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.


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.

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.