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Joel's Blog

Monday, 16 March 2009 20:00

Some Michigan-based wineries deliberately obscure the non-Michigan origins of their grapes. From misleading back label wording to squintingly impossible-to-read type, these folks do their best to hide one fact: their wines contain juice from elsewhere.

Deceptive? Yes. Illegal? No. As I wrote last week, the grapes aren't the problem. It's how wineries obfuscate what they're up to behind their "Michigan" identity and, as a result, mislead the public about the true qualities of "Michigan" wine.

Why does this matter?

In today's hyper-crowded wine marketplace, many forward-thinking Michigan wineries toil in the vineyards to establish a distinct identity for winestyles our state does well -- Alsace varietals like Riesling and Pinot Gris, cool-climate versions of grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.

That's why Ed O'Keefe (Chateau Grand Traverse) has worked on the International Riesling Federation's Taste Profile, and why Sean O'Keefe (Chateau Grand Traverse), Spencer Stegenga (Bowers Harbor) and Bryan Ulbrich (Left Foot Charley) recently visited Anderson Valley, California, where their wines turned heads at an Alsace varietal showcase.

But when Michigan producers truck in ultra-ripe, low acid grapes or juice from elsewhere, or varietals that don't even thrive here -- and "neglect" to mention this on the labels or promotional materials --  their self-serving drive to make a buck undermines these efforts to establish Michigan's unique identity as a premium wine producer. 

That's where a Michigan Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) comes in: an easy-to-identify bottle sticker, like Ontario's, that wineries earn to instantly identify wines that meet certain criteria, such as originating with high quality Michigan grapes. Accompany it with a marketing program that encourages consumers to seek out this sticker as a guarantee of genuine "Michigan" wine. 

Ontario's VQA operates under authority of law. But Michigan doesn't need new legislation.  Any group willing to administer a Michigan VQA and hand out the stickers could step up and do it: WineMichigan (the industry's lobbying arm), or even an association of wine trails. If they run into pushback from those who benefit from obfuscation of origin, it could even be done by an ad hoc group assembled for the purpose.

The only necessity: to put the interests of the state's wine industry and consumers -- which coincide here -- ahead of  individual wineries or specific regions.

Consider how this might look in five years: Michigan wine bottles carry a Vintners Quality Alliance sticker on the neck that guarantees they contain 100% Michigan-grown grapes, made of varietals certified to produce high quality wine, and the wine itself has passed a taste-test to verify the absence of major flaws.

To me, that sounds like a wine that lots more consumers would step up to buy.

Until the wineries step up to the plate, as consumers we can begin to do our part. Next time you visit a Michigan winery or wine store, look for the grapes' origin on the front label, not some fanciful language on the back. If you don't see it, ask the tasting room pourer or store clerk where the grapes come from -- and why that isn't listed on the label. Tell them the answer makes a difference -- both to you and to our wine industry.
Tuesday, 10 March 2009 06:05

Image Several months back, David Creighton wrote how Michigan might benefit from a scheme like Ontario's Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA). I'll second this suggestion -- and add one reason beyond those David mentioned.

Some backgound. Ontario's VQA exists to raise the quality level -- and the public image -- of wines made from higher quality local grapes. VQA wines are "verified to confirm their origin and tested to ensure they meet a rigorous set of quality standards." Wines that meet these standards -- which include a taste test -- are allowed to slap a VQA label on their bottles. Those that don't, aren't.

Ontario wine consumers have learned from non-stop marketing efforts that VQA labels appear on the best wines their Province produces. To be sure, more than one mediocre VQA wine has crossed my palate -- but never a truly bad or defective one.

Back to Michigan. David pointed out two important qualities a Michigan VQA might include: only certain grape varieties would automatically be eligible, and the addition of sugar (chaptalization) would be prohibited or severely limited.

To these, I'll add a third: Just as every Ontario VQA wine must contain 100% Ontario grapes, a Michigan VQA label would instantly tell the consumer that a Michigan wine is, in fact, a Michigan wine.

This is the Michigan wine industry's dirty little secret: how many wines made and sold by Michigan wineries contain, in whole or part, juice from non-Michigan grapes. And how many wineries go out of their way to blur the distinction.

Let's take one point off the table: there's no reason Michigan wineries shouldn't bottle and sell wines from out-of-state fruit, if that fits their business plan. One of my favorite California Pinot Noir producers contracts for grapes from Oregon vineyards. Top-tier California winemaker Paul Hobbs, like Chateau Chantal's Mark Johnson, flies to Argentina over our winter to make Malbec.

But these folks are up-front about what they're doing. The Pinot Noir guy clearly labels his bottling as Oregon wine, not "Sonoma Cellars".

Paul Hobbs doesn't call his Mendoza Malbec "a taste of Northern California".

And Chateau Chantal, to its credit, doesn't hide Johnson's Argentine Malbec behind a geography-free label identical to its Michigan wines, but puts the "Lujan de Coyo" appellation front and center on an entirely different label.

Why does the blurring of identity matter to our state's wine industry, and what does it have to do with the need for a Michigan VQA? Read the rest in Part 2 .

Monday, 02 March 2009 20:00

Last week, members of Michigan's wine industry got together at Crystal Mountain to discuss - well, things that interest winemakers and winery owners. Along with seminars, sipping and shmoozing, several items surfaced worth passing on to Michigan wine fans. Among them:

Winemakers range from enthusiastic to near-giddy over the quality of the 2007 red wines they're bottling and / or releasing over the next few months. Those I tasted from bottle affirm their judgment; Dan Matthies of Chateau Fontaine was offering small pours of his unreleased Woodland Red. It's classic cool-climate red: elegant, balanced and chock-full of primary fruit flavors that's started to knit together and put on some weight since I last tasted it just after bottling in early fall. But definitely has a way to go...

No such enthusiasm was heard in most quarters about the wet (south) and cold (north) 2008 vintage; two winemakers told me that they'd turned their entire 2008 Pinot Noir crop into rosé.

Rick Coates, former marketer for the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners, is authoring a takealong guidebook for visiting state wine country, titled The Glovebox Guide to Michigan Wineries.  It hits bookshelves on April Fools Day, published by the University of Michigan Press (and already available for pre-order from Amazon -- but not at Michigan-based Borders). In addition to usual-suspect type information -- maps, phone numbers, tasting room hours -- Rick plans to include an assortment of features to help travelers make the most of visits to wineries and time spent in wine country. MichWine's review copy is already reserved.

At a time when few other state industries can boast their kind of double-digit growth, Michigan wineries are warily starting to flex some political muscle in Lansing. Over the next year, look for a push on several consumer-friendly legislative initiatives to extend wineries' marketing reach. Among the possibilities:

  • Farm Market Licenses would allow wineries to set up mobile tasting rooms to offer tastes and sell wine directly to consumers at licensed farm markets that offer local agricultural products. Several other states, including California and New York, already let their wineries do this.
  • Horizontal ownership would let multiple wineries jointly own and share the operating costs of facilities such as warehouses and tasting rooms, making it more affordable for them to reach customers directly at additional locations.
  • Distillery tasting rooms. Several micro-distillers operate in industial-zoned areas that don't allow tasting rooms. On tap: a bill to let distilleries, like wineries, operate off-site tasting rooms, apart from their production facilities.


Less consumer-friendly, but probably necessary: a possible legislative proposal to formally legalize tasting fees at wineries. Technically against current Michigan law, some wineries get around it with a variety of subterfuges -- from requiring the purchase of a tasting glass to inclusion of small food items for which the winery can charge. A few wineries simply ignore the law and collect a fee, particularly for their pricier reserves or ice wines. 

More on this in a future post.

I got to taste the best Michigan wines we can't buy during an after-hours bash hosted by Chateau Chantal. Ann Arborite Bill MacDonald -- owner of an Old Mission Peninsula vineyard and three-time winner of the state fair's home winemaker competition -- shared bottles of his 2007 Pinot Meunier and 2008 Lemberger Rosé. Although neither varietal is exactly a household name, both wines were killer. The good news: the previous week, Bill also surfaced at MSU's Winery Establishment Conference, designed to help potential Michigan winery owners. So there may be some young MacDonalds in our future...

Traverse City-based appraiser Michael Tarnon told a seminar that Northern Michigan land prices had gone through a "bubble" but were returning to earth. The primary reality-check, according to Tarnon: can owners still run a profitable winery considering what they pay for their vineyards? He pointed to the failure of any of the three Leelanau wineries currently on the market to sell as one indication that they were "overpriced". One silver lining; during the current downturn, vineyard property is holding its value better than general agricultal land.

Thursday, 19 February 2009 07:50

Rae Lee LesterRae Lee Lester, President and co-owner of Wyncroft Winery with her husband, Jim, died on February 6 at age 56, after battling cancer for more than four years.

That's how any obituary might begin. But those who had the opportunity to share a glass with Rae Lee know that a genuine force of nature has departed Michigan's wine world.

Rae Lee was a whirlwind of words and motion, possessor of a fabulous tasting palate, never at a loss for an opinion or bon mot and always at home with the bawdy quip. Jim tells the story of a Pinot Noir tasting at which she was the only female in the room. After several less-than-inspiring wines, a better sample caused another taster to enthuse, "Now there's a wine that's got balls" -- to which Rae Lee immediately silenced the room with the zinger, "No, this is Pinot Noir. It's got tits."

She and Jim met when she was 16, married at 20, and remained full partners for more than 35 years -- both in their winery and their life. Their shared passion led them to create Wyncroft, with the goal of becoming the first winery to make world-class wine from Michigan grapes, and they proudly proclaimed it as Michigan's smallest winery.

Between the two, Rae Lee was the visionary who kept her eye on the overview, the long-term philosophy. She came up with the Wyncroft name, along with the concept that the winery should operate without a tasting room, selling its wines only by the case to a mailing list.

Yet she wasn't above getting her hands dirty -- far from it. During Wyncroft's first couple of years, before they had wines to sell, Jim held an outside wine sales job to keep them afloat financially, while Rae Lee farmed the vineyard on a daily basis -- pruning, tying and weeding the vines.

The mere fact that they were partners didn't mean they always concurred. As Rae Lee repeatedly said, "If the two of you always agree about everything, one of you is unnecessary."

Jim and Rae Lee Lester
Jim and Rae Lee Lester, 2007
For example, whenver I tasted their wines with Rae Lee and Jim, she'd try to goad me into commenting on the Chardonnay -- never a particularly difficult task -- knowing full well that she and I shared a stylistic preference for far less oaky, buttery versions than Jim preferred to make.

Once she'd elicited my opinion  she'd turn to Jim with an "I told you so!" glint in her eye. And this was one battle she seemed to be slowly winning; Wyncroft's last couple of Chardonnay vintages are decidedly throttled-down from those that preceded them.

But it never bothered Jim when she was right. In fact, one of the precepts behind their relationship was the strength of their mutual respect: they would only act when they came to agreement on a course to follow. While that could make their decision-making lengthy, it kept their partnership strong.

Above all, Rae Lee believed in the healing, soothing power of good food and wine. During the Michigan Wine Industry Annual Meeting a couple of years back, I remember coming back to their place at Crystal Mountain after one long session. While other owners and winemakers wandered in and out and Jim popped some corks, Rae Lee -- already well into her illness but still in constant motion -- turned out a stream of mouth-watering dishes from the chalet's tiny kitchen, despite our protestations of "Enough!" 

She somehow sensed that, with sufficient good food and wine in front of us, both she and we could forget the troubles of the day and take our pleasures from the moment and the company.

Rae Lee, I take a great deal of pleasure remembering the moments spent in your company.


Jim Lester advises that there will be a memorial and celebration of Rae Lee's life at 3 PM on Saturday, February 28, at the First Unitarian Church of South Bend, 101 East North Shore Drive, South Bend, IN 46617.  All who would like to attend are welcome.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009 09:16

Here's one more New Year resolution down the tubes. The one about no more posts on wine shipping.

Thing were going well until President Obama (damn, that sounds good) got on the radio to announce implementation of strict new rules against a revolving door between government jobs and those as paid lobbyists.

That's when I lost it.

Now comes term-limited former Michigan State Representative Barbara Farrah. MIRS news service put things succinctly yesterday:

Farrah To Join GCSI

Former Rep. Barb FARRAH will be joining the staff of multi-client lobbying firm Governmental Consultant Services Inc. (GCSI) beginning in February.

Farrah, a former community outreach and local government official before being elected to the House in 2002, was term limited out of office last year.

"We are delighted to have Barb join the GCSI lobbying team," said GCSI Partner Michael HAWKS. "Barb earned the respect from both sides of the political isle through her many legislative accomplishments. She will be a great advocate for our clients."

Farrah, of Southgate, served in the House as a Democrat representing the 13th District.

Those who followed the retail shipping dustup late last year are familiar with one particular "legislative accomplishment" of ex-rep Farrah: she introduced the House bill to ban all wine delivery by Michigan retailers. Then, switching hats to her role as Chair of the Regulatory Reform Committee, she ramrodded the bill through her committee the following morning with exactly 15 minutes "notice" of the mandatory public hearing. Needless to say, no potential opponents were in attendance.

To close the circle: one of the largest clients of GCSI -- Farrah's new employer -- is the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association (MBWWA), behind-the-scenes movers and sole beneficiaries of Farrah's bill. They also footed a slightly different bill last winter: for Rep. Farrah to attend their annual meeting in sunny climes far south of Michigan.

Let's spell this out: Farrah's next paycheck will come from the same pockets she helped to pad in her last job as a short-time elected lawmaker just two months ago.

To be clear, I don't know of any specific impropriety or quid pro quo deal between Rep. Farrah, her future employers, and that employer's major client. Maybe they simply said to themselves, "Damn, that was quite a legislative accomplishment. Since she'll be out of a legislative job come January, maybe we should hire an employee like that."

But such inappropriate-appearing conduct by officeholders emits a massive Lansing-based stink. And it goes a long way toward explaining why few people respect Michigan's legislature, and take far less seriously than they might the endless "we're going to change" bloviations of the Governor who signed the shipping ban into law -- another multi-term recipient of MBWWA campaign largesse.

On the day when the state's unemployment rate hit 10.6%, Michigan citizens and businesses might welcome elected officials who appear to pay less attention to their own employment prospects and campaign coffers than to another quote of President Obama, this from his inaugural address, "Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests ... – that time has surely passed.”

Friday, 05 December 2008 06:16

This morning a friend phoned to see if I'd join him on a jaunt to Chicago to pick up some older wines he'd bought there, and bring them back to Michigan.

Almost simultaneously, an email arrived from a plugged-in Michigan wine guru, riffing on why Michigan retailers weren't more actively opposing the wine delivery ban. "Their attitude has been if this becomes law, we won't follow it because there will not be enforcement -- not enough personnel in LCC to do it. Out-of-state retailers may or may not ship in and that does not matter to them."

That's the elephant in the corner of the retail delivery squabble. Delivery bans are like other laws contrary to the public interest, passed at the behest of small but politically powerful groups. Once folks realize a law can't be defeated legitimately -- but also can't be properly enforced -- they simply decide to ignore it.

By coincidence, today's the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition -- when the Detroit River resembled a Canadian whisky pipeline. That's the kind of ignoring I'm talking about.

Not unlike 2008, when most wine lovers can tick off several ways to get wines into Michigan if they aren't available for sale here.

Simply passing a law doesn't alter the inconvenient fact that Michigan residents will still need wine delivered to parties and weddings -- and see nothing wrong with asking a retailer to do it. Or that 90% of the wine labels sold in the US aren't available through Michigan's distributor cartel -- and people see nothing wrong with looking elsewhere for those products.

In other words, bad laws create their own lawbreakers.

Politically savvy types warned me not to bring up this particular elephant. They said that rubbing lawmakers' faces in the reality that people might blow off the bad laws they write can offend the political ego -- and make them even more likely to pass those laws, just to show they can.

I'm also advised that this argument might be used as political ammunition to brand pro-delivery folks as a bunch of scofflaws.

Knock yourselves out, but nothing's further from the truth. Given his druthers, my buddy would prefer to save the drive to Chicago and pay to have his older wines delivered to Michigan, even if that means shelling out for our state sales tax. Most retailers sleep better knowing they're above board when they deliver a couple of cases to a customer, even if the LCC isn't going to catch up to them.

But they won't blindly obey senseless regulations that clearly serve no public purpose beyond protecting the high-donating wholesaler lobby. Any more than wholesalers themselves obey the rules about pouring tasting samples for retail buyers, or travelling with open sample bottles in the car.

So we may have to relearn another lesson first taught during Prohibition: when government flouts the public will to make something illegal, that won't  stop people from doing it  -- but it definitely prevents government from being able to properly regulate or collect taxes on it.


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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.