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.