“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.