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 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 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 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.