Sunday, December 30, 2012

Thinkings for the end of the world....I mean the end of 2012.

(No this isn't another post about the Mayan calendar that our media misconstrued.......)

What is it about the end of the year and the beginning of a new one that makes some of us look to make changes in our lives?  Is it the idea of starting with a clean slate, that we can somehow start over?  Do we have reasons to start over?  Did we mess things up so royally last year that we feel the need to wipe our lives clean and show that we can do better?

The life we live in wine is different than most, and I understand this.  Or, at least, I pretend to.....  We have a cycle to our lives.  There's the growth cycle in the vineyard from pruning to budbreak to summer canopy management to harvest.  There's a second cycle as well in the cellar that runs from crush to aging to bottling.

I know most people's lives have some cycles as well.  Teachers go from school year to vacations and back to teaching.  Retailers have the ebb and flow of holiday sales and normal sales.  Manufacturing pushes to meet demands, although the peaks and valleys may not be so high.  Perhaps service industries encounter similar seasonal pushes and pulls.

What's unique about the wine industry is that we have two cycles that run concurrently but out of phase with each other.  As we're working on wines from one year in the cellar, we are working on the grapes for the following year in the vineyard.  The vineyard is always racing head, pulling us into the next year.  And grapegrowers are constantly thinking six months ahead if they can.  (I always seem to best imagine the next winter's pruning in February when we're picking fruit off the vines in August.)

This messes with our heads in a pretty fundamental way.  Ultimately, it makes it pretty tough to leave the industry because we're either working on something we have a lot of investment in (the wine we started growing in the vineyard a year or two ago) or we're looking forward to the potential of something (the vines and grapes we're currently working towards.)

It's a vicious cycle, Catch-22esque, that pulls us in like a black hole and makes us not want to leave.

The fact that it's wine we're talking about only compounds this issue.  Wine is good.

But, back to the idea of these strange New Year's resolutions that so many of us have: I don't get it.  And it's because of the cycles we have in grapegrowing and winemaking.  We're always starting over, numerous times a year.  We have so many opportunities to improve what we're doing and change how we do it.  We do it constantly, all throughout the year.  Mother Nature changes everything we do every single year, and we are compelled to change with her.

So, go ahead and make your resolutions next month.  But think about maybe making some in February or December for that matter.  Nothing wrong with that.  And if you keep making resolutions, then maybe January won't be so depressing...and maybe you'll get caught in the same type of glorious cycle I am, where everything changes around you constantly and you're always changing with it.  It's a good thing.  Tiring, yes, but a good sort of tired.

Happy January!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Dissemination of Misinformation

I was talking today with a woman who mentioned that they had once visited a winery that had told them about the special processes they used--or specifically didn't use--that made their wines different and potentially better than other wines.

She said the winery didn't use "sulf-something."  I correctly guessed that the material in question was sulfur dioxide, the source of sulfites in wine, the raison d'etre of the "contains sulfites" warning we must place on every bottle of wine in this country.

Sulfites are extremely misunderstood by the general public, and not very well understood by a lot of winemakers.  But most wine in this world is made with the use of sulfites.  I don't know actual figures, but I would hazard a guess that it's around 99% of all wine made.  Sulfites are ubiquitous in our industry, and for good reason.  They work and they're safe when used correctly.

I'm not a doctor--but I play one in the winery--so check with your own doctor if this has implications for you.  But it's my understanding that sulfites--even though they are blamed for headaches--do not cause them.  Headaches are usually from some types of biogenic amines found in wines.  (Note the similarity to "histamines" for which we take "anti-histamines" when we have allergies.)  People can be allergic to them, and headaches are one of the symptoms.

Sulfites on the other hand tend to cause airway breathing issues.  As I can attest to.  When I get a strong whiff of pure potassium metabisulfite (which is the form of sulfites we use), I get wheezy.  Not fun, and you try to avoid it.  It's not good for you, but it's part of working in a winery sometimes unfortunately.

This is all good information, but where's the misinformation?  Well, the winery the woman was telling me about had told her that they don't use sulfites because of all the bad things they do.  This was news to me, because the Romans figured out long ago about burning sulfur wicks in their amphora to keep their wines fresh.  Not using sulfites is risky (it can be done, but you have to be a pretty good chemist to pull it off.)

I asked her if she liked the wines.  Turns out she didn't.  They were all bad she said, and she'd never go back.  All the wines needed was a small dose of sulfites in their life, and that winery could have made a few more sales and retained a customer.

I went to a similar winery once about 13 years ago.  No sulfites.  Washed all the grapes. Destemmed by hand.  Seemed like an interesting angle on how to set one's winery apart for all the other ones.  Turns out they really were setting themselves making bad wine.

I'm not here to tell folks how to make wine or what to sell.  The free market will hopefully bear out, and those making sub-par products will not be around down the road.  But until then, there are some simple things we all can do.  And the first and foremost one is to get our facts straight.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Myth of Terroir

For winegeeks, there's nothing more essential to wine than terroir.  ("Terroir" is a French term that essentially translates as the "whatness" of the place the grapes grew, perhaps the intersection of soil, vine, and sun.)  Supposedly, it's what makes a Merlot wine taste different if it's grown on one side of the road as opposed to the other.

This is not a myth.  Grapes do taste different when grown in different soils.  Or in different times or climates or ages or when there are different winemakers involved or the bottles are of different ages and ....  You get the picture.  Wine tastes different all the time.  It's crazy like that.  It's what keeps me coming back.

But what I think a lot of winegeeks miss is the fact that our lives are full of subjectivity.  In order for something to be, it really needs to be perceived.  Now, I don't want to devolve into some sort of Lockean tabula rasa, but I would suggest that subject is more important than object when it comes to wine.

Could it be that that the where and when I bottle of wine is consumed is actually just as influencing a factor on the perception of the wine as where and when it was grown?

Could it?

OK, probably not.  But could it be more important to the drinker than everything else? 

Why do we allow wine to take such a mystical place in our cultural psyche?  It's a very humble beverage, and in some ages wasn't much more than rotten fruit preserved through alcohol.  And yet it pins our brains to the walls, it hammers our senses and makes us want to speak to the world what we taste.

The concept of terroir is one that places all the power at the source of the vineyard, but the uniqueness of the wine experience is one that vineyard blends can bring about just as much magicality as single-vineyard wines.  Two winemakers making wine from the same vineyard can overrule the expected terroir and produce completely different wines.

I propose that the singularity of wine--the thingness in fermented grapes that makes us speak of it like blithering idiots--is more than just where it comes from.  It's where the bottle ends up, who it ends up with, and why it is consumed.  The connection with the land is only appreciated when it's consumed with friends that build memories.  And memories are the only keys that we have left that we have had a life.  And isn't that what it's all about?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Clean-Up

Hurricane Sandy passed overhead a few days ago.  It was the first time I really felt like I was prepared for a storm with my family.  Batteries charged.  Battery inverter ready.  Bathtub full of water (we're on well water out here....) Candles.  The whole nine yards.

Then we watched the tracking of the eye and they were forecasting it coming right over us.  I was bracing myself for something awful.

It turns out that our winery--the one that loses power on a Friday night when the weather's fine--the one that loses power to thunderstorms--made it through Sandy without much more than a mess from the trees and some washed out roads.  Again in my life, I realize that we're living in a world that we just don't understand.  And, believe me, that freaks me out more than anything else.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Harvest 2012 still?

There are days when people ask me, "So, how's harvest going?"  Most times I wish they wouldn't, because it causes me to reflect (if I decide to answer them honestly and consciously.) 

This hasn't been an easy year, with everything from early frost threats to new plantings, from rain that bring disease to rain that brings late summer growth and disease with it, from machinery not working at harvest to machinery breaking down at harvest, from weird insects in the vineyard to weirder insects on the crush pad stinging people.

All in all it makes me wish for 2013.  Maybe after harvest I'll start to taste the wines critically and come to appreciate all our hard work.  It gives me something to look forward to in the coming months.  Until then, all I'll look forward to is this.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Brush with the Big Boys

(For those who have never heard the story before........)

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 with 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.”  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.  Allegro received a monetary settlement as well, paying for the honorary “Opus One Bridge” and “Opus One Corker.”  Both are still in operation.

Additionally, it was noted that Mondavi was to come to this small hamlet and taste the wines.  He never showed....

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Summer

It's been a tough summer, that for certain.  The primary evidence is that I haven't had time for a decent blog posting recently.  Hopefully that will change....

Who am I's August and all hell's about to break loose in the form of harvest.

Anyway, I will observe that this 2012 growing season may be the hardest (physically and mentally--and by mentally, I mean of course the added stress to the physical from the stress.))  I think I am on my 16th or 17th spray so far.  It's just getting old.  The early start, the frost, the slow growth and disease pressure in April, the heat in May and start-and-stop growth associated with it, the dry and the heat and the humidity in June and July, and then the late afternoon rains and downy issues in August.  It all comes down to being way too tired before harvest has even started.

Time to cross the fingers.....

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Old Tasting Notes

Back about seven years ago, we did a tasting on the Allegro deck of a lot of John's old wines.  I like to go back and revisit notes to see if I can glean any wisdom from my ramblings.  I'll post them here in case you still have some old Allegro bottles hanging around.

Allegro Library Tasting—September 11, 2005
The following are my tasting notes from our tasting.  We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon on the deck at the winery. The weather was beautiful, as were the wines.  John loved sitting around the deck sharing wines, and it felt as if he and Tim were there with

*Maturity dates take into account that the taster likes older wines at most stages of maturity, and it reflects the wine’s potential drinkable longevity.

1999 Riesling
Although John and I thought we were more Rheingau in flavor profile and style, this wine was more classic Mosel.  The acidity was bracing, the bright fruit starting to fade, and the kerosene starting to reveal its heritage.  This wine is no longer youthful and not quite mature.  It’s still struggling to integrate into a mature Riesling.  Hold for 3-4 years if you still have some.

1984 Reserve Chardonnay
Perhaps not the best example I’ve tasted.  This wine usually shows a “peaches and cream” character.  This bottle had a wonderfully light nose, but seemed light on the mid-palate, and short on the finish.  Drink now with light seafood dishes.
2002 Reserve Chardonnay
This wine is finally starting to come into its own.  I feel it’s probably the finest wine I’ve made.  The pineapple/assorted tropical fruit character is finally back, along with the complementary barrel-fermentation notes.  It exhibits more acidity than I would have liked, but I think it says volumes for its ageability.  A wonderful mouthfeel ends with a nice clean toasty finish.  Drink now through 2010.

1988 Chambourcin
The wine is drinkable!  A little dried out, but still showing a bit of American oak on the nose, along with some dried fruit character.  In true Chambourcin style, it carries nice acidity and finishes short.  It changes quickly in the glass.  Drink now.

1982 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
This was a classic aged claret, full of leather and licorice.  The palate still showed some supple tannins, and swirling the glass was like changing the blend.  Mature yet very drinkable.  Drink now through 2008.

1990 Cabernet Sauvignon
The nose showed non-Cadenza characters of pepper and olives, while the fruit was a fading dream.  The acidity was a bit higher, emphasizing some tannin still.  Drink now.

1991 Cadenza
This one always blows me away.  The strength and depth to this wine amazes me.  I could get lost in a glass.  The tannins are resolved, the fruit still carries and blends with dark spice and leather.  The finish lasts.  This one gives me goose bumps.

1995 Cadenza
The ’95 has always been a sleeping monster of a wine.  These were the ripest grapes ever in the vineyard, but the wine has always been tight, closed, and hard.  Finally, we are starting to see glimpses of its greatness.  This is a wine that, at its peak, will be the most beautifully balanced glass in our world.  It is power and finesse, strength and beauty.  The nose opens slowly, the fruit unravels, but the interplay of the tannins and acid and flavors captures you and drags you in.  Drink from 2007-2020.

1998 Cadenza
What a polished wine at this time.  A Cadenza only seven years old and drinking at its peak.  John may be disappointed that it may not live as long, but it’s a fruitful and luscious glass of Cadenza.  The dark fruit lingers and coats, and the finish lasts.  The tannins are still fairly prevalent.  On their resolution, what more could you ask for?  Maybe some filet ....  Drink 2006-2014.

1999 Coda
The schizophrenia in this wine has finally hit all the personalities.  It smells like Cadenza, and by that I mean it smells like Cabernet.  After going through its Nebbiolo and Pinot phases, it’s finally found the one that lasts.  This is one for immediate consumption.  Enjoy it now.  The tannin structure says it will last a few more years, or provide a backbone against a nice piece of tenderloin.  Drink now through 2009.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon
A wine quite unlike the Cadenzas.  The tannins are supple and nearly resolved at this time, providing for a wonderful glass of Cabernet.  Dark fruit and oak prevail on the nose, but the structure provides focus for the fruit when it hits the palate.  Drink now through 2008.

1980 Cabernet Sauvignon
The wine that started it all, and with good reason.  Imagine the 1991 just eleven years older.  This wine entices with a subdued nose, but the depth of complexity it reaches is remarkable.  The palate is full and round and mellow and smooth, the acid shows but doesn’t startle.  This is a glass of wine that John would have adored.  It’s old-school old Bordeaux.  Lovely to the end.  Drink now through 2010.

As you can see, I was taken by these wines.  Now, I am biased.  These are special wines to me in that I know the vines where they came from.  There are highlights and lowlights, and for me I need them both.  Without the 1992, I wouldn’t feel the way I do about the 1995.  The 1990 needs the 1991.  It’s all connected.

It’s a wonderful place that Bill found and planted here, that Tim and John worked, and that I live in.  It speaks volumes for our region that this little spot of earth in southern York county can produce wines that Pennsylvania has never seen the likes of before.  A little dirt, a hole-in-the-wall cellar, and a lot of passion produced a little magic that we got to enjoy on a wonderful afternoon.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Getting old....

It's time for me to face it. I'm not getting any younger. In fact, I'm getting older. Lucky for me, it's better than the alternative.

There once was a time when I was the young gun out there. Young winemaker, young winery owner. I didn't get a lot of respect for what I was dong back then. And it bugged me. Looking back, I have to admit I don't do things too much differently now than I used to. But I get a bit more respect. Who knows why....

There's the saying that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Turns out it's wrong when literally interpreted with dogs, but I have always wondered whether it might actually apply to people.

Now, whether you agree with the idea that I am old or not is up for debate. I am 42. Not old by most people's standards, but old by mine by my own eyes. So, why dwell on it? It's the newness of the vineyard this year that brings it to full light.

The vineyard is in a hurry this year, as Mother Nature tends to be, too. A very youthful characteristic, to be hurried. As my body starts to slow ever so slightly, and I fight it at every twitch, the life in the vineyard starts to speed up. The year is starting earlier than ever before, and I've never seen it like this. On top of that, there's the threat of frost. Devastating freezes that would slice the wind out of our sails financially. It would devastate me emotionally and ultimately physically. So far, we've been lucky. We've had innumerable close-calls. Tonight is another one.

 I actually broke out my sprayer and put on a potassium-polysaccharide spray (called "KDL") to help lower the freezing point of the moisture in the small leaves in the Chardonnay and Merlot. Not sure if it'll actually do any good, but it at least made me feel better. Gave me a sense that I could control something in this out-of-control season. Or at least, do the least that I could with what I have.

So, the threat of frost, the worry of freezing, is getting old. Here I am, feeling like an old dog, and nature throws me a new trick. What to do? Stay set in my ways and think that it doesn't bother me? (It does.) Or that I don't have to change? (I do.) You have to keep going. It's what keeps people in the black holes maelstrom of the wine industry. We're always looking forward with no time to look back. We just wish the flesh wasn't quite so weak when the spirit was so willing.

So, if you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch. And I'm running.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

This Year's Tour

Tour de Tanks.  The very sound of that phrase demands a shift in my thinking for the next month.  Gone are the weekends, gone is the inbox with only thirty messages to answer, gone is the focus on winemaking.

It's a tough sacrifice, but for those of us who aren't backed by tons of spare capital, you do what you have to do.  The beauty of this Mason-Dixon Wine Trail event is that it brings the wineries up onto the radar of the local folks in the area.  Sure, we get a lot of people coming from out of town to see what this new wine region is about.  But for the wineries it's really about cementing our relationships with our neighbors, whoever they might be.  And the fact that wine drinkers can compare apples to apples helps as well.

I've spent the past few years basically putting on a mini-show in the barrel area.  (And, yes, I do barrels, even though it's called "Tour de Tanks."  Part of my ornery spirit.....)  At this point, we're finally at the point where at least 1/2 the people coming through have actually been out to our place before.  We are off the beaten path, but thanks to the invention of GPS's, we now have more customers than before.

This year I am trying something different, and we'll see if it works.  I'd like to think that a lot of our audience has experienced local wines at this point and has at least heard of us.  With that in mind, I hope to avoid telling the basics of our winery's history and instead focus on questions people might have.  People come out to the wineries during this event for an experience.  For our part, we're hoping to share what we do with them and sell lots of wine at the same time.  The question is, what makes for the best experience.

I've decided I'm going to try to stop talking at people and start talking with them.  Hopefully we can get some lively conversations going.  A little wine might help.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

My Wife is a Freak....

Turns out that I quoted my lovely wife the other day in an interview with a journalist.  For years, Kris has said that Chambourcin tastes like millipedes.  In general.  Not all Chambourcins, just the ones that are over-cropped (and by that I mean, more than one cluster per shoot.)

Now, I'm not sure what she means by "millipedes" since it would seem to imply that she has tasted one.  But just like I have never licked wet concrete, I still can relate to that character in wine.  I suppose she is doing the same thing.  But millipedes?  Suffice it to say that this was a memorable read for some people.  On top of that, I know what flavor it is in Chambourcin that she is referring to.  Whenever she says a Chambourcin tastes like millipedes, I usually say, yes, it does taste like Chambourcin.  (It's part of the flavor profile of Chambourcin that I struggle to minimize in my winemaking.

Anyway, it turns out, she can smell millipedes in a room.  Always has.  I know, I thought she was crazy, too.  So, we started investigating what millipedes might smell like.  Here's a passage from my favorite cloud-sourced knowledge base (Wikipedia):

"Many species also emit poisonous liquid secretions or hydrogen cyanide gas through microscopic pores called odoriferous glands along the sides of their bodies as a secondary defense.[8][9][10] Some of these substances are caustic and can burn the exoskeleton of ants and other insect predators, and the skin and eyes of larger predators. Animals such as Capuchin monkeys have been observed intentionally irritating millipedes in order to rub the chemicals on themselves to repel mosquitoes."

Hydrogen cyanide might be one of the secretions that she is smelling.  Now, that seems like a toxic chemical, and in no way am I implying that Chambourcin has anything toxic in it.  (Although some French authorities and New York's own vinifera pioneer Konstantin Frank used to claim that hybrids caused cancer--a claim that is pretty ridiculous.)  We decided to delve into what this "hydrogen cyanide" substance from the millipedes might be.  Again, it seems that it only causes minor irritations to humans, and is in no way harmful to humans in any significant way.  But then we stumbled upon this (also from Wikipedia):

"HCN has a faint, bitter, burnt almond-like odor that only some people are able to detect owing to a genetic trait."  Ah ha!  So, my wife isn't crazy, she's just a freak of nature.  (Turns out her brother can also smell these creatures.)  Me, on the other hand, can't smell the damn things at all.

But it makes me wonder, first of all, if this is actually the compound that she is smelling, and if so is it actually in the wines themselves.  And, secondly, is it the part of the wine that people object to (including myself.)  Lastly, why is it in low-yield Chambourcins, rose-styles, and port-styles that this flavor profile is less prevalent?  I don't know, and I think I may have just added to the mystery of it all.  But it does make for an interesting story.

Full-disclosure: I do make Chambourcin as a winemaker, and I make it primarily because it sells.  I think it's true calling lie in either a Port or rose-style wine, or perhaps a southern French tank-styled red.  I think it's an important part of the grapegrowing landscape in this part of the world, just like it is in Beaujolais where it makes up a lot of the vins de table and vin de pays wines in France.

But when it comes to making a name for ourselves on the world's stage, I think I'll stick with my Cabs and Merlots....

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Odd Man Out

It's how I feel these days.

I first came to Allegro as a wide-eyed, slightly naive winemaker.  I thought I knew what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it.  I met John who opened my eyes to a world of winemaking I never thought possible in Pennsylvania.  I had never set my sights on anything more than just making good wine and being my own boss.

Because of this little miraculous place, I realized what we are capable of here in the Commonwealth.  The possibility of someday joining the hallowed ranks of prestige wine regions is a very live one for us.  John's old wines still continue to dazzle and amaze me.  Some of my older ones are showing the same power and finesse.

Unfortunately that brings me to my point.  When I first met John, he showed me his style of making wine to his tastes.  It involved tannin, structure, some more tannin extraction, a good but more structure, some acid, and some more tannin.  And fruit.  Then he pulled out a ten year old Cadenza and I was hooked.  It was beautiful!  Soft, supple tannins with layers of savory fruit on levels of bottle bouquet.  (It was the '91.)

I couldn't wait to make wines like this.  Of course, waiting is really what I had to do.  And even though his young wines were thought of as tannic mosters, you could see the quality of fruit and depth of winemaking subtleties shining through.  These were wines made for the long-haul.  Wines that would climb the steep wine-developing hill and plant their flag on top of it all and proclaim their glory.  These were wines that would awe you in their youth with their quality, yet taunt you: "Will you live long enough to enjoy me in my prime?"

Which brings me to today.  We were part of a tasting the other day.  (I won't refer to it as a competition, as the controls aren't quite the same and the organizers don't refer to it as such either.  Nonetheless, they did pick a winner.  Spoiler alert: it wasn't Allegro.)  The 2007 and 2008 Cadenzas were the last dry wines tasted.  All the previous wines were of a diametrically opposed class and style.  They were smooth, fruity, soft, and fruity and smooth.  And for the most part, were of exceptional winemaking quality.  Not necessarily what I would enjoy drinking, but I could tell that most of them were made by good winemakers on their game.

When the Cadenzas came around, things changed for me.  Tannins showed up in the tasting, as did dark fruit and savory spice.  I had to retrieve my crystal ball, because these were not here-and-now wines.  (Even the judges, I heard, were able to easily spot the Allegro wines in the tasting in the prior blind judging.)  I also noticed how they seemed to throw people for a loop.  These wines needed explaining.

And here's my explanation.  When you're trying to make good wine in a wine region that is on the edge of viability, where grapegrowing is pushing the envelope, where grapes struggle to hit peak ripeness, I feel it's imperative to extract as much sap, as much soul from the fruit as possible.  In warmer climes, the grapes are naturally full of fruit flavors, but the soul of the fruit gets lost under layers of fruitiness.  It leads to over-extracted wines when winemakers go for it there.

Here, to get to the heart of the grape, we do simple extended macerations and barrel-aging, but by going above-and-beyond, we find that we can peer inside the window of the wine and help its spirit escape.

Not a very good explanation, I know.  And the wines still seem to fall on deaf ears.  The most popular wine of the tasting was a no-tannin, 15 month-old Chambourcin fruit bomb.  And the message is clear.  The question is, do I care to listen.

At what point do we start to make wines for other people, to let them direct our creative and artistic impulses?  I guess, it's when I start to go out of business.

But until then, I am sticking to what I do best, which is make wines for me....and John.