Unfiltered, Unfined: The Spirit of Allegro Vineyards

Mar 7, 2003

John Crouch, the quiet but lovable musician-turned-vintner who founded Allegro Vineyards in Brogue, Pa., died on March 2.

Crouch held a special place in the hearts of wine lovers in this tiny hamlet 50 miles north of Baltimore. Friends will gather on Sunday in York to pay tribute to the late vintner.

Crouch, an oboist, started the winery in 1980 with his elder brother, Tim, a violinist. They began their winemaking careers using a wine kit that John had received as a Christmas gift. They then took an old overgrown vineyard and nursed it back to health. In 1980, they built a winery, which opened on Halloween in 1981. Wine lovers in and around Brogue came to appreciate the brothers' fascination with classic French varieties, such as Cabernet and Chardonnay, along with their offbeat fruit specialty wines.

 
I'd never heard of the Crouches or their wines until we were brought together by a quirk of fate.

Twenty years ago, I wrote a story about the naming of the first wine from the joint venture of Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Mondavi and Rothschild agreed to give Wine Spectator the exclusive on the naming of their "Napamedoc" -- a wine which no one outside the winery had tasted -- which they proudly called Opus One.

After reading the article, Crouch wrote me a letter, followed by a phone call, politely informing me that -- surprise -- residents of Brogue had been drinking Opus 1, a wine he and his brother made, for close to a year. It cost $5.95 a bottle and could be purchased by the case at the local grocery store.

You can imagine their shock and glee at the irony. The high-profile, aristocratic Mondavi-Rothschild venture had chosen the same name for its prestigious $50 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon as Allegro's hybrid blend of peach juice and Seyval Blanc.

It turned out that both Allegro and Mondavi-Rothschild had applied for the same name at about the same time. But the Crouches didn't bother with a patent and did not secure a registered trademark. Reluctantly they gave up the name.

In the years since, I've often wondered what happened to the Crouches and Allegro.

On March 4, I learned of John Crouch's death, due to heart and kidney failure, at the age of 55.

Two years ago, when his brother Tim died, John became something of a recluse and decided to sell the winery. Along came Kris Miller and Carl Helrich, an energetic couple from upstate Pennsylvania smitten with a love of wine.

Miller, 32, had been a graduate teaching assistant at Penn State, working in humanities and literature. But she found herself increasingly more interested in vineyard work than in academia. Helrich, 33, showed even more excitement about winemaking. "When I saw Carl catch his passion, I realized I hadn't caught mine," says Miller. But she's getting closer.

This husband-and-wife team had been working at Mount Nittany upstate and were eager to own a winery. They met Crouch and, according to Miller, hit it off from the day they met. "Carl had this terrible cold, and we came into this humble building, and John pulled out the 1997 Cadenza," Miller recalls. "It was absolutely stunning, an amazing discovery for us." Cadenza was Crouch's homage to Bordeaux. While locals admired Allegro's French varietal wines, Miller says, they also respected Crouch for his palate, his appreciation of fine wine and for bringing winegrowing to their community.

For the 2001 vintage, Crouch, Miller and Helrich teamed up for harvest and winemaking and then worked out a deal to transfer ownership of the winery. "What excites everyone is the continuity of Carl and John's winemaking," says Miller. "We're very happy that this overlap happened, that he and Carl were excited about the same wines."

"I never dreamed I could work with grapes like this on the East Coast," admits Helrich. But the climate and soil provide a good interplay for the grapes that are grown on the rolling hill vineyard. "What influences the vineyard the most is it's a low-vigor site."

In 2002, Miller and Helrich faced a drought, followed by a bird invasion that wiped out much of their grape crop, leaving them with one barrel of Chardonnay. And the vineyard posts, now 20 years old, need fixing, too. But the dessert wines turned out well, including a new wine called Aria, made in an ice-wine style from the Traminette grape, a descendant of Gewürztraminer.

The couple is more determined than ever to make Allegro a success. "We scraped by last year," Miller says, but things are looking up. "We're buying bird nets this year, by the way."

The service for Crouch is slated for 1:30 p.m. on March 9 at the Industrial and Agricultural Museum in York, Pa., at 217 W. Princess St.

Opinion

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