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."