For about half of the year here, snakes are fairly common visitors. When the boys were little, we used to go outside after supper for our evening "snake hunt," pausing at each decorative wine barrel lining the drive to tip it up and look to see who might be residing underneath. Garter snakes were always the most common ones found there, although there was one memorable catch of the world's grumpiest milk snake, whom we named "Milky Way." We rescued him from the cat and kept him in an aquarium for a little while, from where he would lunge at anyone walking by.
Our younger son is a particular snake aficionado; he was always the one who would catch whatever we found under those barrels. Several times over the years he's been called down to the winery, where a black snake guarding the front door might be keeping customers out and tasting room staff trapped inside.
Carl, too, is quite fond of snakes, particularly the black rat snakes which do such a great job of keeping down our rodent population around the winery. So when this morning--Easter morning--a black snake was seen peeping out from behind one of our sheds, the adventure was on.
It's a little hard to capture the excitement of watching a 6'4" winemaker swinging around a huge black snake while our yard leopard Artemis was performing surprised aerial acrobatics and I juggled camera lenses. Bonnet was no shy retiring garter snake--he was none to happy about being moved from shed to woods, and he retaliated by sliming Carl quite impressively.
But ahh, Easter in The Brogue. Gotta love country living. Sometimes the best hunts are when nature finds us, just to get a glimpse of our surprised faces.
Happy Easter from Allegro, every bunny!
Sometimes all it takes is a shift in timing to bring new intrigue to an otherwise very familiar face or place. This is what was evident last evening, when Carl and I indulged ourselves in a golf cart ride around the property after sundown. I was noticing the eerie light fog which had settled in our stand of oaks, so I grabbed my camera and off we sped into the impending night.
Past the stand of trees, we rode up into the vineyard to see the rows of still-sleeping vines disappear into the mist.
As it got darker and we zoomed back down the hill toward the winery buildings, the pole lights were glowing in the night, giving an effect reminiscent of some sort of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" spaceship.
Around the winery itself, the lights were even more striking, illuminating the buildings, early-budding trees, and a nocturnal visitor.
But the coolest effect of the evening ride came once we scurried back behind the winery, to the crush pad. Because of the lights on the front of the winery, it looked as if the sun was actually starting to rise over the tanks and fermentation airlocks at their tops, like chimneys.
The shift in perspective was spooky fun. We see these scenes every day, but seldom at night, especially at this time of the year. What "dawned on me," besides the artificial sun over the winery roof, is how lucky we are to be stewards of such an interesting place, where the times of the day and year afford us different way of seeing and reward us with unexpected beauty.
Yeah, we're mostly wine people. But that doesn't exclude us from also being beer people! (And tequila people...and bourbon people...) Carl first got into fermentation as a homebrewer. It was a hobby he came by honestly, having watched his dad brew beer and soda while he was growing up in Kansas and Illinois. Early in our married days Carl and I would enjoy "Brew and Bake Nights" in our tiny kitchen in Oakland City, Indiana, where I would bake homemade cookies or bread while he brewed his latest batch of beer, mead, or cyser (apple cider mead).
Even after Carl graduated from fermenting things as as avocation to doing it as a vocation, beer still holds a special place in his heart. One of his favorite sayings during harvest is, "It takes a lot of beer to make good wine!" This refers to the practice of grabbing a cold one or two or three while slogging through the work of the harvest and grape processing.
We enjoy beer on other occasions and at other times of the year, too. This year, for St. Patrick's Day, we broke out the Guiness (of course!). In the summer, sometimes, nothing seems to hit the spot like a chilled IPA or German Pilsner or Köln-style Kölsch , something which immediately transports us to another place and time.
So...cheers to all the beverages of the changing seasons!
It's a 1996 Ford F-250 with a V plow. It's also a memento of history from this rural corner of York County, and a reminder of a local legend with a sweet connection to Allegro Winery here in The Brogue.
This blue-striped heavy-duty white pickup used to belong to our neighbor here on Sechrist Road, Gary Wolford. Gary was well known in this region, partly for his excavation/septic business and partly for his storied career as a dirt-track auto racer. We knew him as a good neighbor and guardian of the road, always in the know about local comings and goings, always willing to lend a hand when one was needed, especially when heavy machinery could be involved.
Carl and Gary forged a good relationship, one which even had a playful side, as I found out one day as I was driving home. On this particular day, I happened to be driving Allegro's black Dodge pickup truck, which was unusual. I hardly ever drive it, and it is as synonymous with Carl as Gary's Ford was with him. I drove down the hill toward the winery and saw Gary's pickup coming my way...directly at me, on my side of the road. I was rather alarmed, but Gary's truck swerved out of the way just in time. I saw Gary's surprised and apologetic wave has we passed each other, and then it dawned on me: He'd thought I was Carl, and had engaged in a friendly neighborhood game of "chicken" with him/me. Most excellent.
Gary passed away in the summer of 2016, and the road sure hasn't been the same without him. We still enjoy friendly waves with all our other neighbors, but certainly haven't had any Sechrist Road driving games since he passed away.
When Gary's wife Pat contacted Carl to ask if he would like to buy Gary's truck, Carl's answer was an enthusiastic yes. It's nice to have a heavier-duty truck around, and both Carl and Dwayne look much more forward to heavy snows, knowing that the driveways can now be plowed in a forward direction, with the front plow, rather than backwards for hours on end, as one has to do with our tractors.
Watching Carl plow us out of the drifts today, I can't help but think of Gary. Frankly, I think of him every time I see the truck here on our property. It will always be his. And we will always be grateful for the friendship and safety we felt, knowing the warmth which comes from good machines and good neighbors.
One of the highlights of my current life, hunkered down here in The Brogue during the pandemic, is the amount of time I get to spend in my kitchen and thinking about homemade foods. Whereas getting groceries used to be a chore squeezed in among other chores, now it's a highlight of my quarantine life. I spend an inordinate amount of time reading recipes, learning about new foods, and preparing food for my family. I've also happily extended that task to include weekly baking for the family of good people who make Allegro what it is.
Just about every week during of these many months, I've baked a little something--cookies, muffins, brownies--for Carl to distribute to the Allegro staff working that day. As my courier, he takes the treats to our vineyards, tractors, cellars, and tasting rooms. It's a good feeling to have a way to thank those who have worked with such diligence and goodwill, especially during these strange times.
This weekly bake shop enhances the house, too, keeping the kitchen bright and warmly scented with chocolate, cinnamon, and gratitude. What better way could there be to say "Thank you," than with sprinkles on top?
Well, it's official! Allegro has put out the word that we'll be buying the Pennsylvania wine brand developed by Carl's friend Brad Knapp: Pinnacle Ridge. Carl and Brad have known each other for many years, meeting together with Joanne Levengood of Manatawny Creek to taste wines together and collaborate on our Trio wines. It's been a unique partnership, really valuable to Carl as a member of the regional wine community.
We've certainly enjoyed our share of Pinnacle Ridge wines here, especially Brad's sparkling wines. And I have fond memories of stops at the big red barn winery in Kutztown, where our boys scampered up the hill to the vineyards many years ago.
Carl's looking forward to the opportunities of carrying the Pinnacle Ridge brand and wines forward. A nice PennLive article outlines some of those plans, and we'll be out scouting for tasting room locations nearer to Philly.
Cheers to friendship, retirement, and new possibilities for Allegro and Pinnacle Ridge!
Well, we made it! 2020 is in the books and can return to being a figure of speech, something about hindsight. There's no way we could have predicted this past crazy year, but we couldn't feel more grateful to have survived it, and to have Allegro survive it as well.
I turned off a radio program the other day because they were running a "2020 News in Review" segment. I remember what happened in 2020. I didn't particularly want to hear about it all again. So much of the year was bitter, heart-wrenching, sad, anxiety-producing. To deal with that load, we've all gotten more tools in our tool-boxes, strategies of flexibility, priority-gazing, and appreciation to help us get through. I am particularly grateful for Carl's particular socket set.
One of Carl's favorite podcasts is Pivot, hosted by Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher. And I must say that Carl certainly put his own personal pivoting skills to good use in 2020. As the pandemic threat loomed and businesses all around the world were being shuttered, we went through many days of uncertainty, not knowing if we would be allowed to stay open, if we and our employees were "essential." From one hour to the next on some days, we'd get updates and mandates and Carl would have to quickly navigate through the information, heading into strategy sessions seeking ways that we'd be able to keep making and selling wine. When retail stores and restaurants closed, our curbs remained open. Customers found our wines in grocery stores and we delivered the wine straight to their doors.
There are many reasons why we survived 2020 as a business, and Carl stands behind all of them. Two decades of his work to grow and diversify the ways we make and sell wine mean that when one door closes, he's already framed out three nearby windows.
We purchased our second winery and vineyard in Stewartstown just before the pandemic changed everything. Well...back on September 11th, 2001, we had also just gone "all-in" with coming to Allegro in the first place. We've had practice with navigation through troubled waters, and this guy's got quite a rudder.
Priorities these days seem as clear as the winter night sky. Family, employees, customers. Some days, they all seem like family to Carl. That's a special thing.
Despite last year's rough times, loss, and uncertainty, the energy heading into this particular new year feels really good. We feel smarter, leaner, pragmatic, focused. We've really enjoyed the bonus days with our boys and the meaningful connections with all people Allegro. Life is good.
2021: Bring it!
I saw a headline recently that announced the death of "Snow Days" for schoolchildren. The main point of the article was that virtual learning protocols have put into place mechanisms which mean that, going forward, nothing--including severe weather which keeps school buses off the roads--will keep kids from still putting in a day of schoolwork, remotely.
I can't help but feel that this is a bit of a bummer.
I followed the rhythms of the academic calendar for nearly every year of my life, including the twelve which got me through the grades, the twelve more during which I did college and grad school coursework, and the many years when I taught college and elementary/middle school. Those rhythms--the ebbs and flows of the marking periods and semesters--are certainly engrained in me, even when I am not actively in an academic setting. As much as those rhythms felt good to me, I was still one of those--both as a learner and as an educator--who really appreciated a break in the routine, a good ol' SNOW DAY.
As kids, my brother and I would sit by the TV, watching the scroll of school closure announcements during snowy mornings in central PA, hoping that our school would be on the list. Like mad bingo contestants, we'd watch the names with intense anticipation. As an adult who is not a huge fan of winter driving, I would obsessively check snow and closing reports for hours before I would have usually gotten up to get ready for an actual school day. That moment that my particular institution would pop up on the TV or phone screen, I always felt the same exuberance of sweet release.
I enjoy responsibility and routine, but there is still something so compelling to me about being told, in essence: "Not today. Today, nothing will be asked of you, because the world is taking a big snowy break for a few hours, while we get plowed out." Living here in The Brogue, it's often literally true that we can't safely leave the property after big weather events, until we plow our own driveways or scrape off our own ice. A Snow Day is like permission to let go of the reins for just a little while, and let those horses drink in the stream. Listen to the snowy woods.
It's not easy to switch to virtual learning, and I am in awe of the learners and educators who have navigated these strange times of "hybrid" learning with such flexibility, going back and forth between formats and still getting everything done. And yes--Snow Days can wreak havoc and cause all kinds of scheduling headaches, particularly when big weather events pile up the cancellations like, well, huge drifts of "the white stuff." But still--what a shame (I've been thinking) not to have any chance of any future Snow Days, days unexpectedly and blessedly "off."
In a way, many of us have, in essence, been experiencing nine months of Snow Days, with our normal routines hampered by situations beyond our control. While cabin fever is real and "normal" is really hard to grab hold of, I do know that I've appreciated some aspects of this time in the home, time with our boys, time around the table with nowhere else to go.
So when the snow fell in earnest yesterday, I still felt a definite thrill. And waking up this morning to a world transformed was actually energizing. A good time to take another breath, put on some boots, and listen to a newly quiet winter world.
As lovely as traditional holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas can be, they often also feel like "crunch times," with the flurry of shopping and gifting and baking and more baking. This strange year has already given me a new perspective on how important it is to keep alive the spirit--gratitude, giving, sharing--of these holidays, even when things look so drastically different for so many families.
In my 10/25 blog post, I reflected on the joy of inviting the Thanksgiving spirit, on a smaller scale, into an otherwise ordinary day. I have continued to actively think of ways to honor both traditions and pragmatism, and have found great pleasure in taking one special "holiday" food tradition at a time and sharing it with those close to me.
These thoughts remind me of Carl's often-shared belief that there's often no reason to hold on to "great" bottles of wine (unless they are some of the few which could benefit from further flavor development through bottle aging), waiting for some "special occasion" to occur. He says: Just go ahead and pop that cork and--magic!--the special occasion is now happening.
You know what can wear a person out? Baking five kinds of Christmas cookies all in one day. By the end of a long session attempting to re-create every single flavor of all our childhoods, my enthusiasm for the project has usually waned. The huge influx of cookies can also be a bit overwhelming, with all of the flavors and choices.
This year, just because, I baked one batch of shortbread cookies in November. They weren't holiday cookies--just little autumn leaves, with some raspberry jam sandwiched in between. Doing just one batch, unexpectedly, and then sharing them with Allegro folks, was really fun. Why not commemorate the season, maybe every season, with a little something extra sweet, extra special? The activity actually boosted my energy.
One holiday tradition which I've had ever since I was a kid is the eating of lox and bagels for Christmas breakfast, a vestige of time my parents had spent in New York. It wouldn't be Christmas morning, I've thought, unless the bagels were toasting and the cream cheese spreading.
Turns out, however, that It's not sacredly held that Christmas morning should be the only time that we enjoy this delicious pairing. I get this now. So--sprinkled into our rotation of "regular" dinner meals, and following an example shared with me by my friend Tracie--now sometimes, at times suddenly "special," it's Bagel Nite! We toast the freshest bagels we can find (though still nowhere close to my favorites, from the Bagel Chateau in Maplewood, NJ, on the morning after Thanksgiving, back in the Age of Travel). We get out pickled red onions and capers, slice good cheese very thin, and set the beautiful smoked salmon on top of our creations. So. Good. Carbs, Christmas, comfort. Bagel Night.
I had another successful tradition transplant for the family recently: Fondue Nite! In "normal" years, we get together with our friends the Welshes for New Year's Eve. We write predictions, get caught up, and then melt chocolate and dip everything we can find into it. Usually, for us, fondue is a once-a-year kind of thing. Well, not this year. I made a cheese-and-pilsner fondue for our bread, potatoes, and veggies, and then tried out a new chocolate fondue recipe, with all the potential dessert dippers I could find. There we were, huddled around the bowl of chocolate, and it wasn't even New Year's Eve! But still, it felt like a celebration. Maybe time for a new resolution.
In the olden days, a huge everybody-in holiday meal would involve huge amounts of preparation, dish after dish all to be shared all at once. Sometimes it's hard to appreciate the wonder of each part--the cranberries, the stuffing, the pie--because the parts are all piling on top of each other, and we can often feel exhausted. What I'm trying to do more consciously this season is to mindfully share the very best parts of holiday traditions, even if sometimes it's only one dish at a time.
Making the everyday special definitely helps us make it through.
Winegrowers and winemakers don't often get many opportunities to travel. The needs of the vineyards and cellars keep them tied pretty close to home, during busy seasons overlapping throughout the year. Since our coming to Allegro in The Brogue in 2001, we have managed to tear Carl away from the property as often as feasible, though of course there have also been many times when he wanted to join the boys and me for trips but simply couldn't, due to his responsibilities back here.
It's notable, then, that during our tenure here Carl has managed twice to make it out to a rather remote vineyard site near the southern shore of Lake Erie, out in Conneaut, Ohio: Markko Vineyard. Both times, he came away inspired and gratified by his interaction with East Coast wine pioneer Arnie Esterer.
Esterer passed away a few days ago, on October 28th. His passing has given Carl and others (such as Linda Jones McKee, in an article for WineBusiness.com) an opportunity to reflect upon this remarkable man, his achievements, and his influence.
Arnie Esterer was born in Germany, came to the U.S., studied economics and engineering, and then joined the winegrowing and winemaking industry as a follower of Dr. Konstantin Frank. Frank (originally from what is now Ukraine) is credited with successfully bringing European vinifera grapes (such as Chardonnay and Riesling) to the Northeast, founding Vinifera WIne Cellars near Keuka Lake in New York's Finger Lakes region in 1962. Esterer was one of Frank's student "cooperators," and, following Frank's advice, planted his own successful vinifera vineyard in Ohio in 1968 and founded Markko winery in 1972.
During a nearby year--1971--Bill Radomsky had searched Pennsylvania for his own vinifera vineyard site. He chose The Brogue and, in 1973, planted the first Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in what would eventually come to be called Allegro Vineyards.
John and Tim Crouch, the brothers who bought the vineyard and would establish Allegro WInery in 1980, knew of the legacy of the pioneers of commercially-successful East Coast vinifera grapes and vines, including Dr. Frank, Arnie Esterer, and Doug Moorhead of Presque Isle WIne Cellars in North East, PA.
John and Tim certainly didn't travel much, themselves. After purchasing the vineyard, they only took two notable trips together which we're aware of: one to visit famed Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, PA (for train-buff Tim); and the other, around 1976, to visit the pioneers of Lake Erie winegrowing: Presque Isle, Mazza, and--yep--Markko. Here are a few old slides from their Ohio sojourn:
John talked to Carl about his visit to Markko, using Esterer's name in a pun which apparently only winemakers would understand: an "army of esters" (har, har).
Carl got his first chance to meet Arnie Esterer in late 2005, when I headed to a wine marketing conference up on the very cold shore of Lake Erie. I drove out to the conference with Linda Jones McKee, and then Carl came out to pick me up. First, he made the pilgrimage to Conneaut, where he found Esterer in the vineyard, hilling up vines to protect them from the coming winter. (Vinifera vines' survival through winter had long been the challenge for East Coast growers.) Esterer was the kind of winegrower who grew to know the needs of every one of his vines (reminding me of Jim Law, of Virginia's wonderful Linden Vineyards). Esterer had even developed his own training/pruning trellis system.
Stepping into Markko winery, Carl was absolutely floored. The evocative smell reminded him exactly of Allegro's own distinctive scent, a combination of fermentation and the "terroir" of mold on the walls, reminiscent of Burgundy. In tasting the wines, he found a similar taste profile to John Crouch's wines: vibrant with acidity, clean, well-structured, alive.
All of these winemakers have held a special connection to Europe and its well-known vinifera, from the Rieslings of the Rhein region to the red Left Bank Bordeaux blends. (John had recalled how excellent Markko's 1991 Cabernet had been, particularly, showing extremely well against the 1990 Bordeaux from a similarly hot growing season.) Carl himself spent several of his young years living in Germany and feels a definite European connection. Together, we have thoroughly enjoyed our wine-focused visits to Germany and France. Our Pennsylvania climate is most similar to that of Bordeaux, and Carl continues the traditions of these East Coast wine producers who have upheld European styles and methods for six decades now.
Carl and I returned to Pennsylvania in late 2005 with a bunch of Markko wines and a renewed sense of our connections to the roots of our industry in this part of the world.
Several years later, Carl took one more opportunity for a pilgrimage to Markko. In August of 2018, he and our older son stopped for a visit. Octogenarian Arnie Esterer led them around the vineyard at a fast clip, and then to the winery and tasting room to kick the tires of recent vintages. The no-frills aesthetic felt quite familiar to Carl by now, still reminiscent of the Allegro we first met in the spring of 2001. Again, the wines--referencing Germany, France--were remarkable.
The picture of Markko's founder setting the pace in the vineyard is one which Carl holds fondly, recalling it this week as news of his passing came our way. Arnie Esterer was humble, generous, and energetic, with a devotion to the vineyard which he expressed in terms both poetic and reverential. (Markko's annual "Blessing of the Vines" vineyard walk every May is one of its most cherished traditions.)
Carl broke out a nice bottle of Cadenza this weekend and we talked about East Coast winemaking, about John, about Esterer. "He showed us what's possible. Sometimes I feel," he told me, thoughtfully, "that I'm standing on the shoulders of giants."