.  Now, there's no doubt in mind that the majority of wine throughout history that was bottled in these two methods was probably pretty bad.  But these days we are in the midst of the best time in  the history of humanity to drink wine.  Best values are found here and now.  Not only that, there's an oversupply of wine coming out of California's existing vineyards.  The bulk wine market--on which the river of wine flows--is full of millions of gallons of alcoholic juice that's way better than Wild Irish Rose and MD 20/20. 

Most winemakers are pretty clear on this.  The container is a means to an end.  It's the method that allows us to have a transportable product that we can sell today to a consumer who can consume it at leisure.  Yes, there's still a snobbery against caps and boxes.  I think it's like Allegro was fifteen years ago.  When you used to drive up to our place, you saw a plain box winery with some run-down old trailers out front.  The place looked pretty low-end.  But if you went inside and braved the 50F tasting room in the winter and could see past the anatomically-correct deer made from grapevines, you would find some of the finest wines ever made on the East Coast.  There were a few people who didn't let the superficialities dictate against what their palates were telling them.

Hopefully people give boxes and caps the same kind of chance Allegro got.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What's In a Name?

We're going through lots of changes again at the winery.  Turns out what I used to consider the nicest part of our winery--the tasting room--turned into the least attractive part.  That is, after all the work we've been putting into everything else.

And, one more thing happened.  This past holiday season, we ended up having to ask customers to wait a little bit in order for room to be freed up at the tasting bar.  It was strange to think that after our expansion five years ago, we still needed to make a little more room for people.  This is a good thing, especially in light of the fact that there are a lot of people struggling out there these days.

We've been called "Allegro Vineyards" for over thirty years.  We are a vineyard, most proudly.  Although, you can't see the vines from the tasting room (yet.)  When people ask, I just tell them that the brothers didn't want to use valuable space for vineyard with a tasting room, so they put the winery in the least plantable space possible.  Of course, they didn't care a lot about marketing niceties, so customers never got a chance to see the great vines.

Two things, though, do come to mind.  They set up our website URL as "allegrowines."  They knew it was about the wine for our customers, not about the vines.  And, the sign out on Route 74 says "Allegro Winery and Vineyards."  Again, it was about the wine.

A name change is not a small thing.  It changes what we think we are.  And these days we're definitely a winery.  And our customers think the same thing.

Allegro Winery.  And vineyards.  Allegro Winery.

What do you think?