Sunday, December 30, 2012
Saturday, December 1, 2012
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 apart.....by 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
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?
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
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
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
Monday, August 13, 2012
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 kidding...it'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
Thursday, April 12, 2012
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
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
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. 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
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.