Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Helrich: 'We need to be a Merlot region'

Carl Helrich was my first interview for this blog way back in March, some 290 posts ago. I didn’t even check back to determine if the scratchy podcast we did by phone still works. Sure hope it does.

The Allegro Vineyards owner and winemaker has been one of a number of people that I’ve been able to count on when I needed comment or was searching for a story. Tracking down those who have wineries in some cases has been surprisingly difficult; people either refusing to return phone calls or answer e-mails. But Helrich has a perfect score, and there’s a bit of a sentimental feeling about the person who went out on a limb and granted an interview for a blog that had no more than a brief explanation of who I am and a few photos taken during a January visit to Tuscany.

Since then, this blog has grown in scope and expanded to cover almost 60 wineries that exist today in central and eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland. More are on the way in 2009.
As for Helrich, his winery became the first in the state to open a shop inside a grocery store; his winery name and wines have become a stopping point for shoppers headin gin and out of the Giant Food Store in Enola. He has developed a relationship with the folks in suburban Philadelphia who are slowly working toward building what they hope will be one of the pre-eminent wineries in the region, which at this point has a name (Karamoor) and grapes that Helrich is expertly turning into wine.

And Helrich continues to make his own delicious line of wines under the Allegro label, topped
by a Bordeaux blend called Cadenza, their flagship wine and a blend that’s among the best in the region. At $35, it’s in line with, among others, the estate wines that Chaddsford produces and the selections coming out of Black Ankle Winery in Mt. Airy, winner of the 2008 Maryland Governor’s Cup competition for its Bordeaux blend called Crumbling Rock.

What makes Allegro a bit different is its decision to generally stay away from staging the concerts and other events that occupy the time of so many wineries. Once the home of a summer series that brought in a different chef to prefer a multi-course meal that paired with Allegro’s wines, Helrich decided to end that for now in 2008 and just focus on winemaking. OK, almost end. They did hold a holiday open house at their Tollgate Village store in York Township on Saturday, Dec. 13, and it was a big success, Helrich said.

"We actually had a great open house," he said by phone the other day. "We rarely do any kind of events. I have some employees I refer to as the ladies of Tollgate and they are these women who kind of run the shop for me. These women just love doing these things, so they’re trying to do little events there and they said, ‘Hey, we’ll get a jazz guitarist and we’ll do some food and we’ll invite people,’ and all of a sudden we jjust sold oodles of wine and we had to call in extra help . . . we’re selling wine left and right. [So while that’s not something we usually do], it was a good thing. I think they are going to do [other] small events like that. I feel like, as long as the [employees] are having fun and we’re making money, then I’m happy. They’re good folks."

Helrich and I talked at length when I was down a few weeks to sample his wines and the Karamoor wines. We bounced from Chardonnay to Merlot to Cabernet Franc, all wines that hit the palate running despite their young ago. In other words, all good stuff. Asked for his sentiments on the 2008 harvest, Helrich said it rivaled 2007, which is considered one of the best-ever in the region. "The beautiful thing that 2008 followed 2007 is that ’07 was an amazing vintage and we learned a lot in making wine and the capability of what we could do with really good grapes," he said, "and in ’08 we had equally good grapes and we had learned from the previous year’s experience. So it was a nice 1-2 tandem, where every year you’re supposed to get a little smarter, we’d like to think, and hopefully we’ll be able to apply what we learned in ’07 and make better wines in 2008."

Talk to winemakers from Harrisburg, Pa., down to Hydes, Md., then northeast to Erwinna, Pa., and north to Bangor, Pa., and you’ll get different theories on what grapes will grow well here and what wines or wines will become the signature for the region. Helrich is never bashful about offering his opinions on the subject, and he believes strongly in two things: the value of blending when it comes to producing great wine, and that Merlot is the grape that should become the most dominant in the mid-Atlantic region.

"Americans love 100 percent, they always think that 100 percent is better than 90 percent, but it’s not really when it comes to wine," he said. "If you can get 1 plus 1 equals 3 because you’ve got two different wines involved and you’ll get something even better out of it. Remember I was talking about the complete whole where you’ve got Merlot . . . with the Cabernet structure around it, you’ve got the aromatics of the Cab Franc added to it; you’ve got this complete wine picture versus having 100 percent Merlot, which will give you a much more monochromatic picture. That's my wine-blending philosophy on things."

That philosophy extends to his feelings about the potential for Merlot here. "I’m a firm believer in the down the road, and we need to be a Merlot region and we’ve got to give up on Cabernet Franc," he said. "We’ve got to probably give up on Cabernet Sauvignon, too."

Helrich noted that [wine grape agent] Mark Chien mentioned in his recent grape newsletter that "he’s actually talking about tasting Pennsylvania wines, and he made the comment that, you know, Cabernet Sauvignon, we should probably give up on this variety, except for maybe Adams and York counties. That was his direct comment. With our wines, Merlot is probably is going to be our good base blend for making good blends down the road, whether it’s going to be 40 to 80 percent or 90 percent of the blends. I’m a big proponent in having a grape or at least a grape style that were can base our industry and our region on, and I think Merlot is going to be it."

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