Friday, November 6, 2015

The Cost of a Typo....Or, How Important it is to cross your i's and dot your t's......

Full disclosure and transparency is important.

I stopped in at my local garage the other day to get my truck worked on. (Urey's Garage in Brogue on Rt. 74--they do a great job!) He mentioned he saw me in the paper. Having been in the paper a lot recently, I asked him what he saw. He said it was for a liquor violation.

Not what I hoped he would say.....but he was right.

Gulp.

Here's the article from the York Daily Record: http://www.ydr.com/crime/ci_28925786/5-york-county-establishments-cited-by-state-police

Here's our side of the story.  The headline makes it sound pretty bad, but it's actually pretty simple. It was an honest mistake.  In fact, it's a typo.

For any off-site event we go to, we have to apply for a permit. They cost us $30 each day (payable to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board), and are usually rubber-stamped by the licensing division in Harrisburg. We will do a total of about 35 days of off-premise licenses in 2015 (some of which are multi-day events.) Since we started doing this in 2002, we've probably filled out over 300 individual permit applications.

These days, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board supplies an online form that you can fill out, which works great if one remembers to over-write every field on the form from the last time it was used. That's what happened for an event in mid-August. We had the license properly displayed and the fee paid for that festival, but unfortunately the form's date was from a different festival. It was a typo, an oversight and it meant that we were in violation of a state liquor law.  A member of the State Police Liquor Enforcement dutifully noticed this violation and reported it.

The date on the license was a month removed from when it should have been, and the officer said that if it had been a little less, maybe he would have just given a warning. PLCB--rightfully so--takes violations like this very seriously and are recommending a $250 fine. We will pay that.

For a typo.

There are, of course, wineries who try to sell wine without licenses. (I have heard of numerous wineries that have knowingly or unknowingly done it.) We, on the other hand, naively displayed our invalid license not knowing it included the wrong date. An honest mistake. Just a bit costly.

Even crazier is the fact that the reporter, Mark Walters (mwalters@ydr.com @walt_walters on Twitter) at the York Daily Record, decided sending a message to our winery's Facebook page at 6:30 PM was enough to justify that he could write that we "could not be reached for comment" a few hours later when he posted the story.

Now, I don't have any journalistic background, nor do I claim to know what journalistic integrity it.  But with a story about something as serious as a violation of a state liquor law, I'm thinking he should have tried a little harder.

(FYI: I posted a comment on his story and emailed him.  Turns out he "could not be reached for comment" either.) (11/7/15: see postscript below)

Anyway, I thought you all should hear our side of it before the rumor mill gets going too far.  And, just to be clear, this isn't about the PLCB or state liquor laws.  They are fair laws, fairly enforced and adjudicated......and we simply screwed up one little part of one form.  This is more about letting you all know that the news story may have made it look like we were doing something illegal--which we were--but there's more to the story than what you may have heard.

So, in the end, feel free to share with me in the comments section any of your stories where a simple typo cost you some serious bucks and mud on your face....just think how you'd feel if you were caught speeding and had it published for the whole world to see.

Cheers!

Postscript: On 11/7/15 Mark Walters called me.  We were both able to tell our side of the story to each other.  I sympathized with his need to make a deadline with his story, while at the same time I tried to stress with him the PR damage this causes a small business.  I'm hoping that in the future this doesn't happen again....mostly because we're going to watch our typos, but also because he has my cell phone number now.  I commend Mark for reaching out today.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Why We're Using More Barrels at Allegro

I think it's almost impossible to make great red wine without barrels. It's also impossible to make great red wine without great fruit.

Barrels are only useful if the fruit demands it and can handle it. It has to do with the structure of the wine and it's phenolic content. Most red wines that I've made I now look back on and wonder if the fruit was good enough to take advantage of the use of barrels.

Winemakers have a love/hate relationship with barrels. We love what it can do for a wine, but at the same time they're a pain in the ass. They're heavy, they're hard to clean and keep sound, and they're expensive. But if you get the right fruit in the right barrel, magic happens.

There's nothing wrong with not using barrels. Most consumers probably think most wine is made in barrels. It's not. If you're paying less than $13 for a bottle of wine--which is the majority of wine in this country--chances are it never saw a barrel. The way the economics work, you can't sell wine in barrels cheaply. Most wines are made in tanks and have added oak chips for the flavor aspect, and then have oxygen microbubbled through the tank to simulate barrel aging. Again, nothing wrong with this, it's the reality of the price point.

 Keep in mind that winemakers don't use barrels for oak flavors. It would be a whole lot cheaper and easier just to add oak chips or sawdust or oak flavorings. Most well-run wineries do. But if you're trying to make great wine, nothing replaces a great oak barrel. It's through the micro-oxygenation of the wine through the oak staves and the interplay of that oxygen with the tannins in the wine where the magic happens. Barrels are mostly for affecting the mouth-feel of the wine and more lifting the fruit. They are meant to be a nuanced spice, not a condiment.

Every region needs to find the correct type of barrel for its wines. Most great wines in the world use barrels where the oak is sourced from France. This is a cold-climate region where the trees grow slowly with a tight grain. The French oak barrels are known for their subtle flavors and ability to enhance wines from cooler climate regions (like Pennsylvania.) If I were to use American (or even Pennsylvania oak which I have done in the past) on my wines, they would be over-powered by the barrels (see the "condiment" comment....) At Allegro, we use almost entirely French oak barrels.

The only reason to use barrels other than French is a financial one. American oak barrels are $300-400 each. You can find Eastern European barrels for $500-600. Good French barrels usually run $1000 each. Now you know why wineries here in the east might not use French barrels.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

2015 Library Tasting

A few months ago, we hosted a library tasting of our reserve red wines.  I always say that these are my favorite events to do, and this one was no different.  There's nothing like spending an evening with a bunch of old friends....and the wines were pretty good, too.

I thought I would post here my thoughts on the wines pre-tasting.  The surprise of the night was the '87 which at first encounter was much more of a wine than I expected it to be.  It faded very quickly to a bare minimum of interesting, but it was fun while it lasted.



2007 Cadenza (Merlot 76% / Cabernet Franc 16% / Cabernet Sauvignon 8%)

This is classic distinctive Cadenza nearing the top of its game.  The Merlot percentage was grown by our friend Jan Waltz, allowing for this wine to be very approachable earlier in its life.  It’s starting to wake back up after shutting down for a few years and should hit its peak in a year or two.  It’s always been a difficult wine not to like.

2007 Bridge (57% Cabernet Franc / 36% Cabernet Sauvignon / 7% Merlot)

This is our “second wine” in the Bordeaux tradition.  2007 as such a beautiful vintage that we felt that these barrels should be destined for something special.  Aging has borne out that intuition.  This wine is very approachable and is at its peak of pleasure.  Being Franc-centric, it’s a very different style.  It lacks the structure for long aging, but still shows well.

2001 Bridge (62% Cabernet Sauvignon / 38% Cabernet Franc)

The first Bridge was a collaboration between John and myself.  It was meant to be a “bridge” between his Cadenza and mine.  And, truth be told, it’s how I learned the rudiments of making a Cadenza.  I’ll share them with you if you like.  Turns out making Cadenza is more about reading between the lines than memorizing a script.  The Cabernet portion was from Allegro, and Nelson Stewart grew the Cabernet Franc.

2002 Reserve Merlot (89% Merlot / 11% Cabernet Franc)

This vintage is what changed my mind about Merlot.  It was a hot and dry year, cut short by rains in October.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc suffered, but the Merlot was picked before the weather worsened.  It was the first vintage of Merlot we brought in from Waltz, and it was truly an eye-opener.  This wine is one of those that showed well in its youth, while still possessing the power for the long haul.  It’s also the first wine to showcase our cellar’s terroir, featuring a new winemaker and non-Allegro wine sources all the while tasting like an Allegro wine.

1998 Cadenza (95% Cabernet Sauvignon / 3% Cabernet Franc / 2% Merlot)

This is the last Cadenza made by John and Tim.  John was not a fan of this wine, thinking it’s “feminine” style wasn’t “Allegro” enough.  Turns out he was wrong.  Just like the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, this one had opulence and longevity.  I remember tasting this wine young while still in a tank (as well as on the day we bottled it), and it had gigantic structure to it.  The acidity was lower than most vintages, yielding a wine with more approachability.



1994 Cadenza (Cabernet Sauvignon 85%/Cabernet Franc 12%/Merlot 3%)

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.

1987 Cabernet Sauvignon

If I remember correctly, this wine is similar to the 1985 in that it was not a Cadenza vintage yet it was most likely a pretty wine in its youth.  These days it’s very fragile, and whatever positives it still clings to evaporate very quickly.  A good example of why some wines should be cellared and others consumed.

1983 Cabernet Sauvignon

This is a wine that I have never tasted.  It’s partner wine is the 1983 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, one of my favorite wines ever from Allegro.  It’ll be interesting to see in what way this wine differs from the Reserve version.  There’s a chance that it’s an identical wine, since John and Tim only had one Cabernet vineyard.  They may have done two pickings, or they may have made one wine and used only the best barrels for the reserve.  In any case, I don’t think we’ll be disappointed.

2010 Reserve Merlot ($29)

This is only our second Reserve Merlot at Allegro, and its provenance is an interesting story.  Suffice it to say that the fruit was grown at Karamoor by Nelson Stewart.  This wine saw ten months in new French oak barrels, and it is just starting to come into its own.  It’s not a powerhouse wine—as the fruit was from fifth-leaf vines—but its silky seductiveness and complex aromatics after it opens up are going to be with us for a while.  I suspect this wine will have a similar character and trajectory as the 2002

2010 Cadenza (42% Cabernet Sauvignon / 39% Merlot / 19% Cabernet Franc)

One of the most balanced Cadenzas we’ve ever had, the 2010 reminds me of what I imagine the 1983 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon might have tasted like thirty years ago.  Enticing and seductive in youth with an inner core of strength that speaks to its potential longevity.  The Cabernet portion was grown here at Allegro, and Nelson Stewart grew the Merlot and Cabernet Franc at Karamoor.  This year signaled perhaps a switch from the Merlot-heavy Cadenzas to one where Cabernet plays a greater role.

-- February 7, 2015 --

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Sweet Wine Albatross

I had an interesting and somewhat disturbing experience last Saturday in our tasting room.  And it reminded me of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Illustration by Gustave Dore
The poem relates the misfortunes of a ship's crews after one member kills an albatross and the forces of nature then conspire against them.  He is then punished by being forced to wear the dead bird from his neck (which seems implausible given the size of those birds) in an effort to appease the gods and bring back the winds to carry them back to land.

(Those of you more familiar with the poem can correct me...my reading comes from when I was sixteen and listened to too much Iron Maiden....)

We had an extraordinarily busy afternoon with a lot of tours and a group that had rented our deck as well.  I'm usually around the property on the weekends in case we get so busy that our great staff might need a helping hand.  This was one of those days.

I ended up pouring wine for about 8-10 people in our barrel room.  I could tell that initially they seemed skeptical about our wines (and myself in particular--I showed up wearing a sweaty t-shirt from being out on the tractor.  They, of course, didn't know who I was.....)  After a while they came to realize that our dry wines were impressive, and they seemed genuinely surprised by what they were tasting.

Fast-forward to the end of the tasting where they urged me to get the word out about our dry wines.  They said we had a reputation for making sweet wines, and that we should let people know how good our dry wines were.

I wasn't sure how to take this.  First, up until about 2005, Allegro predominantly made dry wines (at least more dry than sweet.)  And we struggled financially.  These days, sweet wines account for about 75% of our production and it's a whole lot easier to pay the bills.  We've shifted in the marketplace in this way out of pure survival needs.  If we had stayed with the model that focused on dry wines, we would have been out of business years ago.

So I mentioned to this group what our history had been and said that if they knew how to make people aware of our dry wines, I was all ears.  And, in truth, there was no good answer.  The best we had was that they would share their experience with their friends.  This is the same solution I cam to about ten years ago.  Paid advertising doesn't seem to work for small, local wineries.  At least the "return on investment" isn't there in today's market.

But all this brings me to a depressing thought.....is Allegro synonymous with sweet wines?  Back in the '80s, it was almost 100% dry wines, but when we started to make sweet wines, the sweeties (as we like to call them) didn't hold our dry wines against us.  The strange thing is that dry wine drinkers hold our sweet wines against us.  And that's something I don't understand.

(By the way, this isn't the only time we've heard people say that they think Allegro only makes sweet wines.  It just happened to be about 15 people all saying the same thing at the same time....to me.  I know we can't change public opinion, but it saddens my hear to think that so many write us off without giving us a chance.)

Even more so, it bothers me in that we are making a huge financial investment in new vineyards in order to make even better dry wines than we have ever made in the past.  And to think that some people may never give those wines a chance is heart-breaking.
New plantings of our premium vineyard
 It's time for some soul-searching and some brain-storming.  I became a winemaker in order to make mind-blowing wines.  Along the way, I've stretched my idea of good wine to include sweet wines.  I think you'll find that there's never a bad wine on our list.  Naturally, you won't like every wine....and to be honest, I never drink any of our sweet wines casually after we bottle them.  But that doesn't mean I'm not proud of them and the quality that they represent.  But I think you all know that my heart is in the dry wines, and in about four years we will have about 1000 cases of amazing wines waiting on our shelves for you.

I just hope you come out and give them a chance.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Thinking about Chardonnay

So, I've been thinking about Chardonnay recently.  We're getting ready to add to our planting in a couple weeks, and the Chard vines will fill out our last section of white in our established vineyard.  It may be the last Chard we plant for a while.

Vineyard Manager Nelson checking out the newly-arrived vines

I got an email from Mark Chien the other day who had some remarkable observations about Chardonnay in Oregon.  Not sure if you all remember him, but he was an amazing mentor to me in grapegrowing through his position as the Winegrape Educator for Penn Sate.

What struck me most was his mentioning of the "essence of Chardonnay." Of all the grapes out there, I think of Chard as the most malleable by winemakers. It's like making a bowl by a potter. Every potter (winemaker) needs to make a bowl (Chardonnay) and they're all different. Who's to say which is the best bowl (has the essence of a bowl)? I think we can all agree on bad bowls (Chardonnays), but what is it that truly separates great bowls (Chardonnays) from good ones? And why are great bowls (Chardonnays) sometimes very dissimilar?

I think what's missing in the discussion is the consumer (to be crass about it.) Any apperception of quality is dynamic, involving both a perceiver and a perceived. This is all very Kantian. But with Kant, everything perceived was seen through the lenses of a priori concepts that not only determined that perception occurs, but also how it was perceived. If you don't have a tool to measure it, you can't measure it.

Allegro Chardonnay
It's like when I tasted Raj Parr's Santa Barbara Chards picked at, what, 14 Brix? Totally out of my wheelhouse. Are they really good? He seemed to think so. I had my doubts. But maybe it's just because I didn't have enough experience with them. They were outside of my ken. Were they close to the essence of Chardonnay? Maybe. But it definitely showed that wine is subjective, and once we agree it's subjective, I think all talk of "essence" needs to leave the conversation.

And talk of terroir is probably the right way to go, but is the fact that the big, blowzy wines sometimes aren't liked could be because the tasters don't like that style? Or is it that it's actually wrong?

I feel like I am starting to dial-in my Chard winemaking here from fruit from our estate. It's a big style, but I think it works for us. Even in the lighter 2014, it still stands up to the 2013. It's totally anathema to the Chard that some of my friends made from both vintages. So, which is correct? I have no clue.

So, what is Chardonnay?  For me, it's good wine.  And more than that, it's wine that speaks of a place AND people.  The winegrower and the winemaker.  Who cares if it tastes different?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Our New Vineyard and the New Wines in 2019


As some of you may be aware, Allegro is beginning a pretty aggressive and bold new vineyard planting this spring.  In fact, it all breaks loose in about three weeks when the vines show up from the nursery.

This is the culmination of a dream of sorts.  I came to Allegro thinking I was going to make great wine, fully realizing that it may only be a few vintages in my lifetimes that I pull of something spectacular.  That’s just the way Mother Nature works.  But as I matured in this industry, I realized a little more.

It turns out that our viticultural skills have increased.  We are much better than we ever were at growing good grapes as an industry, let alone at Allegro.  (And with the addition of Nelson Stewart as our vineyard manager, things will only get better.)  (Nelson has a long association with great wines, from Black Ankle and Boordy in Maryland to Karamoor in Pennsylvania.)  We’ve always known our site was perfect for grapes, and now we’ve added better skills to its management.
Pit at Allegro.  Perfect soils.

Finally, we’re adding better grapes.  As with anything, there has been evolution in the vineyard world with respect to clones and rootstocks.  Where the original Allegro vineyard planted in 1973 used the highest technology from California at the time, this year’s planting will be very Euro-centric with better materials, vines, and understanding of what works best with our site.

Our goal is to produce world-class wines from our vineyard on a yearly basis.  And, with that high-requirement will come a higher-than-normal price tag for the wines (unfortunately).  In order to produce better fruit, the density of the planting is increased exponentially and therewith the cost of the planting is increased exponentially.  It's not cheap to grow grapes, and it's really expensive (planting and yearly labor costs) to grow great grapes for great wine.

Here’s where I am hoping that you all will come through and support what we’re trying to accomplish.  These wines will be priced starting at around $25 per bottle (that’s my guess), and I have a sneaking suspicion that the top wine will be around $50.  Yes, that’s a wide-range, I know.  But, we won’t really know until all the costs shake out and we actually have some of this wine in the bottle and ready for sale.  We’re talking 2019 before we’re there.

That said, we all know that Brogue is not a hot-bed of wine sales.  My goal isn’t just to make great wine, but to do it at a price point that more people can afford.  You all know me, and I hope you know that this isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme on my behalf.  Vineyards are expensive, and there’s no money in growing grapes.  Considering Allegro has already started paying for the vines last year and won’t see any income for five years, you can guess how well our cash flow is.  (Now’s the time I put in a plug for AgChoice Farm Credit…..they’re the ones who are making this possible….as well as everything we’ve ever done here at Allegro…Thanks, Bruce!)
Karamoor Vineyard....similar to what ours will look like.....

So, our wines from this vineyard will be priced at a point where there’s a great ROI (return on investment.)  If I was in MD or northern VA, you can bet I would be pricing them a good $20-$30 higher.  But, I’m not.  We’re here in southern PA.  In York county.  In the Brogue, for crying out loud.  Nobody would take me seriously if I tried to sell a $100 bottle of wine…..or would they?  I don’t know.

Someday, maybe.  But, I promise you, that our top-end wines, when they finally get ready for sale from this amazing new vineyard we’re planting, will blow your mind in terms of what you ever thought about Pennsylvania wines.  And they’ll be at Brogue prices.

I can’t wait to share them with you all.  This is an adventure of a lifetime, and we’re glad you’re along for the ride.

Cheers,

Carl

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Honoring John Crouch, winemaker and musician, Part 2


 (Here's the second part of our guest blog from Doug Miller.)

Honoring John Crouch, musician

At the end of my first guest blog I had learned from John Crouch’s friend Ray Hearne that another of their mutual friends might have more manuscripts of John’s compositions.   Well, that tidbit of information has turned into a fascinating flood of new revelations about our good friend John.

John working the barrels
The “mutual friend” turned out to be Tony Norris from Baltimore, who Ray reported back to us did indeed have at least one full box of manuscripts.   Being in sleuth mode, I decided to see if I could learn anything about this friend of John’s before contacting him.    And I soon learned that John’s friend’s life paralleled his in two significant ways:  Tony is a very successful musician---a classical guitar performer and teacher;   and Tony and his wife Laura launched into a creative business project at about the same time John and Tim founded Allegro:   they created the now-famous restaurant Bertha’s in the Fells Point area of Baltimore.  (notorious for its bumper stickers “Eat Bertha’s Mussels”)

About the time we finally made the Tony Norris connection by email everyone at Allegro was fully into harvest season mode, about which Carl has recently written.   So it was only last Friday, a week before Christmas, that Carl and I were finally able to trek down to Baltimore to meet Tony and Laura, learn more about John, and bring back the two boxes of John’s scores for which Tony had generously offered to allow us to become custodians.

That trip would have been a highlight event for us, even if it had only consisted of being hosted in Tony and Laura’s historic restored home a block from the waterfront and at Bertha’s, their successful creation.   They are iconic beings, fascinating beyond description.

But between our hours of conversation with them (accompanied by Bertha’s food and Allegro’s wines) and the boxes of materials we now have in hand here on the estate, I have come to have a new appreciation for John Crouch, musician.

John and Tim grew up in Washington D.C., and it was there that Tony came to know John.     I mentioned in the first blog that we had always heard that John was “an oboist.”    What we learned from Tony last week and from a bio I found among the materials in the boxes is that John was apparently a really good oboist.    Tony described him as that when they first met as fellow musicians in the Washington, DC area when they were in their early 20s—not just “an oboist” but “a really good oboist.”    
John prepping lugs for pressing

Furthermore, what I’ve learned from the bio is that during his early years in DC John learned to play multiple instruments—cello, string bass, tuba, oboe, flute, clarinet, and sax, and then "majored in music at Boston University, studying oboe with Ralph Gomberg.”  (italics mine)   Well, since I spent several decades in the orchestral world I am well aware that Ralph Gomberg was the principal oboist for nearly 4 decades with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.   (His brother Harold held the same chair in the NY Philharmonic).   

So as a young man John was an oboist who was talented enough to become a Gomberg student at BU, and then to impress a fellow musician back in DC (Tony) as an outstanding oboist.   None of us at Allegro had any idea that John was that talented and skilled as a performer.   And of all the orchestral instruments, oboe is widely regarded as one of the most challenging (and also most expressive.)

Then there’s John the composer.   Here’s an incredible brief excerpt from that same bio: 
 “The Exxon Corporation placed in a time capsule to be opened in 2076 a tape of John’s Theme and Variations for Woodwind Quintet. “  
That, my friends, is that same Theme and Variations whose first page of manuscript sits on the front of Allegro’s 2012 Bridge!! 

Tim (left) and John in the tasting room
Perhaps, if Carl will have me, I’ll someday submit another blog about John the composer, once I’ve had a chance to spend time with the two boxes of scores Tony passed on to us.    But I’ll close out this one with a family aside, growing out of our encounter with Tony and Laura Norris.   

Our son David earned his bachelor’s degree at the Eastman School of Music as a horn major, though he is also a violinist and, like John, has learned to play many other instruments.   For the past half dozen years he has become a very serious mandolin player.   He and a colleague have performed extensively on the east coast as a guitar/mandolin duo (and also released two CDs as Prester John), and he is part of a select mandolin ensemble, (New American Mandolin Ensemble—NAME) which this summer represented the United States at a major conference in Germany.

Well guess what?   Tony and Laura Norris are two of the four members of the Baltimore Mandolin Quartet, and both are active in the Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra.  Laura has founded a significant “Mando Kids” program for young people which is becoming utilized throughout the country----David was well aware of it.   And the three of them, without knowing each other, have performed together in at least two large ensembles at national conventions.

Talk about multiple interwoven connections!    John must be smiling!





Saturday, January 3, 2015

Honoring John Crouch, winemaker and musician, Part 1

I'd like to introduce my father-in-law Doug Miller into this blog for reasons that will become evident very quickly.  Doug was a music professor at Penn State for thirty years, and so the fit of our family with the musical-ness of Allegro seemed inevitable.  Most times you'll find Doug working outside on the beautification of our landscape (which he refers to as causa pulchritudinus, or "for the sake of beauty alone") but as you'll see, he writes wonderfully about our story here as well.

--Carl
-------------------------------




Honoring John Crouch, musician
 (Guest Blog #1 by Doug Miller)

Any of you who regularly read Carl’s musings here know that he had, and has, an enormous respect for John Crouch.   He regularly refers to him as one of the finest wine makers in the history of east coast wines.   That’s an opinion shared by many knowledgeable folks.

Another aspect of John, whenever the “Allegro Story” is told, is the description of John as “one of the two musician brothers who founded Allegro in 1980” (reflected in the winery’s name.)  Sometimes there’s a tag that “one was an oboist and one was a violinist” and perhaps a reference to the fact that during his last years John spent some time composing, using his computer and a synthesizer.   We’d occasionally hear that John had done some composing earlier in his life as well, though we didn’t ever see any scores.

At the time Carl and our daughter Kris took over Allegro from John in 2001 (his brother Tim had died in 2000) my wife Grace and I were living in State College, having recently retired from Penn State’s music faculty.   (We all thought it was fitting that Allegro was passing into the hands of another family which had musical involvements.) 

During the one year that Carl and John both lived here on the vineyard estate (2001/02) Grace and I would often come down to help out a bit and to see our two young grandsons.   And inevitably whenever John and I met he would invite me to listen on a cassette player to his most recent composition project.   I was somewhat impressed, though I must admit that the synthesized sounds often made it hard to appreciate the musical craftsmanship.

Fast forward to about a year ago:  Carl was preparing to create his 2012  Bridge, a quality dry red blend which first made its appearance in 2001, honoring the “bridge” between John and Carl as Allegro’s winemakers.   It was their “almost Cadenza.”   For the 2012 Bridge Carl was hoping to use an image of one of John’s musical scores as the label.   But unfortunately we had no scores.  

So I was tasked with becoming the sleuth to learn if any of John’s manuscripts existed and if we could put our hands on them.    Over several months I pursued leads with the lawyer who had been his executor, with Penn State since John had bequeathed much of his estate to PSU for scholarships and fellowships in the wine/vineyard areas, and finally with a woman we had met at the time of John’s death and memorial in March of 2002, and who had been a close friend of John’s, Ray Hearne.

We learned from Ray that she had, as precious memories of John, two manuscripts and three cassette tapes of his music.   Thanks to her willingness to loan them to us, we were able to make photocopies of the scores and digital versions of the cassettes (the latter thanks to my son, David, about whom more in guest Blog #2.)

If you had the pleasure of enjoying the 2012 Bridge you may remember that the label does, indeed, contain a page of John’s handwritten manuscript score of Theme and Variations for woodwind quintet.    That work is identified as having been composed in 1969, a full decade before John and Tim created Allegro Winery and Vineyard.    So my curiosity to learn more about John’s musical life, pre-Allegro, was definitely piqued, especially since I found the work to be very well crafted.  (Unfortunately, the full score was missing some pages and of the five instrumental parts we have only four---missing was the oboe part, which just happened to be John’s primary performing instrument.    Again, more about this in the next blog.)

As almost a passing comment at one point Ray Hearne indicated that she was going to be having dinner in Baltimore the next night with a friend who was also a friend of John Crouch’s.   She thought he might have some of John’s music as well.

Well, that passing comment has led this past week to a magical and revelatory experience for Carl and me, and to the story of a second blog I’ll post here soon.