Brogue, PA is not an ideal location for selling wine. With few tourist attractions, the dry county is home to more moonshiners and beer-drinkers than fine wine aficionados. “This is one of the few vineyards on the whole East Coast that was chosen for vineyard site. 90-95+ percent of wineries out there, the ones who have vineyards, are chosen because it’s a great place to sell wine,” explains Carl Helrich, winemaker and current owner of Allegro Winery in York County, PA.
The vineyard’s history dates to 1973 when founder Bill Radomsky settled on the Brogue property, planting some of the first vinifera grapes on the East Coast – Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. According to Helrich, everyone thought he was crazy, but Radomsky hedged his vinifera bets with an additional 8-acre planting of the labrusca varietal, Seyval Blanc. “Seyval was the premiere hybrid variety for like 25 years… It had this great candy character to it,” says Helrich. “Nobody thought you could actually grow vinifera here.”
When Radomsky went through a divorce, he sold the property to two musician brothers, John and Tim Crouch in 1978. They built the winery, named it “Allegro” and produced their first vintage in 1980. That initial Seyval Blanc planting won the brothers national recognition in the early 1980s, when Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild established the premiere Opus One brand.
Ironically, during those first few years, the Crouches had been producing their own “Opus 1,” a $5.95 blend of 25% peach juice from Shaw Orchard in Stewartstown, PA and 75% Seyval Blanc. As the story goes, Mondavi sent his lawyers to the PA vineyard and hashed out an agreement with the Crouches to use the Opus One brand in PA for a good chunk of change. Helrich pulls an old bottle off the shelf and proudly displays the label. “An old customer brought one by. I had never seen a full bottle.”
After Tim passed away in 2000, John sold the winery to Helrich and his wife Kris in 2001. “I left the real world and got into the wine business. I realized my real problem was I couldn’t work for other people,” he muses. With John to coach him, Helrich, who describes himself as a “kitchen sink, seat-of-my-pants, gut winemaker,” produced his first vintage in 2000 and three years later, his third commercial vintage was voted the best wine in PA.
Now, Allegro’s sells about 95% of its 75,000-100,000 annual bottle production direct-to-consumer through the winery and its five tasting extensions. Another 3% are sold through restaurants and the remaining 2-3% through the PLCB, which recently started a program to offer more PA-produced wines on its shelves through its partnership with the PA Winery Association. Allegro Winery was one of three wineries along with Brookmere Winery and Crossing Vineyards to participate in the now four-year-old pilot program.
“When we first signed on, we had… two wines in three or four stores. Then, what happened was other stores would hear about it, then contact that store. They can do transfers. And so they’d transfer our wines from the Eastern Boulevard store to the other stores,” Helrich explains. As state stores began selling more cases, they’d contact the winery directly to place orders. Their largest PLCB distribution in downtown York sells 400 cases annually. “All we have to do is make it here and deliver it. There are no overhead costs. It’s brilliant. It works very well.”
Selling through the PLCB does have drawbacks for smaller wineries. “The LCB has a rule that they can’t be undersold. If you’re selling a wine for $14, the LCB will sell it for $13.99. That means the LCB will pay you probably $6-6.50 for your bottle of wine,” Helrich says. The PLCB adds a 30% markup and 18% liquor tax for all wines. They also require wineries to sell at minimum, one case per month, to remain in the program. “The PLCB is big on having minimum sales per month. They want to make sure products move because they’re a distributor,” Helrich adds.
A quick look over Allegro’s tasting menu reveals 27 different wines, with sweeter wines making up 75% of production. “We make a lot of wines – it is the shotgun approach,” Helrich admits. The sweeter wines keep the winery in business. “People want labrusca. They want the fruity stuff.”
Selling higher-end dry wines at Allegro’s $29-36 price point is more challenging. “What happens is Pennsylvania wines get written off because someone has a bad experience at one winery and thinks all PA wines suck. That’s not the case,” Helrich notes.
The estate’s signature wines include Trio, a Syrah/Cabernet Franc/Merlot-blend co-made with two other local wineries, Pinnacle Ridge and Manatawny Creek, and two Bordeaux-blends Cadenza and Bridge, which are only produced in the best years. Allegro also has a back library of old vintages dating to the early 1980s. “Over time, they’ll develop dirty, mushroom, wet concrete, leather…. sometimes some cigar box by age twenty,” says Helrich of the older dry reds.
If Helrich had the cash flow to focus solely on dry reds, he would. “We’re not here to make sweet wines. We’re here to make wines I like to drink.”