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Monday, 27 October 2008 20:00

For the past few days, I've been doing field work.

Just to be clear, a wine writer's field work doesn't resemble that of an anthropologist. There's no digging up remains of ancient carafes and goblets, or conducting scientifically-valid surveys of wine preferences.

No, this field work consists of visiting wine stores around Ann Arbor to glean information for a monthly wine column that starts on Saturday, November 2, in the newish online paper, the Ann Arbor Chronicle. And the information has to do with the selection of Michigan wine available locally.

What I found was pleasantly surprising, with some caveats. So, in no particular order:

  • For the most part, Michigan wine selections are larger than I expected -- or would have found just a couple of years ago. Six of seven stores presented their Michigan wine in separate sections ranging from adequate to gargantuan. (The lone exception -- Trader Joe's, home of Three Buck Chuck -- uses a business model that isn't a good fit for most Michigan-made wines.)

  • The larger the chain, the larger the wineries.  At Meijer, which hands over the most real estate to Michigan wine, the state's three largest wineries (Chateau Grand Traverse, Leelanau Cellars, and St. Julian) dominate the shelves; I counted ten different flavors of St. Julian Sparkling Spumante, at $3.79 apiece, plus twelve of their other wines.

  • At small stores, the reverse is true. Village Corner, owned by Michigan Wine Competition judge Dick Scheer, offers just four short shelves of Michigan wine. But they're chock-full of gold medal winners and other interesting bottles from smaller wineries, while the "Big Three" barely make an appearance.

  • Several retailers volunteered that they've noticed increased numbers of customers buying Michigan wines. "We have a fair number of folks coming in and asking for them," said Whole Foods Market wine manager Audree Riesterer.

  • Small wineries from Leelanau and Old Mission have exploded onto southern Michigan shelves. I expected to find -- and did -- such strong marketers as Black Star Farms, Chateau Chantal and L. Mawby. But multiple stores also offered bottles from Bowers Harbor, Brys, Peninsula Cellars, Left Foot Charley, Bel Lago, Chateau Fontaine and Shady Lane. A couple of savvy retailers specifically credited Mitten Distributors with sparking the move to launch smaller up-north wineries in the Ann Arbor market.

  • Just the opposite seems true for the smaller wineries from Lake Michigan Shore. Except for the moderately-represented Fenn Valley and Tabor Hill, there's a real marketplace gap here. But nearby wineries Lone Oak and Sandhill Crane -- both of which self-distribute to Ann Arbor -- make a good showing, along with the odd bottle from Cherry Creek.

  • A surprising number of older vintages, particularly among dry whites, remain on the shelves. With most wineries now into their 2007 release cycle, or at least finishing up 2006, it was odd to find so many 2005 whites for sale in multiple stores. I didn't take the time to inquire if these have been sitting (upright) on the shelves for the past year or two, or if they're recently-arrived distributor stock. But it's difficult to recommend that consumers purchase three year old whites of unknown provenance, even from an excellent vintage.

  • Despite the recent announcement of its availability to retailers, no store yet stocks any of St. Julian's Braganini Reserve line. A couple are stocking Chateau Grand Traverse specialty wines.

  • The new Whole Foods Market offers an in-store tasting bar -- a first in the area -- along with a pledge to keep several Michigan wines on the list. When I stopped by, their four Michigan offerings came from Lone Oak and Leelanau Cellars. I noted that the latter don't actually carry a Michigan appellation, despite the "Taste of Northern Michigan" on the label.

  • Most ubiquitous wines: L. Mawby Cremant and M. Lawrence Sex. Larry is everywhere.
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    Recently-deceased Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a wine geek (and reputed alcoholic) with a 10,000-bottle cellar, according to ex-Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger. Kim earlier gave up Hennessy Cognac on doctor's orders.