Monday, November 17, 2014

A Look Back at 2014

Or at least a quick peak on the vintage.  We're just getting settled into the year of winemaking with most of the wines racked out of their primary fermentations and all of the barrels filled at this point.  I am starting to get a sense of what 2014 means to us, and I am a lot happier than I thought I would be three months ago.

This year started out, of course, with the advent of the "polar vortex" weather patterns that brought the coldest weather I've ever seen here at Allegro.  We bottomed-out at -2 F one morning.  Most of our vines are pretty good to about -5 F as far as vine survivability goes.  But that doesn't mean that all the buds are safe at warmer temperatures.  This is what happened to be the case with our Pinot Noir and Merlot as both varieties took a hit in the yield department.  Luckily, it only account for about a half acre of our production, but it's depressing nonetheless when you still have to work the vines all year and don't have much to show for it.

The budbreak this spring was the latest I've seen as well, and the spring and early summer one of the coolest and wettest since 2003 and 2000.  For those of you who were growing grapes back then, we all knew this was a bad sign.  The wines I made in those two vintages were lackluster at best.  And 2014 was tracking to be a similar type of year.

As summer wore on, it became painfully evident that we weren't going to have a summer.  At least not one that had any heat to it.  It was pleasant, but with the mild temperatures and the significant rainfall, Nelson was getting a good case of tractor-butt from spraying so often.  It all paid off in the long run and we were squeaky clean in our leaf canopy all the way to leaf-fall at the end.  Additionally, all those healthy leaves managed to take full advantage of the small bits of sunshine throughout the year.  And more importantly, all of the sunshine we had in the gorgeous September that followed.  Without the six weeks or so from the end of August to the beginning of October, we would have been royally screwed, behind the eight ball, and pushed to our limit to make serviceable wines.  But Mother nature smiled on us.

I've only started doing any sort of systematic tasting through our wines, but my initial reaction is that I am very impressed.  These wines will have classic East coast profiles to them, with great aromatics, firm and supple tannins and wonderful colors.  In my opinion, the wines will shape up to be similar to our 2001s (some of which are still aging beautifully.)  They will be remarkable wines for years to come and hopefully set a standard for what we can do in this region even when the vintage tries to move against us.

I've said it many times before....I think we're past saying that there are good and bad vintages.  I think we have great years, goods years, and tough years.  But--barring any natural disasters or human mistakes--going forward we should always have reputable wines.  This is what makes making wine on this coast so much fun. It's always different and never easy.  If it was, everybody would be doing it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

It’s a Weird, Weird, Weird, Weird, Weird Harvest

That’s all. 

So, after our cool summer, we had this gorgeous September with hardly any rain (a lot like 2013), but still not very much heat. At the end of August, we were sitting with only 25 more Growing Degree Days (how we measure heat in the vineyard) than 2003....not a good omen.  I hope you don’t remember 2003, because the wines I made then were forgettable.  Actually, they probably weren’t.  They were the weakest quality wines I ever (or will ever) put in a bottle.  If it were to happen today, I wouldn’t even bottle them.  But in our second full year of running Allegro, I had no choice.  (Thanks for being understanding to those of you who do remember them.)

I also remember other things from back then.  My predecessor, good friend, and great winemaker John Crouch past away on March 2nd of that year.  I remember speaking at his memorial service a week later on my birthday, trying to put into words how I felt having a teacher who taught without meaning to teach.  I’m sure I failed, but even more so, I felt like I had been tossed out of the nest without the full understanding of what flight was.

I know that a lot of people probably thought that the weak 2003 wines were due to the fact that John wasn’t helping in the cellar at the time.  And they were probably at least partially right.  But that doesn’t mean the wonderful 2001s and 2002s had nothing to do with me either.

Those first two harvests I had at Allegro with John were a glowing era in my memory.  It’s one thing to be part of a harvest at a winery.  It’s a whole other animal to be working along-side a gifted and talented artisan, someone for whom the whole industry had an enormous respect.  And at the same time, he gave me complete control of the reins.  Never told me what to do once.  And this was in a cellar that he had been master of for twenty years.  Talk about restraint.  Here I was a 31 year old young buck, and he just let me run.  Not sure I would have done the same thing. 

Of course, back in 1980 (his first vintage) he was exactly the same age.  And his ’82 was a wine for the ages….

But, back to this year…..  Merlot and Chard didn't come in until the first week of October. And they all came in at once. 

Now we've had a small lull in the action, but I think we're about to hit it hard this week. Picking Cab Sauv and receiving in Chambourcin and Petit Verdot. We're all worried that even though the forecast looks nice, it'll change in a heartbeat. People are a bit gun-shy after 2011....

It's been one of the weirder harvests I've ever seen. Low pHs, lot of extra malic acid in the fruit. Good colors on the reds, though. Nice aromatics, but more on the delicate side of things. It feels a lot like 2009 actually, but I know the wines will be better. I'd like to think that we're better at growing the fruit than we used to be. Winemaking is about the same, with only a few tweaks.  We're doing more pumpovers these days instead of punchdowns for the reds.

But then I checked back in notes….something was reminding me....of a past vintage.  Cooler year, dry in the fall, good colors, higher malic levels……after checking my records of rainfall, GDD, and mean max temperatures, I knew what it was….

It’s 2001 all over again.  My first year with John.  The first year we made Bridge.  A glorious year that took us all by surprise.  A fabulous Chardonnay year.  One of my favorites.

Maybe all my worries have been in vain.  Even though it’s weirdness will go down in the annals of east coast winegrowing, I think the wines may outlive our memories.  Hope you all are able to share some of them in 2024 with me.



Friday, September 19, 2014

The Harvest that Never Started

Do you ever start a day and just feel rudderless?  Aimless?  Like you’re just not sure what you’re doing that day?  And I don’t mean a hang-over induced feeling.  I mean, you’re walking around and just not sure what you should be doing.

OK, so this was me about twenty years ago.  On a major life-scale.

But I’m feeling like it today again, for about the twentieth day in a row.

Let me back up a little.  Every year, sometime around late August, I start the annual ritual we refer to as crush.  Harvest.  When we pick the grapes and make the wine.  It’s my favorite time of year.  I used to hate the fall when I was younger.  It meant that summer was over and I had to go back to school.  And, growing up in Kansas, it meant that we had about three days of “fall weather” before all the leaves fell off and I had to start wearing my heavy winter coat.

Now, living in one of the most special spots in the world for growing grapes—affectionately referred to as “Brogundy”—I’ve come to look forward to this time of year as vocational raison d’etre.  I’m not sure what I’d be without my winemaking.  It’s what makes me whole.  Gets me up in the morning when I’d rather be sleeping.  Puts food on our table (and wine.)

Yet this year is different.  The winter was unbearably cold.  The spring was cool and wet and late.  Summer came around, but only lasted a few weeks total (as far as the temperatures are concerned.  The late summer has had a welcome dryness to it, and yet the grapes are still clinging fast to their stems.  The sugars are slowly rising, ever so slowly, and the flavors are tracking right with them.

But is it all too late?  This is the coolest year in the past decade.  The only years cooler than 2014 have been 2003 and 2000.  Two of my least favorite years ever. 

Every year I determine that harvest is over when we put the press away.  In 2003 it was after Thanksgiving.

You see, the way harvest works is that each year we do roughly the same amount of labor (each of us.)  And the endpoint for when the grapes come off is almost always about the same time (end of October to early November).  But what is always variable is when the harvest starts.  Sometimes it’s in late August.  When that happens we have about ten weeks to get everything done.

Sometimes it’s like 2014, where it’s looking like we have six weeks to get ten weeks worth of work done.  Or, maybe if harvest doesn’t really start till next week, only five weeks. 

I think I can plan on not sleeping much in the next month.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Around here, "Napa" is for car parts.....

(Full disclosure: I stole that phrase from some other wine region which has now slipped my mind.)

It’s also for grapes, but those grapes are from California.  Around here, I’d like to think that when most people mention “Napa” they’re referring to the local car parts store, but something makes me wonder if that’s all that’s going on….

As some of you know, we make wine for other wineries.  At times, these wineries are happy to be associated with us (Karamoor in Fort Washington and the Vineyard at Grandview in Mt. Joy) and we’re happy to work with them as well.  Other times, the contracting winery would rather it not be public that we made anything for them.  Either way is fine for us; winemaking is our strength and we’re glad to do it.

In the last couple years, I have been approached a few times by wineries who would like us to make some dry red wines for them.  The second question usually is, “Can you use some, uh, California fruit?”  Whereas I am happy to make wine for anyone, I draw the line there.  At no point will any West coast grapes ever be allowed in our winery.  All of the fruit will be grown as locally as possible.  The crazy thing is, I think some of these folks think that the quality of our dry reds must come from sourcing fruit from California.  I don’t know this for a fact, but that’s the insinuation.  It pisses me off.

I am extremely proud to be making wine here in this little part of Pennsylvania.  I know in my heart of hearts that we can make amazing wines, mind-blowing wines.  I’ve already tasted them.  It’s now just up to us to push the envelope a little further….and do it with consistency.  It’s why we’re planning on planting another ten to fifteen acres of Bordeaux varieties.  This is our commitment to this area.

That said, I can safely say that I have tasted wines—with the word “Pennsylvania” on them—that definitely had to have Cali fruit in them.  (Depending on the percentage, this could in fact be legal.)  Yes, they were nice wines.  BUT, they weren’t from here!  We have our own styles and flavors here, and we know that California grows 90% of the fruit in this country and that most of you probably drink more than your fair share of wines from there.  That’s fine, and I don’t have a big problem with that.  It just bugs me when there’s no transparency.

Most importantly, I think you the consumer and local winery supported needs to know about one of the little known fact about wine labels.  If you ever see a bottle of wine that says “American”, please do yourself a favor and ask where the grapes were grown.  A wine made 100% from PA fruit can be called American, as can a wine made from 100% California fruit.  But if there’s too much non-PA fruit in the wine to call it “Pennsylvania”, then the only legal resort a winery has is to call it “American.”  And, believe me, I’ll bet if it says “American” it’s mostly not from here.

Usually in this part of the world, you see a lot of French-American hybrids grown.  These you may or may not be familiar with, but they have names like Vidal, Chambourcin, Traminette, Cayuga, Chancellor.  You’re pretty much guaranteed that these grapes were grown somewhere on this coast, although not necessarily in Pennsylvania.  In addition, there are a lot of European grapes that we also grow over here in the East, such as Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc among others. 

But there are varieties you’ll never see grown over here—or at the very least—grown well, such as Zinfandel, Grenache, Nebbiolo, Camenere, Malbec.  These are varieties that are grown in hot climates and make some amazing wines when grown in the correct places.  Central PA, unfortunately, will never produce a good Zinfandel. 

So, the next time you’re out at your local winery, looking at some local vines while checking out the local views and talking with the local people about buying fresh and buying local, let’s make sure we’re all drinking wine made from local grapes.

Drink like you live here, damn it.


Big News about Allegro and our Vineyards

As many of you know, we are extremely proud of our vineyard site out here in the Brogue.  We are one of the few vineyard sites that was searched out for its winegrowing potential in Pennsylvania.  (Most were re-purposed from previous uses.)  It’s why we’re out in the Brogue, so far removed from people who drink wine.

If we had our way, the great grape growing lands would be next to York or a major highway.  Unfortunately, we weren’t that fortunate.

Even fewer of you may know that these days we are struggling to find enough quality grapes to make Cadenza.  Our Cabernet and Merlot are our mainstays, but as the demand for our high-end wines increase, we’ve found that we can’t keep up.

So, starting in 2015, we will begin to plant more vineyards at our property.  The current thought is to plant more Merlot as it is slowly becoming the best grape for our region.  To this, we’ll add Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and more Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.  Ultimately, we’ll end up with about 13 or 14 acres under vine.

Lastly, although I love growing grapes, I am going to give this part of my life up.  This is an extremely important expansion for us, at no small financial risk, and so I’ve decided to hire one of the best grape growers on the East coast, Nelson Stewart. 

I’ve made wine from Nelson’s fruit for six years, and he has proven himself regionally as one of the best in the business.  His resume includes managing his own vineyard, being part of Black Ankle in Mt. Airy, MD (one of my favorite wineries in the East), Boordy Vineyards, and managing Karamoor Estate (for whom we made the wine from 2007-2010.)  Last year, Karamoor’s 2008 Meritage (grown by Nelson and made into wine by us), won the Governor’s Cup for best wine in Pennsylvania.

I feel so fortunate and blessed to have around me some of the best staff a person could ever ask for, and with Nelson coming on board we’re starting to resemble a Dream Team of Olympic proportions.  I am really psyched to see what the next few vintages have in store for us! 

Can’t wait to get started!  Cheers!