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Joel's Blog

Monday, 20 July 2009 20:00

Imagine the blow-back if a respected media outlet hired a movie critic with a day job producing studio publicity.

How about a food writer whose primary paycheck comes as executive chef for a restaurant chain? Or a book reviewer who works for a major publishing house?

People would object faster than you could scream "Conflict of Interest!" How can you ask journalists, even those of genuine integrity and good will, to objectively cover the industries they rely on for their main income stream?

Yet this sort of ethical quandary gets overlooked constantly when it comes to wine journalism -- a fact that hit home twice last week.

One came on the phone with a wine-writer acquaintance. Since neither of us realized at the time that our conversation would be grist for this piece, I'll protect his privacy, though many of you would recognize the byline.

"I don't see myself as a journalist," he told me. "I see myself as a promoter."

At first, I was surprised. Sure, the person in question is paid to promote wineries. But he's also paid to write about them in various media.

Which begs the question: when readers see a magazine article or wine column with his name attached, how many stop to parse whether the author's role is one of "journalist" or "promoter"? Perhaps more relevant: how many other fields of journalism require the reader even to consider a question like that?

The week's second "Aha!" moment came via the high-profile web startup soon to replace my local newspaper. AnnArbor.com recently began to trickle out names of its "digital journalists" and bloggers on various subjects. Their wine writer came as an eye-opener: he's the head wine guy for a company that runs five restaurants in town, and more elsewhere.*

I've never met Eric Arsenault. As a certified sommelier, he doubtless has the chops to write about wine. And I can understand his appeal to an operation like AnnArbor.com, looking to save money with unpaid or low-paid "citizen journalists". They get someone qualified to cover a specialized topic without having to shell out serious dollars.

But at what cost to their journalistic credibility?

His ethical standards may be impeccable. But the position he'll occupy -- highly-visible wine writer for a dominant local news outlet --  presents an insurmountable appearance of conflict with the interests and demands of his nicely-paid day job. Or, as retired Michigan journalist Jim Smith asked in his "Free from Editors" blog, "Will the writer slant columns to favor or benefit his own company and who at AnnArbor.com will monitor that?"

That question just scratches the surface; those who know their way around the Three-Tier Shnook System realize that potential conflicts run way deeper than blatant self-promotion.

What editor will notice if a writer drops favorable mentions for a few slow-moving distributor closeouts into the blog, and thereby gets first access to a highly-allocated, Parkerized wine from the same book -- soon to feature on his flagship restaurant's by-the-glass list?

How many editors at AnnArbor.com even understand what the last sentence means? How many folks in the biz could deny that similar sorts of quid pro quo happen every day?

It boils down to this: does a media outlet jeopardize its credibility by publishing writers whose ability to self-deal -- and the appearance of possible conflicts of interest -- will dog everything that appears under their bylines? Or where the reader has to head-scratch and wonder what a writer got in return for a story's positive slant on a wine or winery.


*For the record, I write a monthly wine column for another Ann Arbor news outlet, The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

Monday, 13 July 2009 20:00

Napa flaunts its Cabernet Sauvignon. Australia showcases Shiraz; Argentina makes Malbec. And Michigan has its... ?

Terry Stingley
Terry Stingley: Looking for Michigan's identity
That sets Terry Stingley's teeth on edge. He says it's time our state created an "identity wine" -- a varietal that leaps to mind wherever wine lovers hear the word "Michigan".

What's more, he thinks he's found it: Cabernet Franc. And he's hard at work on a project to put his boss's name and money where his palate is.

Stingley's the head wine guy at Harding's, a Kalamazoo-based grocery chain. Although he's lived here just two years, he's turned into a Michigan wine fanatic.

Want proof? His flagship store stocks nearly 200 Michigan wines, which he terms the state's largest selection -- though Traverse City's Blue Goat might call him out on that.

Unlike most wine buyers, he doesn't wait for sales reps to walk in the door with samples. Stingley stalks wineries statewide, relentlessly road-tripping to taste from barrels and nurture relationships with winemakers. That's one reason you'll find wines like Brys Estate's "Signature Red" and Contessa's "Tres Tenores" on the shelf at Harding's -- and few other places.

Stingley also Thinks Big. And right now, what occupies his thoughts is how to turn Cab Franc into Michigan's "identity wine".

"Everyone looks for a region's top grape," he explained. "They know that Argentina and Malbec are synonymous."

Visions of the 1976 Paris Challenge, which put Napa Cabernet on the world map, clearly dance before his eyes. "Now it's Michigan's turn," he said. "We've got the juice. These winemakers are on fire. There's a window of opportunity, and we just need the world to pay attention."

Stingley is nothing if not enthusiastic. If the world doesn't pay attention, it won't be for lack of effort on his part.

With strong support from his boss, Tim Harding, Stingley will commandeer downtown Kalamazoo's hoity-toity Park Club on August 20 for a first-of-its-kind "Michigan Cab Franc Challenge". A panel of judges, just now being recruited, will taste and rate samples of premium-quality 2007 Cabernet Franc from around the state.

The winner receives -- what else? -- the Harding's Cup. Like its Stanley analogue, Stingley plans to engrave the cup with each year's winner and rotate it to victorious wineries at future Challenges. (One's mind boggles at visions of St. Julian's David Braganini taking an Yzerman-like victory lap around the judging room with the Harding's Cup held aloft.)

Eighteen wineries have already committed to participate in the hastily-organized judging, among them such Cab Franc heavyweights as 2 Lads, Brys, Forty-Five North and Domaine Berrien. A still-undetermined number of winemakers plan to attend the public tasting and Park Club dinner to follow.

To keep judges' palates honest -- and gauge if Michigan Cab Franc is, in fact, ready for the world stage -- Stingley plans to plant a couple of ringers in the tasting from Chinon in France's Loire Valley, a cool-climate region where Cab Franc reigns supreme. He's yet to make clear what happens if -- as in 1976 Paris -- a foreign wine walks off with top honors. 

He picked a great vintage to launch the Challenge. Over the last few months, I've tasted a lot of 2007 Cab Francs, just now coming onto the market. It's not puffery to say that, as a group, they represent the best red wine vintage Michigan has ever produced.

What's less certain is whether Harding's can pull off a judging worthy of Stingley's concept in such a short time frame -- the right format, the right wines, the right judges. Stingley says they can; I'm keeping a skeptical eye cocked.

And one other question remains. 2007 represents an unquestionably exceptional vintage for Michigan red wine. Would Michigan winemakers -- or the folks at Harding's -- want to lay claim to Cab Franc from years like 2006 or 2004 as the state's "identity wine"?

UPDATE 7/18/09:  Terry Stingley announced the first three judges for the Cab Franc Challenge: Patrick Fegan, director of the Chicago Wine School, Detroit-area importer Jean-Jacques Fertal, and Michigan-based Master Sommelier Claudia Tyagi.


As yet, the Challenge has no web presence. Those interested in more information or attending the public tasting and dinner to follow can contact Terry Stingley, wineguru11@yahoo.com, or tweet him @thewineguru.

Monday, 06 July 2009 20:00

A couple of weeks ago, I spent Saturday afternoon at the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Festival at Weko Beach in Bridgman. Tabor Hill Valvin Muscat

The good news: the weather rocked -- warm and sunny. The bad news: it was hard to enjoy, because we had to taste wine under a hot tent pitched in an asphalt parking lot, along with a thousand other people who also wished they could be hanging and sipping on the nearby beach.

Maybe I'm becoming an old curmudgeon, but those "let's get a huge crowd together and party down with lots of wine" events don't excite me quite as much as they used to. (Folks up north shouldn't feel slighted. I feel pretty much the same way toward their festivities at Leland...)

And they still aren't able to offer the wines being poured for retail sale at the event. I didn't dig into the logistics behind that, but it represents a  serious downside from the viewpoints of both consumers and wineries

But the bottom line: several Lake Michigan Shore wineries poured some mighty tasty wines. Here are five that stood out for me; prices listed are from the winery.

2008 Braganini Reserve Sauvignon Blanc -- I seldom utter kinds words about St. Julian's higher-end brand, except for the Traminette. Far too often, my tasting notes run along the lines of, "Why would one of Michigan's prominent wine families want to paste their name on swill like this?"

Now you can add a second wine worthy of the family name. The 2008 Sauvignon Blanc isn't just the best-ever Michigan iteration of this grape I've tasted, it's a wine to take seriously wherever Sauvignon Blanc is poured. Fans of New Zealand versions will recognize the nose instantly; the same style of grassy herbaceousness leaps from the glass. I can pick a few quibbles with the palate -- the middle is slightly hollowed-out and the finish a little sweet -- but why bother? Hats off to St. Julian and grower Joe Herman's grapes for this one. $19.

2007 Domaine Berrien "Steelhead White" -- It ain't always easy to find high quality Michigan dry whites to recommend at $10 or less. This just sneaks by on price, but it's a good 'un. A blend of Seyval, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, it's crisp, bone dry, and full of minerality. One of our group called it a perfect "oyster wine" -- on the same order as a Chablis -- and that's probably as good a cubbyhole as any. Anyway, I stopped by the winery the next day and picked up a half-dozen bottles to sip next to light summertime fare.

2005 Hickory Creek "Melange" -- I wrote about this wine two years back, when it was first released; it's hard to believe that winemaker Mike de Schaaf still has a few bottles left of his Cab Franc-based Bordeaux blend -- and was pouring it for the crowd. In the meantime, it's only gotten better, as it put on some additional weight and nicely integrated the flavors. Not cheap at $32, whcih may explain why it's still available -- but worth a couple of bottles in my cellar of Michigan reds.

2008 Fenn Valley Riesling -- Year in and year out, Doug Welsch's Fenn Valley keeps turning out reasonably-priced, unhyped wines that folks stop in to purchase by the case. Think of this one as semi-dry Riesling equivalent of Domaine Berrien's "Steelhead White" -- a moderately-priced, everyday bottle with a pretty nose and gorgeous, ripe peach flavors. Worth every penny of the $12 they charge.

2007 Tabor Hill Valvin Muscat --  First release of a brand-spanking-new varietal. Here's the deal: Valvin Muscat is one more hybrid developed by the cool climate grape wizards over at Cornell's experimental station in Geneva, New York. It takes Muscat's over-the-top aromatics -- which, admittedly, not everyone loves -- and makes the grape user-friendly to growers in places with winters along Michigan's style.

The massive, orange-and-apricot nose lets you know in a second that there's nothing subtle about this baby, and the semi-dry palate throws lots more mandarin oranges in your direction. I can see sipping it with hard cheeses and sliced apples out on the deck all summer long. At $14, it's one to serve both to Muscat lovers -- who will appreciate the fact that it's being grown in Michigan -- and those simply looking for a good, sweeter something to quaff.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009 04:15

While other emerging wine regions expand educational opportunities for their next generation of industry leaders, Michigan has pruned in-state training in the face of shrinking resources.

VESTANow a new program purports to fill the educational gap, combining regional online classes with hands-on practical experience at local wineries. VESTA -- the Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance -- wants to provide a "an educational opportunity for those in the center of the country," according to its director, Michelle Norgren

Norgren, based at Missouri State University, says the NSF-funded program offers a way to "reach people regardless of where they're located. A lot of people are place-bound. They don't have the resources to leave."

Without doubt, the curriculum covers a broad range of introductory and mid-level viticulture and enology technical courses. It also offers students the opportunity to interact online in real time with instructors and their peers, and  grants certificates to students who complete the prescribed program in either viticulture or enology.

Michigan State University's Institute of Agricultural Technology recently partnered with VESTA to provide Michigan-based hands-on training to supplement the on-line courses. VESTA also works with two and four-year educational institutions in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Tom Smith, the MSU Institute's director, told me that student internships at participating Michigan wineries will supplement VESTA's certificate programs. So far, Bel Lago, Chateau Chantal and St. Julian have signed up to provide hands-on training to those in the program.

But Smith also acknowledges the VESTA program has significant holes. For example, MSU won't directly offer any courses  in conjunction with the program. Students looking for a college degree will have only one option: an Associate program -- which the Institute is still negotiating -- with local community colleges in grape-growing regions, such as Northwestern Michigan College and Lake Michigan College. Students outside those colleges' service areas may have no degree-granting options at all.

Even more important, VESTA offers no hands-on lab component, as a traditional on-site program might, and no supplementary grape or wine-related courses will be available at the local community colleges.

Smith frankly acknowledges these shortcomings, and says part of his job is to determine "where we need to plug some other gaps" if resources become available. Also high on the priority list, Smith says, "we want to provide some instructions specific to Michigan."

VESTA offers clear advantages to introductory-level students. They can take courses online from their own homes, at low cost and at their own pace. Older, non-traditional students may find VESTA more amenable to their schedules than traditional programs. Others can "drop in"  for continuing education classes, without the need to enroll in a certificate or degree program.

Nonetheless, doubts remain about how well VESTA can fill the holes left by the demise of MSU's former degree-level viticulture and enology program, or compete with programs elsewhere. Among the unanswered questions:

  • How well can a regional program, whose curriculum must satisfy participating institutions in places as diverse as Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois, address grapegrowing issues specific to Michigan's "continental maritime" climate?
  • How well can online training match up with the laboratory experience and skills developed by site-based programs in other states?
  • Can VESTA's technical and community college-level training develop industry leaders able to compete in the future with other emerging wine regions -- like New York, Texas and Ontario -- that offer four year and graduate-level education?

Tom Smith says that Michigan's grape and wine industry can't currently support the type of educational program of these other states, or absorb its graduates. "I don't think there's industry demand to produce 30 new Bachelor of Science students annually," he said.

Perhaps Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, best sums up the role of VESTA, calling it "an interim step toward creating Michigan-specific programming."

The irony, of course, is that Michigan State University offered and then eliminated just such Michigan-specific training. And the condition of Michigan's economy makes it unclear when, if ever, any state educational institution will again provide training specific to Michigan's wine and grape-growing industries who must compete in a market of other emerging wine regions.

This is the third of a three-part series. Previous articles looked at the educational opportunities currently offered in other emerging wine regions, and the recent history of  viticulture and winemaking education in Michigan.

Monday, 22 June 2009 20:00

Last February, a sellout crowd of 100 budding entrepreneurs packed a two-day Benton Harbor conference run by MSU's Extension Service, getting a crash course on how to start a Michigan winery. Twenty more would-be participants were turned away because the room couldn't hold any more chairs. MSU

Now suppose one of these future winery owners, or another aspiring Michigan winemaker, wants to study the nuts and bolts of how to make wine, complete with hands-on laboratory sessions to learn the chemistry involved. As things stand today, they couldn't do it anywhere in the state. They'd have to go someplace else -- like Cornell  in New York, the University of California at Davis or, starting this fall, Texas Tech. 

That's the issue raised here last week. While other emerging wine regions invest in their next generation of grape growers and winemakers, will Michigan fall behind because we can't or won't pay to educate our industry's future leaders? 

Until 2005, this wouldn't have been an issue. That's when cash-strapped MSU pulled the plug on Professor Stan Howell's five year old Viticulture and Enology program. In an era of difficult choices forced by budget cuts, the Michigan-oriented curriculum simply didn't turn out enough graduates, a critical metric by which the University judges success.

One reason: as in other emerging wine regions, the program's students were in such demand that many didn't stick around to get degrees but jumped ship early, lured by job offers in the industry. Or as former MSU student and current Chateau Chantal winemaker Brian Hosmer, put it, "They didn't see that it was just getting going. They didn't see what was coming down the line."

Howell, revered as the godfather of Michigan viticulture, retired from MSU a year later. His advanced-level Viticulture and Enology classes and laboratories remain in MSU's catalog as ghost courses -- listed but untaught -- even as his former students populate Michigan wineries from St. Julian to Shady Lane.

This theme repeats itself in recent Michigan history. The state's resource drought has forced a stream of unwanted choices between short-term problem-solving and planning for long-term growth -- and short-term always wins out. The future will have to take care of itself.

A 2005 report by the Grape and Wine Industry Council didn't even attempt to anticipate the state's long-term educational needs, but merely tried salvage what it could to "avoid further cutbacks in programs".  The goal "to train the next generation of industry leaders" finished dead last in the report's list of priorities. More pressing needs, according to the Council: extension programs for existing wineries and growers, ongoing viticultural research, and local, entry-level technical training for those hiring into the industry.

Stan Howell still takes a longer view, and sees the need for a higher standard of education -- both theoretical and localized -- as an essential part of the long-term picture.

"Let's say I grow grapes in the Central Valley of California and the Leelanau Peninsula of Michigan," Howell recently explained to me.

"I'm going to start with the same principles of light interception and photosynthetic rates. But in California, I'm going to create a trellis that shades my fruit, because if I don't they will raisin on the vine, they will fry. In Michigan, I'm going to create a trellis that will get some sunlight on my clusters every day. That maximizes the warmth, and a warm cluster collects more sugar than a cool cluster does."

"We need to home-grow our wine industry," he concluded. "We have unique circumstances that can lead to excellence in our wines, but also certain limits in grape and wine production which present unique challenges. We need to have people educated and trained to appreciate those challenges for our industry to grow."

This is the second of a three-part series, expanded from the originally-planned two parts. Next week's article will look at the future of Michigan's viticulture and winemaking education, with a focus on the new VESTA program.

Monday, 15 June 2009 20:00

Could Michigan someday find itself wondering how another chunk of our economy slipped away because we didn't invest enough resources today to compete successfully in tomorrow's marketplace?

This isn't about cars or office furniture. As usual, we're talking wine.

Texas TechI recently looked at how several "emerging" wine regions are supporting their industries' future. These aren't top players, like California or Washington, but second-tier producers -- places that might reasonably compete alongside Michigan for significant slices of North America's future wine marketplace and top winemaking talent.

What are they doing that we're not? The quick answer: they're making major investments to educate the next generation of growers and winemakers.

Texas fired the latest salvo across our bow. Texas Tech University -- in the heart of High Plains wine country -- just announced a four year degree in viticulture and enology. Their headline: "Texas Tech Begins Growing its Own Winemakers to Fill Widening Industry Need."

"The course arose out of a vacuum of wine education that exists between the coasts," Ed Hellman, professor of viticulture, told the Wine Spectator.

Don't care about a degree? They also offer a six-course continuing education viticulture program.

"The school believes the program will also help Texas' wine industry grow," the Spectator noted.

Cornell Over in New York, Cornell University already graduates students with four year degrees in enology and viticulture and a specialty in -- what else? -- cool-climate varietals. It's the only program of its kind in the eastern half of the country, and takes full advantage of the university's highly-regarded Geneva research facility.

Cornell's website latches onto the identical need as Texas Tech: "New York and the Northeast face a serious shortage of people with the skills to grow grapes and make wine."

"We have a different focus, much more on cool-climate viticulture and making wine from grapes like Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and a lot of the hybrid grapes," Professor Ian Merwin told the Spectator when the program began in 2005.

Halfway between Cornell and Michigan, Ontario's Niagara College turns out two-year graduates with hands-on winemaking experience. For those who want the skills but not a degree, they offer a 300-hour winemaking program

Last month, I spoke with Terence Van Rooyen, a winemaker trained in Stellenbosch, South Africa, who teaches enology at Niagara and oversees the college's teaching winery.

Niagara CollegeYes, you read that right. Niagara's equivalent of Lake Michigan College or Northwestern Michigan College runs a vineyard and commercial winery to train its students, releasing over a dozen labels for tasting and retail sale at its own campus wine store (!).

Every student must single-handedly produce a commercially acceptable wine as part of the curriculum. Toronto wine critic Tony Aspler drives down to Niagara to taste, rate, and hand out awards.

Or, as Van Rooyen put it, "We condense 20 years of experience in the mistakes of other people into two years."

The program enrolls 35 students each year, with a cap of five non-Canadians. It invariably turns away applicants.

Graduates all find work in the industry, according to Van Rooyen, while Niagara wineries snap up current students for internships and part-time jobs as tasting room pourers and other entry-level positions.

Each of these programs -- Texas Tech, Cornell, Niagara -- focuses clearly on a single goal: to support its emerging wine region by providing a steady supply of trained growers and educated winemakers.

But none of this helps Michigan. As winemaker Brian Hosmer of Chateau Chantal told me, "We're not drawing top talent from outside the region right now."

Which begs the question: what kind of resources does Michigan invest to educate our own next generation of growers and winemakers? Are they enough to secure our industry's future?

This is the first of a two-part series. Next week's article will take a look at Michigan's viticulture and winemaking education -- past, present and future.


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Need to Know


Early results from an experiment by Chateau Margaux's Paul Pontallier indicate that screwcaps may age red wine better than natural cork -- plus eliminate any risk of corked bottles, as reported in The Drinks Business. 


The 2011-2 mild weather was healthy for Michigan's vineyards, but it's played havoc with state winemakers who leave grapes on the vine in hopes that they'll freeze for the production of icewine, reports AP writer John Flesher.


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.


Warming climate may help cooler grape-growing regions -- like England -- but could damage places like Napa, writes jounalist John McQuaid in Yale's environmental magazine.


Western Farm Press reports that Cornell Prof Miguel Gomez is studying how smaller wineries can jointly create a successful cool-climate wine region. He'll look at emerging areas in Michigan, New York and Missouri.


Here's one for some Michigan entrepreneur to try! A just-opened Long Island outlet mall store will sell nothing but New York State wines. Starting inventory at Empire State Cellars: 400 labels from 150 wineries.


Want a refresher about Michigan wine history and potential? Get a quick two page cheat-sheet by Layne Cameron in Western Farm Press, and make some allowances for the MSU-centricity (the author's employer).

Links to wine news from Michigan and elsewhere. Use the Contact Form to let us know what should be here.


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.