Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Drink Like You Live Here 2013

Drink Like You Live Here

I don’t know how you feel about this, but for me, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.  As a guy, you know that the way to my heart is through my stomach.  (As a winemaker, it’s across my palate….)  And ever since I was a kid, I’d look forward to eating more than my appetite could handle.

Of course, now I am much different.  (OK, I am, but not in the fundamental ways…..)  We celebrated Thanksgiving early this year as my folks came out for a visit and we were able to share the time with Kris’s parents and our boys with as close to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner as I’ve had in a long time. 

Ours may be one of the few holiday dinners that has only local wine on the table.  And this is important.  There is a movement afoot these days, spear-headed by the Buy Fresh/Buy Local organization that seeks to bring locally made food-products into the local marketplace.  This is important for many reasons, but the one that hits home to me is that it just makes good sense: Why transport anything with regularity around the world when it can be avoided?

There is a sense of place with wine as there is with any food.  There’s a reason why crabs and apples taste different in different parts of the world.  And, yes, I agree that there are times when I want to enjoy something that isn’t from this area.  (I’m a sucker for Bordeaux wines…..)  But the everyday meals that make up the bulk of our sustenance are not usually filled with these exotic treats.  Our main food source is usually something we’re familiar with, something comfortable.  Something we’ve grown up with.

But what has become familiar to us–more  often than not—is not grown anywhere near us.  How many times do you eat lettuce from California?  Strawberries (in the winter!) from Florida?  Or grapes from South America?  It bothers me, bothers me, bothers me that even for someone like myself, I can’t find a sensible and simple solution to eat locally regularly.  The places we go to in our busy lives are places of convenience.  I don’t have time to go to ten different places for our food. 

I’m not trying to come up with solutions, just pointing out the problems.  This is bigger than you and me.  It’s going to take all of us.  And we’ll have to start out with small steps.  My suggestion is that the wines you drink this holiday season come from this side of the Mississippi River.  Get in touch with what’s around you.  And, drink like you live here. 



P.S. I have to thank Chef Andy Little formerly of Sheppard Mansion fame in Hanover and now in Nashville, for not being mad at me for adulterating his tag line…..

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The End of Harvest

This one was tough.  Although I probably write that every year to some extent, I really think this one was something else. 

Every year is different for us.  The years when the rains come makes it doubly difficult as winemakers to create magic in the cellar.  We have to be extra creative while at the same time knowing full well that all of our efforts won't create the beauty we hoped for back in the spring.

But then when the year is beautiful, we work extra hard because we want to make the most of what Mother Nature has granted us.

This year started out like a tough one, where we fought all sorts of weather issues all the way through August.  I thought it was going to take some real miracle to have nice wines in the cellar from 2013.  But then September blessed us with the best weather I've ever seen for that month.  The vintage turned on us in a good way, and we were staring a beautiful vintage down both barrels.  We did an about-face in our cellar strategies and started going for broke.

This was the start-and-stop-and-start-wait-no-go-then-slow-down-then-run-flat-out year.  And I loved every minute of it.  There are parts of it I didn't like, but that doesn't mean I didn't love it.  Those of you with kids will understand.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pray for No Hurricanes

If you’re like me, you’ve been loving the weather these past few weeks.  By all accounts, we have had strange year, and for those of us in agriculture it’s been an extraordinarily tough one.

What started out as an average spring—with budbreak in the vineyard happening later than the wicked-early dates of the past few years—still provided us with a few frost scares.  I have numerous colleagues who sustained significant—almost traumatic—damage to their crops for this year.  (When a vineyard is frosted, secondary buds will push, but the resulting yields are usually down anywhere from 50-75%.....)

Then the spring stayed cool and Mother Nature turned on the water faucet.  Record amounts of rain came down in places, leaving us to worry about mildews and molds nightly until….about June 20th or so the heat came on and the growing season entered high gear.  I’ve never seen as much explosive growth as this year, as if the vines were waiting for it, like a switch being flipped.  All that rain had made the nutrients in the soil overly available to the vines, and the heat opened the flood gates. 

It was tough to squeeze five weeks of work into two weeks of time, and we felt behind for all of it.  Luckily, Matt and Rebecca did a great job with our canopy, and the grapes finished the summer sitting pretty.  Problem was, they were still growing.  And this is where I we’re lucky no one can see much of our vineyard, because I had to pull out an ugly trick.

In order to stop the vines from growing, we let the weeds underneath the vines take over.  Everything from marestail to pigweed to foxtail grew like crazy, soaking up the all the energy that had poured down on us this summer.  It got so bad that we had to physically push the weeds down to keep them out of our fruit zone.  But then a crazy thing happened.  The water stopped and it the sun started to shine in earnest.

And the weeds worked just like a brake, stopping those vines from growing in their tracks.  I’d never seen it work this well.

Beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon clusters at Allegro
Now, when you go out in the vineyard, all you see is row after row of vines quietly ripening fruit, having given up on the struggle to grow leaves.  And, this is a great thing, because I’ve never seen such beautiful fruit before.  Allegro may be primed for a record-setting yield, but let’s keep this in perspective: most vineyards achieve 3-4 tons per acre on average.  Our average is 1.5 tons per acre due to our older vines.  I’m only hoping to see 2.5 tons per acre if we’re lucky.  (Aahhh, the curse/blessing of growing grapes in York county…..)

So, as you enjoy this wonderful weather, believing it a respite from the heat we had, bear in mind that I’m over here thanking my lucky stars for it after a roller-coaster ride the like of which I’ve never seen.  It’s not over yet, but so far we’ve had the slowest start to the hurricane season in the last thirty years.  I just hope they stay away, along with the birds, the deer, groundhogs, yellow jackets, fruit flies, stinkbugs, lady beetles, etc, etc, etc.

It;'s far from over, but you’ll have to come out next year to see if we hit the jackpot……

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Teach Your Children Well

It’s always been an anomaly to me to think about the fact that I am a winemaker.  As in, I “make” wine.  Or, as I think some days, I make wine happen.  It’s not really the fact that I do this, but that the French don’t have winemakers.

OK, yes, they do make wine in France.  Some of the best in the world for some of the longest time in history.  But what I mean is that they don’t have a word for “winemaker.”  They call themselves vignerons.  More in the sense of “winegrower.” 

I know, I know, you’ve heard it for years.  “Wine is grown in the vineyard.”  And, even though it sounds trite and marketable, it is true.  But, then, why do we have winemakers in this country?

If you’ve ever stood in a vineyard by yourself, you might get a sense of it.  Especially if you do it early in the season before buds break open.  You get a feeling of birth, a sense of life springing anew.  I felt this even before I have kids of my own, so I know it’s not a parent-thing.  The vines awaken every year from dormancy and rush off with a flush of growth that is unstoppable.

Kind of like kids, in a way……

The French have another term when it comes to describing the process of the creation of wine: elevage.  Essentially, this refers to the “raising” or “bringing up” of the wine.  (Interesting sidenote: eleve in French means student, so there’s a teacher-student type of relationship that goes on here as well.  The mentor (the winemaker) educating the apprentice  (the wine) in the ways of being, well, wine.)

So, the French seem to grow grapes and raise wine.  There’s no “making” involved.  Now, I’m not so na├»ve to think that there’s not a bunch of white-gowned scientists in lots of wineries all over France.  You can’t make wine without science, but you can’t let science get in the way of making great wine.  (There’s a lot of art in wine, but at the same time, I see too many winemakers try to be “artistic” and claim “art” when really it’s just bad winemaking and bad wine.)

I think the term elevage speaks to a cultural understanding of one’s relationship to wine.  We as winemakers are not here—in the best sense—to create wine in our own image.  We’re here to bring it along, to help the fruit become what it wants to be with our guidance.  You give the fruit (the child) all the tools (education) needed to be the best wine (adult) possible.  My friend and predecessor John used to call it “winesitting” and he was right (and very French.)  It is that…along with trying really hard not to screw it up.

Does this happen all the time at Allegro?  No, of course not.  We have bills to pay like everyone does, and we need to be practical.  But there are many times when I see that we are on to something special, when we have a chance to do something extraordinary.  And it’s then that the paradigm shift from winemaking to winesitting occurs.  And it’s then that I think we become a little more like parents to children with our wines and vines.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Where Passion Lies

Maybe I’ve been a winemaker too long.  When I was younger, I worked very different jobs, fancying myself a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none.  I took a lot of pride in that, trying to align myself with ancient Greek ideals of a sound mind in a sound body.

But after a while I realized that I was getting tired of not being good at something.  As a kid, I figured out how to get by on the minimum quantity or quality necessary.  I remember that a lot of my report cards used to say something to the effect of “he did fine, but it would be good if he applied himself a little more…..”  I’m sure there are a lot of kids out there who worried their respective parents and teachers with the worry of lost potential.  Maybe you were one of those, too.

So, I’m now in an industry—and, specifically, a profession—where it’s almost a given that I be in it because I have a “passion” for what I do.  There are professions in the world where the concept of “passion” is thrown about a bit.  But for winemakers, it seems to be amplified.  It’s part of the marketing of the wine.  The winemaker is always described as someone who is “passionate about creating wine from X in X region.”  You read it so many times, it starts to sound hollow. 

In fact, I know good and well that a lot of wineries aren’t fueled by people passionate about creating great wine.  Instead, they’re very passionate about creating a commodity that lots of people will buy and return for, falling beautifully into place with their business plans.  There’s nothing wrong with being like this, I would just argue that it’s a little disingenuous.  Sure, it’s “passion.”  But is this really the passion that people really are talking about? 

Granted, we at Allegro make wines that we’re not passionate about.  Yes, it’s part of our business model.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t make them well—we do.  In fact, I’d argue that our more popular wines are better made than most popular wines due to our passion for making great dry wines.  Here’s an analogy that I like that demonstrates this: NASCAR.  These million-dollar cars that the teams race around tracks on weekends are a great spectator sport for us.  But all the pressure that it takes to make a great race car fuels research into making those cars better.  And the technology that gets developed trickles down through the manufacturers into the cars that you and I drive everyday.  I think the same thing applies to winemaking.

What is happening for me at Allegro is that our popular wines are getting, well, more popular.  We’re spending a lot of effort and time producing them for you all.  And this is part of the plan, because in a nice circular way, these wines help pay for the dry wines we’re passionate about. 

But, conveniently, our dry wines are getting more popular as well.  Even with our 2011 reds on our list, the sales have been great.  This was a tough vintage, but I think people have started to recognize that when push came to shove, we pulled out all the stops to make some really nice wines with our backs up against the wall.  That’s what passion does to people.

As I look ahead to this fall, I’m planning new things to try out in the cellar and vineyard to make our wines even better.  This will be my sixteenth vintage this year, and it doesn’t get old even though I do.  The days seem longer, the nights shorter, and overall it’s tougher.  And with every passing year, the passion only grows stronger.  Tells me I’m in the right place.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Of Basketball and Wine….

Yes, I’m going there.

So, it’s now April, the most exciting time of March Madness.  We’ve finished our wine trail event (Tour de Tanks), and thanks to all who came out and stopped by our little place in the Brogue.

The timing of it is all wrong for me.  For those of you who don’t know…..I’m over six feet tall and went to high school in Indiana….and grew up in Kansas….and still couldn’t make the varsity basketball team.  But, it was ingrained in me from an early age that basketball was more than just a game.

As people come to visit us during the Tour, we hand out a page with some wine descriptions as well as a brief history.  If you turn the sheet over, you’ll find a list of questions that I hope give people some inspiration to ask in order to start a conversation during our time together in the cellar.  Most people seem to gloss over them, preferring to be thiefed-out their entertainment from our barrels.  But every once in a while there are some brave souls who stick their necks out, take responsibility for their education and ask some questions.

One of the queries I have suggested is, “What does basketball have to do with wine.”  This isn’t easy for me, as wine is really what my life is about.  It’s how I show who I am and what I’m about.  I am reminded of a Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson from years ago where two gorillas are sitting around eating and then one says to the other, “We all like bananas, George, but for me it goes deeper than that.”  I feel that way about wine.

When it comes to basketball, I am reminded that people’s personalities come out when they play.  It’s not like football or baseball, where the people are hidden behind helmets or are yards away from each other.  Basketball is close.  You can see exactly who is who and what is what.  The conflict on the court is immediate.  You work together, you trade sweat and elbows, you pass and receive.  You run hard, you take charges, you bounce up, you call your own fouls. 

And there are some people you like playing with and some you don’t.  And you find that after the game, there are some people you like to hang with and some you don’t.  And these are the same people.

It’s the same way with wine.  We show ourselves as winemakers in our wines.  I’ve told many people that I can’t be friends with a winemaker who makes bad wine.  I just can’t.  It’s not that I’m arrogant; it’s just that I can’t get along with someone whose focus is the same as mine and yet doesn’t get it.

Our personalities are emblazoned on the wines we make.  The shades and contours of who we are shows up in the glass.  Whether we like it or not, the liquid art we labor upon shows itself to be the sharpest mirror in reflecting our values and senses.  At the end of the day, the glass is always right.  In vino veritas absolutely.

So, I want to leave you with this.  It’s a great story about a great kid.  And it could only happen out on the floor.  It shows us who we truly are.  If only you and I could be like this. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Little about Pruning at Allegro

I wrote the following piece back in 2005, having just suffered through two really tough vintages.  Sometimes I like to go back and try to get back in my previous mindset to see how things have changed.  It's strange to read my confidence between the lines and at the same time a naivete.  I'm certain that ten years from now the things I write today will have the same perception...............

Old Cabernet vine about to be spur-pruned.

A Little about Pruning at Allegro

March was when John and Tim used to get started pruning their vines each year.  Actually, Tim used to start at the end of February, but John said he never really got much done.

The vineyard used to be roughly ten acres at the time, all spur-pruned.  Spur-pruning is the method in which two cordons (arms) are grown out on the fruiting wire and short canes (spurs) are left two to three buds long on each.  After years of this, you end up with rather large arms that wrap around the wires, leading to in-grown wires in the vines.  Certain fungal diseases like to hide out in those same cordons over winter, making for a larger inoculum for the next spring.

Spur-pruning is also easy to teach and is a pretty quick way to prune a vine.  Sometimes John brought in help.  He told me they hired some Jamaicans from the D.C. area for a few years who came up and flew through the vineyard in three weeks.  He was sure that there was some substance keeping them moving so quickly, and it wasn’t wine.  Another instance was the Vietnamese crew they had that he found one day spending the afternoon in the vineyard with a tea ceremony.

The brothers always had a lot of work to do, between getting the vineyard prepped for spring and getting all the wines in bottle.  John said he always had a goal of June 1st to get all the tanks emptied.  I felt guilty in 2002 that I didn’t even come close to that, but after I found an old bottling record book I realized he didn’t either.

We got an early start on the Chardonnay this year, due to some nicer days.  We finished a couple weeks ago with a nice lead on our schedule.  But with the last bits of bad weather that has been moving through here, I’ve noticed that our lead has shrunk.  We’re going to have to start pruning in the off-weather days soon.  The worst thing that can happen is to be late on your pruning.  It’s not only bad on the vines, it puts the rest of the spring out of whack. 

So we’ll start on the Riesling and the Cabernet soon.  It feels like Christmas Eve to me as a little boy.  The year is about to start, and I get to go out and unwrap what each of these vines is going to be for me this year.  2005 has to be a good year.  We’re due....

-Carl Helrich
March 9, 2005

Friday, February 1, 2013


The year was 1973, and Bill Radomsky started to plant vines at Allegro.  Of course, at that point, it wasn't called Allegro (that happened after John and Tim Crouch showed up.)  But that spring, Bill planted about an acre and a half each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.  He had spent a couple years looking around south-central PA to find the best place to grow grapes, consulting soil maps and talking to folks.

Original layout of the property
This is why we're in Brogue.  It's the worst place in the world to sell wine, but the best place to grow grapes.  There are only a handful of other vineyards in Pennsylvania that were planted for grape-growing purposes.  Most people--wisely--start a winery and vineyard near people so that they can sell wine.  This is a prudent business decision.  But that's not what we're about at Allegro.  We're about growing the best possible grapes.

Most people would have thought him crazy at the time.  I'm sure the folks in California thought he was nuts.  (I still run into people from the left coast who think we can't get grapes ripe here in Pennsylvania.)  In 1973, though, even the locals must have questioned him.  It's the same year that the Hargraves planted the first vinifera vines on Long Island.  Dr. Frank in the Finger Lakes had planted some European vines a decade earlier, but word had reached very far yet.  Everyone thought these tender varieties couldn't weather the winters here.

The following year, Bill planted another couple acres of Chardonnay, and then--perhaps to hedge his bets--he put in about 8 acres of Seyval Blanc (which at the time made some of the nicest hybrid grapes around.)  Keep in mind, this was all happening in Brogue......yes, Brogue in the early 1970s......

In 1978, the vineyard was sold to John and Tim.  Because Bill had been going through a divorce, the vineyard had fallen into some disrepair.  It took the brothers all of the following year (1979) to get the vineyard back into shape.  Their first commercial vintage was 1980.
John in the Cabernet vineyard (note his tool of choice!)

In the early 1980s, the brothers planted some Merlot and some Chambourcin, as well as a rootstock vineyard and an experimental plot.  Unfortunately (except maybe in the case of Chambourcin), all of these froze out in the winter of 1994.    At one time, this place had close to 15 acres planted to vines.

When Kris and I purchased the property from John in 2001, I set about re-structuring the vineyard.  In late March of 2003, I made the tough decision to pull out many acres, leaving us with just 5.  A lot of the Chardonnay was infected with leaf-roll virus, and the Seyval Blanc (planted on its own roots) was too weak to be economically viable.

Planting with my brother Dave
We started to replant the vineyard in 2002, and have steadily added more vines.  We have not added much acreage, but we have doubled the density of the vineyard, thereby increasing the quality of the fruit. (It had originally been planted with 12-foot rows and 8-foot spaces between vines.  We couldn't move the rows, so we added vines between the existing ones.)  After many trellis repairs and years of digging holes to re-plant vines, we're almost up to full strength and looking to the future to plant more vines at this little piece of grape heaven in the Brogue.

In case you haven't noticed, this all started forty years ago.  Not much in terms of European vineyard history, but for us on the East coast--and myself in particular--this is a long time. So, this is the fortieth anniversary of the vineyard here at Allegro.  And on a related note, the 100th blog entry that I've done.  We'll try to pull together a nice celebration sometime in April...hope you'll join us.

Monday, January 21, 2013

2013 Allegro Library Tasting

(These are my notes from our last Library Tasting (this past Saturday.)  Bear in mind that these comments were written in order to give those in attendance a sense of the wine prior to tasting it.  Also, it may have been five years or so since I had tasted some of these.)

2003 Riesling

This wine is a nice way to start the evening; the Allegro Rieslings have always been about balance.  They are modeled on Rheingau Rieslings, but as they age tend toward Mosel as the acidity becomes more pronounced without the primary fruit to complement it.  This wine was made in the Kabinett style with a Sussreserv.  Look for crispness and slight oily notes.

1997 Reserve Chardonnay

For years, Allegro Reserve Chardonnays have been barrel-fermented and aged in French oak barrels.  This example is no exception.  1997 was a balanced growing season, and the acid balance of this wine has always been spot-on for those that like that sort of things.  Very classically built.  John used to refer to barrel-fermenting as “bullet-proofing” a wine.  It was meant for aging, if you like that sort of thing.  This wine is still lively and its complexity continues to grow.

1988 Reserve Chardonnay

Usually this wine is a real surprise, showing brightness and structure belying its near-twenty years.  Back in 2001, this was my first encounter with an older Allegro Chardonnay.  It had the most honeyed character in a dry wine that I had ever tasted.  John was immensely proud of it.

2007 Trio

This was meant to be a one-off wine, but it now has a successor.  It’s not truly an Allegro wine, but it does work as a stepping stone to older wines.  The blend is a third each of Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. 

2005 Cadenza

A Merlot in Bordeaux terms.  Using primitive production methods and minimal handling, this wine is still a sleeper just starting to wake up.  The primary fruit is fading, but the cocoa tannins are too enticing to make waiting possible.  The inherent spiciness and perfume just suck me in.  It’s finally starting to hit its stride and land where I wanted it to.

2001 Bridge

This wine has—from the beginning—been disjointed.  The growing season was blistering, but was followed by the earliest frost on record (October 7th and 8th).  Not enough hang time kept it from being the Cadenza we had hoped for, with strong acidity and tough tannins.  John would have liked this as his everyday drinker.

1997 Cadenza

The first Cadenza I ever tasted.  I remember tasting it in 2001, complete with a massive head-cold, and being blown away by its tannic structure.  I was in love.  (Next, John broke out a ’91, and I was head over heels….)  The ’97 has always been a tough wine, a masculine wine.  It’s not easy, it’s not fun.  It’s mental.  It’s weird that way.  This wine has a litheness and balance that reeks of austerity and monasteries, as well as a deliberate depth and spice.

1994 Cadenza

For me, this has always been the “roasty’ Cadenza.  I remember back in 2002 having a bottle with John at a Chef Series dinner and thinking it was nearing its peak at the time.  I think he’s right, as the acid is starting to rise and the wine is getting tougher and tougher.  But the perfume usually opens my mind every time.

1985 Cabernet Sauvignon

So, this is not a Cadenza, nor is it a Reserve Cab.  But I think it shows the strength of John’s winemaking and this vineyard site.  This wine is usually showing a slight brickish rim with a nose full of spices and dirtiness.  My kind of wine.

2010 Cadenza

Then there’s this one.  It’s already starting to exhibit the classic Allegro Cadenza aromas.  It’s not the tannic monster John created when he was here, although the tannins are prominent.  There’s a balance to this wine that just moves me.  It’s like standing on the shoulders of a tightrope walker, knowing that you won’t fall.  It’s classic, classic, classic.

2004 Aria

And now for something completely different…… this is the third Aria made here.  The first barrel-fermented Aria, in neutral, French oak barrels.  Only aged for a year in the barrels in an effort to create a little richness in the wine.  It’s not a true Eiswein, in that the grapes weren’t frozen on the vine.  Instead it was cryo-extracted and bottled after a year of aging.  This wine was my first attempt at modeling Sauternes.  It should have mellowed and become richer by now.

--January 19, 2013--