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.



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.


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.