After years of struggle, Allegro uncorks success
“Things have really changed in the past 18 months,” Carl Helrich said as he walked between rows of wooden wine barrels and shiny fermentation vats inside Allegro Winery in York County.
“We kind of shoehorned our way into the business in 2001 and struggled for a long time, and it's only recently that I've felt like I really have a handle on this,” the winemaker admitted. “Most businesses that make it to year 10 are probably going to succeed, but in year 12 I was still a little worried. These days I'm pretty sure we're not going to go out of business.”
Helrich has reason to be confident: Allegro now sells close to 100,000 bottles per year, not just to the growing number of visitors to its tasting room in Chanceford Township, but at more than three dozen wine shops, restaurants and farmers markets in southcentral Pennsylvania and northeastern Maryland. It also makes wine for several other wineries in the region on a contract basis and recently had to expand its staff by over a third, bringing it to 36 full- and part-time workers.
As if that weren't enough evidence, Helrich also plans to grow Allegro's presence in the premium wine market, recently doubling the size of his vineyard from 6 to 12 acres with grapes that'll produce the high-end merlots, chardonnays and other vintages that midstate connoisseurs seek out.
“We're trying to do something a little new here,” he said. “We're already making good wine, but we're also planning to make some really great wine.”
Down the drain
Helrich explained that when he got into the wine business in 1998, he was “running away from a real job” with a furniture manufacturer in State College. He'd been a truck driver and plant manager there, but when he started working evenings and weekends at the Mt. Nittany Winery, he found a new home. Then, after learning the production side of the business for a couple of years, he heard that Allegro was for sale and — with a loan from Ag Choice Farm Credit and some help from his parents and in-laws — officially became a York County winemaker.
“It was a bootstrap operation from the beginning,” Helrich said, adding that in his first five years in business, he reluctantly poured $40,000 worth of wine down the drain.
“When you're first starting out, that's huge,” he noted. “But it was bad wine, and I wasn't going to sell it. I had to spin the situation, at least in my mind, and say, 'This is advertising. I'm advertising that I don't sell bad wine.' And it was worth it. Thankfully I haven't had to pour out a wine since 2005.”
Ironically, things finally started to take off for Allegro in the midst of the Great Recession, Helrich said.
“I think the recession made people realize how important their local economy is. And they realized there was a local wine industry, which was a real boon for us,” he said. “So in 2009 and 2010, we started seeing a little uptick in business, which was interesting. People started coming out to our tasting room more, partly because of the inexpensive day-trip and 'staycation' idea.”
And now, thanks to today's consumers “craving authentic experiences and personal interaction,” Allegro frequently sees its outdoor deck fill up with wine fans on weekends, Helrich explained.
Pennsylvania wine facts
October is Pennsylvania Wine Month.
With approximately 14,000 acres of grapes, Pennsylvania ranks 5th nationally in the amount of grapes grown (including juice grapes).
The state ranks 7th in the production of wine.
The state also is home to the two highest-elevation vineyards east of the Rockies.
In addition to their winery stores, state wineries may open up to five retail outlets. They also may also sell at festivals and make direct sales to restaurants. All other wine sales in Pennsylvania are transacted in state-owned shops.
In less than 30 years, Pennsylvania wineries have increased in number from 27 to 123.
In that same time period, gallons of wine produced has increased from 254,724 to 971,191.
“People may buy our wine in Mechanicsburg, but eventually they want to come down here and see where it's made,” he said. “Usually on weekends I do my own thing, but I've been getting calls every Sunday to come help in the tasting room because we've been so busy.”
Karl Storchmann, managing editor of the Journal of Wine Economics, said there's an increasing demand for locally produced wine all over the U.S. these days, including in Pennsylvania. He stressed that the “locavore” movement has led people to “want to know where their products are from — and if you can even visit the winery and taste the wine there, that's great.”
Storchmann added that the economic impact of wineries can be substantial, especially for restaurants and taverns that serve local wines, as well as for hotels that cater to wine tourists. The effect can be even greater, he said, when wineries “cluster” near each other and market themselves as a collective destination — a growing trend in Pennsylvania that he thinks will continue.
With that kind of development in mind, Helrich said Allegro will likely open its fifth wine shop in the not-so-distant future, adding to its current locations in Mechanicsburg, Strasburg, Wrightsville and York — not to mention its four farmers market locations in Lemoyne, Thomasville and York. Where the new shop will go is something Helrich isn't ready to divulge, however.
“People in the Harrisburg area have been saying, 'You have two places on the West Shore. Why aren't you on the East Shore someplace?' But we just got two new places up and running, which for a little organization like ours is a huge stress,” he said. “So we'll have to let them run for a while and then re-evaluate. I want to keep pushing, but I want to do it in an intelligent way.”