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.


  1. Written from the heart, a glimpse into your soul! You are ever the philosopher in this latest blog post and so very right. "Why" you do what you do is one of the reasons why - in addition to the wine - people are discovering Allegro.

  2. What makes you think "the wines still seem to fall on deaf ears"? Your wines are absolutely outstanding. Popularity and quality are two very different things.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Brenda and Marcel. It's good to know that people are reading my ramblings.

    Marcel, you raise a very good point about the difference between popularity and quality. It might even lead to another blog post. In essence, though, I am depressed by the fact that quality doesn't lead to popularity. There are market forces at work, obviously, which may lead one away from so-called "quality" wines. But these same market entice me into producing more "popular" wines in order to stay in the market (i.e. stay in business.)

    I guess they're only falling on deaf ears in the sense that I am not reaching as wide a market as I would like. The market I thought I could touch--the wine-connoisseur--seems to only have an interest in an emerging wine region if it's on the other side of the world.

  4. Thanks for the clarification Carl.

    There are always two approaches to this kind of problem. One is economical, the other philosophical. (ok, there are probably more, but anyways...)

    The economical is tricky because I don't know the details. But perhaps you can turn the argument around - if it is true that wine connoisseurs only have an interest in wines from the other side of the world, keep in mind that your *are* on the other side of the world for many of them. Perhaps there's an untapped market waiting to be discovered?

    The philosophical argument is pragmatic, but sometimes in conflict with the economical. It remains powerful though. To quote Steve Jobs (who has always made high quality products): "We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it."

    Will drink a Cadenza tonight in your honor.

  5. Marcel,

    I like your comment about people on the other side of the world. It's on one of my many lists of things to do.

    Steve Jobs was brilliant. I am a staunch anti-Apple person, but for reasons that only reinforce the fact that I think he's brilliant.



By posting on here, you are guaranteeing that what you say here is worthwhile and worth saying. And something that you would say in the presence of your mother. If not, I will be forced to remove it.