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.

36 comments:

  1. Your make great wines, Carl............. Just keep doing what you're doing and I'll keep spreading the word !

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    1. Thanks! It's going to take lots of spreading!

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  2. I just want to comment that my family loves your winery. There aren't many wineries that my mom and I can each find wine we adore. I prefer the dry while she only likes sweet. The best part about Allegro is neither of us has to compromise and find one we almost like while the other finds the perfect one, as is the case with most wineries. Keep doing what you're doing. You're doing it right and my family will keep drinking your awesome wine. :-)

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    1. Thanks, Stacey. I know that one of our strengths is doing both ends of the spectrum of wine as well as we do. I truly appreciate the role our wines play in your lives...thanks for your support!

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  3. I became aware of Allegro wines in the mid-1980s, back in the Crouch Bros. era, as the result of a review in the Philly Inquirer. As I recall, the theme was along the lines of "surprisingly good wines coming from an unlikely venue (they didn't say "terroir"). Anyway, the review was on target. Beer of course is different from wine..but so far as I know, Dogfish Head Brewery never did any advertising, but somehow got its name out there. Perhaps that company's experience could serve as a model for Allegro to get its message out there.

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    1. Funny you should mention Dogfish Head. Not only am I a fan (esp of the 60 Minute), but I think Sam has done an amazing job.....I'm currently reading the book he wrote recently, and I'm struck by his drive and vision. He came from a different background--read, more capital--than I did, but I'm also not trying for the same scale as he did. But great example....and like we say in the wine business: it takes a lot of beer to make good wine!

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  4. We do prefer your sweet wines, but everything you make reflects your passion. We've done multiple Tour D'Tanks and Wine Off the Vine visits, and will do more because you are the best wine maker on the M-D trail.

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    1. Thanks! We put the same expertise into all of our wines. Even though I don't drink sweet wines regularly, I always want to make sure that those wines are as unique and amazing as any of our other ones...thanks for supporting our winery!

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  5. Carl:

    I have several thoughts on the sweet wine issue. The first goes back to the famous (or infamous) Opus 1 incident. Allegro’s sweet peach-Seyval wine originally called Opus 1 was renamed Celeste. It’s possible that due to the reporting in the various wine publications, it was perceived that Allegro only produced sweet wines.

    Another goes back to something that John and Tim told me back in the days when they would participate in some of the wine festivals, especially the Pennsylvania Wine Festival held at Split Rock. The tastings at the festivals were unlimited so at the end of the day, a significant amount of the wine went to samples rather than to sales. Also, the majority of attendees as these events were more into the sweeter wines, although there were a good number of dry wine drinkers as well along with those who like the full spectrum of wines. Since it was the sweeter wines which sold more at the festivals, John and Tim decided to bring more of the sweeter wines to the festivals, along with a couple of their dry wines. Since they didn’t do much at all in the way of promotion other than word-of-mouth (which is how we found out about them), the festivals or the brochures found in the information centers on the interstates, again the perception was of Allegro produces primarily sweet wines.

    Finally, going back to my Jewish roots, when growing up, when wine was served at the Seders or at the Synagogues, it was the sickly sweet Manischewitz type wines. It was perceived that if the wine was kosher, it had to be sweet. Turns out that according to Jewish law, what makes a wine kosher is that all aspects of the production, from the vineyard to the winery was managed by Sabbath-observing Jews, and overseen by a Rabbi. You have to remember that the early immigrants to the U.S. were limited to whatever grapes were grown in the eastern United States at the time, mainly the labrusca varieties (Concord, Niagara, etc.). It was not until more recently that high quality dry kosher wines made from vinifera grapes became more available from wineries around the world. But to many, the perception that kosher wines have to be sweet persists.

    The majority of regional wineries make both fine dry and sweet wines and that includes Allegro. I don’t consider a bad thing. Turning a negative into a positive, those people came in to sample the sweet wines, but also discovered your wonderful dry wines. Hopefully they will continue the “word-of-mouth” tradition and spread the word. I know we do whenever we serve your wines to our guests.

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    1. Thanks, Harvey, for your thoughtful response. I agree with all you say. It's timely that you mention Split Rock, because I leave tomorrow to go there again (for about the 15th time in my life.) Yes, they like sweet wines, although we do bring some special wines (which we keep "under the table" for people who know to ask about them.) I have come to appreciate that it is possible to make really good sweet wines, and that's what we strive to do. And, since sweet wines are more popular in this country, it makes our business that much more succesful.

      There is an awareness of dry wines that is increasing, just like you mention the wines at Seder that were sweet. (By the way, I've heard of some really good dry wines coming out of Israel these days.) There is a momentum to the dry wines that's unstoppable, but there's something to be said for the winery that offers both well to customers. At least I like to think so.

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  6. This dry wine drinker will definitely be elated to have you producing more dry wines. Please do not lose heart and know that your excellent reputation as a winemaker will continue to serve you well, and those of us that favor dry wines (for me the dryer the better) will support what I anticipate to be an excellent product from your winery. I can't wait - keep the faith!

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    1. Thanks for your continued support! It means a lot to me. We won't give up, but it does sometimes drag on me when I still here our wines (or the fact that they're local) not encouraged and supported. I can't stop making wines, and we'll continue to make more and better wines,

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  7. Hi Carl,

    We've been drinking dry Allegro wines since the early days with Tim & John. I guess we're running against the grain, as we have been buying more of the sweeter wines recently, as we have come to appreciate the occasional sweet wine when we come and taste them at the winery.

    Don't get me wrong, the bulk of our purchases are still the dry reds, and I'm happy to hear of your future commitment the dry wines, but we think you have a very nice balance of both styles of wine and hope you are not discouraged by comments you had heard.

    Matt G.

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    1. Matt, no discouragement here yet. We sell about 100K bottles of wine each year to probably 10K people, and the ability to understand how to do that better still escapes me. It's sometimes like throwing darts in the dark. Most times--after trying to think it all through--I just go with my gut (or palate) and hope for the best. I think folks like my honesty about what I do sometimes as much as they like my wines. Thanks!

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  8. Carl, as you know my favorite is Harmony, but we all have to have a favorite. That doesn't mean we like your other wines any less. During the tour De tanks we have visited every winery on the tour. There is always a few I like wherever we are. But there are also some wines at every winery that we don't like.

    Then we come to Allegro. ...I have tried everything you have to offer and I love them all! Dry to sweet, they are all delicious.

    Unlike other wineries who have a few good ones and fill their inventory with average selections your passion comes through as there is no average Allegro wine. Just keep doing what you are doing.

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    1. Totally agree! We like so many of Carl's wines, sometimes, it is hard to choose. But the fact that he will be making more dry ones makes this gal very, very happy!

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    2. Thanks for your amazing support of us...I like what you said: "there is no average Allegro wine." Maybe that should be a new slogan for us?

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  9. Good read Carl. It is the double edged sword of most wineries. As you have eloquently stated, sweet wines sell very well. However, making great dry wines can be extremly difficult but derive from a passion that can make a winery and it's winemaker a reputation. Can there be a balance? Absolutley. It's proven to me every time I walk in your tasting room and try your wines. In my humble opinion, (I try not to make to many!) perhaps you should showcase your dry wines more often. My wife and I were at the Gettysburg Wine Festival a few years back. We were with another couple and you had a tent there. I got excited and told the couple we were with that they had to try your dry wines. When we got to our turn in line, I asked if we could try some dry wines. I was told that none were brought because they don't sell well at the Festivals. I get it, but I don't. If I was trying to promote my dry wines, I would dedicate one area of the tasting table exclusively to my dry wines. Charge a fee to cover the expense. Dry wine lovers who appreciate good wines understand. Your wines ARE that good and the festivals draw thousands of people to get the word out.

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    1. You make a good point. And I am actually heading to a big wine festival today and will give it some thought. When we go to certain festivals, we do bring some better dry wines sometimes (under the table....you need to ask for them). Of course, all my staff would be fighting over the chance to pour those wines.

      Most times at festivals, we just don't have the time to give special tastings, but I'll see what we can do. It is a great opportunity for sure. Thanks!

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  10. Dearest Carl, my husband & I made the trip to your vineyard many years ago after I found you on the web (we are from Maryland). We were not disappointed. We continually share our undying love of your wine to everyone we meet. While he likes sweet and I prefer dry, we found a happy medium in the Blues. And, furthermore, every time our daughters from TX visit, we make a trip to your winery to share our love for your wine. Moreover, our basement is full of your amazing love for grapes! Keep doing what you are doing because we are a loyal lot who will continue to enjoy, serve and gift your talents! Oh, ye of little faith--as long as you have the faith of a mustard seed--carry on, great winemaker!

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    1. Thanks so much for your support. It means a lot to me. I'll keep looking for that little bit of faith so I can move that mountain that keeps popping up in front of me. Cheers!

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  11. Drink all your wines .. be a real problem if I lived closer to yah. So make them all luv the dry with food and the sweet when just sitting around with friends (some non wine drinkers who all seem to like this variety) and BSing the night away. Make whatever you like i'll drink it (fer sure).

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    1. Sounds like you're an "equal opportunity wine drinker"! Awesome. You're definitely in a minority in this country, but you probably like the fact that we do both. It leaves my head spinning some days, but we're going to stay with it for the indefinite future.

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  12. We were introduced to Allegro in 2002 by neighbors. At the time we were novice wine drinkers and started with your sweeter options. Over time we developed a palate for your dry ones as well, so THANKS for doing it all! We now live in Texas but I still follow the blog and we'll always try to visit during trips to PA.

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    1. Thanks, Tonya, for your long-distance support! Maybe someday Texas will find an easier way to let us ship wine to you!

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  13. Wow! I feel your "pain". I am a pretty critical dry wine drinker, and I am impressed with the quality of yours. So my idea is to work hard at placing your dry wines in upscale settings (Left Bank comes to mind) where there are likely to be people like me having wine with dinner. Maybe even Gertrude's at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum, etc. And offer promotional pricing for by the glass options. Maybe also leave flyers about the vineyard. I don't judge, but my powers of observation tell me that people who appreciate dry wine are educated and go to museums, read books, and enjoy fine dining. That's your market!

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    1. Thanks for your reply! That's an interesting idea, marketing to museums. I know I've had the opportunity to try wines and beers at museums, and it has a very European sensibility about it. We'll see what we can do!

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  14. Marcia & Don StauchJune 19, 2015 at 1:58 PM

    WE LOVE ALLEGRO WINES AND VISITING THE WINERY. WE STARTED WAY BACK WITH THE CROUCH BROTHERS AND STILL LIKE TO COME TO THERE. ALLEGRO WINES ARE THE BEST!!!!

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  15. Your wines are my favorite for this area. I personally think that a GOOD winery should be well rounded with different tyoes of wines for all tastes. When I visited the wineries in Oregon, the variety was very limited and disappointing. The Brotherhood Winery in Washingtonville , NY has been my all time favoirte for their broad range of wines (reds, whites, dry ,sweet. sparkling, champagne, specialty). I guess being the oldest winery in the nation makes a difference. Your Harmony wine is however very similar to their Rosario. Don't STOP what you are doing. You are on the right track!

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    1. Thanks, Debbie! Glad to hear you place us in the same company as Brotherhood. We must be doing something right!

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  16. Keep doing what you're doing. My wife and I personally favor your sweeter wines, but to each their own. I have always told people I meet about your winery, "they have various dry wines if that's your fancy, but they have the best selection of local sweet wines for the rest of us." I only wish some of the dry wine fans wouldn't look down upon us sweet drinkers at times, as when I enjoy wine, I want to enjoy the fruit behind the drink, not the alcohol burning sensation...When I'm not drinking beer, you're my go to adult beverage of choice!

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    1. Thanks, Michael. I get it about the dry wine drinkers looking down on the sweet wine folks. Although, I've seen enough sweet wine drinkers criticize the dry folks for being snobbish and arrogant. It's kind of a "chicken-and-egg" issue.

      Even more, the dry folks look down on local wines, when even Napa is local for folks in Napa. I wish we could all get along, or else maybe we should all just drink beer!

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  17. Hi Karl,

    Maybe you remember us. We brought the pictures of John with us when we last visited you and we were tickled pink to see the blogs that they inspired. To start with, we are mostly dry red wine drinkers, although we do enjoy some white wines and love a good port style wine. So, we were suprised when you talked about the perception of some of your customers, that you only make sweeter wines. We have quite a few of your wines in our cellar and the only ones I would consider sweet are bottles of Forte, which is delicious! Your new vine plantings have caused some excitment at our house and we can't wait to taste the wine you make from their grapes when the time comes. Have you considered selling futures on them? We love premium wine and don't mind paying extra for wine when it's worth it, so count us in when the wines start being released. Very exciting indeed! We are always on the hunt for good wine. We've been to almost sixty wineries now and out of them we have about a dozen that we really liked, one of them being Allegro. We were in your area on Memorial Day, but you wisely took the day to spend with your family. We'll be back as soon as my fractured sternum heals. I had to laugh about your saying the customers didn't recognize that you were the owner as that was us the first time we visited you. When we talk about Allegro we always say that we love that you are right out there engaging with the customers. It makes the visit so much nicer when you can talk wine and the history of a winery with the owner, the tasting staff and the customers. There's nothing worse than being rushed through a tasting and mostly getting ignored. Just the other day, I said to my husband, Frank, I can't wait to get back out to Allegro to see the fellas. See you soo, Karl!

    Laurie Nunez

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    1. Thanks, Laurie, and I absolutely remember you all bringing those archival photos by. From the Baltimore Sun, right?

      We're excited, too, for the new vineyard. The young vines have gotten off to a great start with all the rain we've gotten, although the established vineyard could use less. If it were up to me, the rain could stop today for the rest of the summer.

      Next time you stop by, things may be a little different. We continue to grow, and that means more people and my time gets taken away to other projects and places. I still make the wine, but I rarely get out to customers like I used to. We have some great folks in our tasting room, though. If you're here during the week, you have a better chance of catching me.

      Cheers,

      Carl

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  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

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