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Joel's Blog

Monday, 13 October 2008 20:00

As pundits nationwide suddenly "discover" Michigan wine, most often our Rieslings, I can't help but contemplate how Native Americans felt about Columbus "discovering" America.

Gee thanks, guys, but we already knew it was here.

Grand Rapids FestivalNonetheless, state wine lovers don't often get to compare our own top wines side-by-side with some of the big boys from elsewhere, to see how we stack up. It's even less often that folks in west Michigan have the chance.

That's why my calendar has the weekend of November 21 through 23 blocked off for the first-ever Grand Rapids International Wine & Food Festival. (Yes, they even got their priorities straight and put the "Wine" first.)

Eighteen Michigan wineries will pour at the Festival, the majority from Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas. Michigan's three largest -- St. Julian, Leelanau Cellars and Chateau Grand Traverse -- plan to attend, but so do such less-frequently-tasted boutiques as Bowers Harbor, Brys Estate, Left Foot Charley, Peninsula Cellars and Round Barn.

I'm looking forward to a first sample from Circa Estate on Leelanau Peninsula. The winery isn't yet open, but they've booked a booth at the Festival and rumors abound about two vintages in the cellar, ready to go.

Here's the fun part: at last count, nearly 100 other wineries from around the world also plan to be there. (Did I mention this was a BIG show?) So for the first time, I can taste New York's Konstantin Frank Riesling next to Chateau Grand Traverse and Peninsula Cellars. Or how about Italy's Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio alongside Left Foot Charley? Not to mention L. Mawby taking on bubblies from Freixenet to Krug Grand Cuvée.

One of my favorite local micro-brewers, Arbor Brewing, will pour its prize-winning beers and ales. And Grand Rapids' own Bar Divani will put together very limited-quantity three-course food and wine pairings each day of the weekend.

When your tasting energy flags, head to the educational seminars at the food and wine stages, the latter emcee'd by Tasters Guild President Joe Borello. Michigan luminaries Larry Mawby (L. Mawby) on bubblies, David Braganini (St. Julian) on Reserve wines, and Brian Cain (Viviano Imports) on "The One Hour Wine Expert" will be onstage, along with presenters on regions from Australia to Italy. I may also stick around for talks by Chef Eric Villegas or Tony "The Wine Chef" Lawrence.

The way I understand things, your $15 admission gets you in the door of Devos Place with an empty glass and a program / floor plan of what's where. All wine and food tastings are additional, via tickets sold á la carte -- which is French for "bring lots of money".

Still, for the price of dinner out with wine, I wouldn't miss this one.

Wednesday, 08 October 2008 20:00

If you're looking for a post about some great Michigan wines or wine-related controversy, this is probably an excellent time to click a different link.

Because there's a reason this entry is late arriving. On Tuesday, I was at the funeral of one of the great wine lovers I've known: my father-in-law.

Lewis spent the bulk of his adult life -- about 50 years worth -- in South Africa. The first time I met him, already married to his daughter and arriving in Johannesburg for our religious wedding ceremony, he threw his arms around me and exclaimed, "Welcome to the family!"

And then, with his next breath, "You've got to taste this incredible Sauvignon Blanc I picked up to serve at the reception." Lewis Rome

He was like that.

In those days, he knew most of the folks worth knowing in South Africa's small wine circles. He chaperoned my first trip to the Cape winelands, arranging an afternoon with old friend Tim Hamilton Russell, founder of the eponymous Pinot Noir producer.

Tim -- proud maker of the first South African wine to sell for 100 Rand a bottle -- loaded us into his Land Rover for a cross-country bounce through the feinbos to the edge of his property, a ridge overlooking the small town of Hermanus with the Indian Ocean in the background. While Lewis beamed beside us, Tim explained how he'd spent years locating the perfect terroir to grow Pinot Noir -- a far-south setting where all the experts told him he'd be crazy even to try winemaking.

Years later, visiting Chateau Margaux, our guide -- asking where we resided -- responded to his "South Africa" by saying they had a young South African winemaking intern at the Chateau. Dragged from the back where he was playing cellar rat, it turned out to be David Finlayson, son of Walter from Glen Carlou winery -- and Lewis proceeded to regale Finlayson fils and the rest of the company with tales of visiting his father back when David was a young child.

His great joy was the annual "Budget Tasting" he conducted for the South African Society of Wine Tasters (SASWT) a group he and my mother-in-law helped to found decades before. His eyes gleamed with pride whenever he could pronounce a wine both "excellent" and "only 10 Rand" in the same breath.

Several years before they departed South Africa for Ann Arbor, the SASWT inducted them both as honorary life members. Upon arriving in their Ann Arbor condo, one of Lewis's first tasks was to hang their award certificate just outside the basement closet he planned to convert into his wine cellar.

He was -- ummmm --  charitable in his attitude toward Michigan wines on his early visits. Back then, he and I strongly disputed the relative merits of St. Julian versus Fenn Vallley Chancellor, two of the state's better reds of the day, and agreed to lay down bottles of each for several years to settle the debate. Ultimately the contest resulted in a draw: neither wine was drinkable when we eventually uncorked them to settle up.

Fortunately, he lived long enough to see Michigan begin to make superb wines. His last winery visits came in late August, when he was already quite ill, to nearby Pentamere and Cherry Creek, and he expressed great admiration for several wines we tasted at each.

In his final weeks, we unfolded a card table in the bedroom so that we could enjoy dinner -- and wine -- together. Just a week before he died, he dragged himself to the table, took a taste of whatever cellar gem we'd uncorked for him that evening, and said -- with a glint in his eye -- "Ah! That does wonders for the optimism factor!"

So here's to you, Lewis. I hope you're in a place where all the wines score over 90, and the vintages are never difficult.

Friday, 03 October 2008 03:25

Judge Denise Page Hood's ruling in the wine retailer shipping case sends welcome news to Michigan's beleaguered consumers. Following the logic of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 Granholm decision, she ruled that Michigan must treat in-state and out-of-state retailers equally. If the former can legally ship wine to Michigan residents, we need to let the latter do likewise. 

You don't need to be a hard-core wine geek to recognize two facts: (1) Michigan's wine selection pales next to that of many other good-sized states. (2) Our wine prices are among the highest in the country.

If Judge Hood's decision stands, it could help make more wines available here, and level the price premium Michigan consumers currently pay.

But don't place your orders with those California or New York retailers quite yet.

The well-funded defendants (most of whom pay their legal bills with our tax dollars) are nearly certain to appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court, and possibly on to the U.S. Supreme Court. The shortest (and most likely) scenario -- in which the Circuit Court affirms Judge Hood's decision and the Supreme Court refuses to take the case -- still entails two more years of legal wrangling.

If we look at the aftermath of the Granholm decision, the follow-up to a consumer court victory will be a political donnybrook in the Michigan legislature, as the state's powerful Wholesalers -- one of the defendants in the case -- lobby to ban all retailer shipping -- both in-state and out-of-state -- rather than give up any chunk of their lucrative monopoly. It's not yet clear where Michigan's retailers will come down, or if they'll split ranks based on how much shipping they do themselves.

Finally, even if favorable legislation ultimately passes, the state's LCC -- another defendant -- is sure to drag its heels for many months devising the regulations and forms that permit out-of-state retailers to ship to Michigan.

My best estimate: even if things go as smoothly as possible, no out-of-state retailer will ship a single bottle of wine legally to any Michigan resident before the end of 2011.

So if you're thinking about placing that order, you may want to make it for some 2008 Bordeaux futures.

Monday, 29 September 2008 20:00

Sorting through vintages of northern Michigan red wine is like eating Zingerman's corned beef stacked between slices of Wonder Bread. You wish the good stuff didn't come with junk on either side.

At times I've been heard to mutter that we'd be better off tearing out every red grapevine in the state and replanting the vineyards to Riesling or Pinot Gris. But after a long weekend tasting on Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, it's clear that the ultra-ripe 2007 reds -- most of them still unreleased -- will equal or surpass 2005 as the best red wine vintage in the state's history.

Unfortuntely, that's sandwiched between 2006, when -- to echo David Creighton's thoughts from last week -- most winemakers would have been well advised to turn their Pinot Noir into rosé, and the upcoming 2008 harvest, which winemakers already bemoan as unlikely to yield fully ripe vinifera reds.

So let's talk about the good stuff in-between: 2007. At modernistic, ultra-hot Two Lads on Old Mission, winemaker Cornel Olivier plans to release three different versions of 2007 Cabernet Franc. The first, stainless-tank aged with no barrel time, smells and tastes like Beaujolais on steroids. Want some? You're already too late; the 90-case production sold out in just three weeks during September.

2007 Two Lads Cabernet FrancSeveral barrels he's aging for release next year whomp you over the head with their ripeness, overall depth and subtle differences from barrel to barrel. If Olivier can translate this barrel variation into bottle complexity, look for the next release of Cabernet Franc to be Serious Red Wine, something Michigan's climate doesn't hand us very often.

People generally consider Leelanau's Chateau Fontaine a white wine specialist -- no surprise after it walked off with a Best of Class and five golds at the Michigan Wine Competition, all for whites. But the surprising red wines that proud owner Dan Matthies slipped me to taste may be the best he's yet made -- the just-bottled-but-unreleased 2007 Pinot Noir and 2007 Woodland Red. If you prefer elegant Pinot Noir, as opposed to California Joy Juice, this one's the real deal: a silky palate with delicate strawberry flavors and a kiss of French oak toasting. Woodland Red, a unique blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah, shows the same deft touch with oak. Although a little light-bodied for my taste, it's a well-balanced mix of bright red fruit and berry flavors that should continue to knit together during its months in the bottle prior to release.

For a drop-dead top-to-bottom line of great reds, head back to Old Mission and get in line for Brys Estate's high-end, tiny-release Artisan series. Winemaker Coen Stassen raves about the Cab Franc, but I'm partial to his Merlot, which (at least in barrel) instantaneously raised my bar for what's possible in Michigan with this varietal. The Artisan Pinot Noir, just bottled and still in need of significant aging, already shows more heft and a longer finish than Brys's award-winning 2005.

Here's my buying strategy: in general, take a pass on 2006-vintage reds, most of which show less-than-ripe flavor profiles. Meanwhile, take your choice between the higher-acid 2006 or higher-ripeness 2007 whites currently on the shelves, along with a few 2007 rosés. And when the bulk of 2007 reds start to appear next year, load up the truck. That's the corned beef you're looking for -- and only the weather gods know when you'll next get to taste it.

Monday, 22 September 2008 20:00

On Sunday, a Traverse City Record-Eagle editorial proclaimed that "wine is the new cherry" -- likening the economic and land conservation benefits of northern Michigan's burgeoning wine industry to the region's long-reigning King Cherry.Cherries

They're partly right. But long-term, wine could be much more -- if we're willing to help it get there.

Unlike most cherry-related agriculture, wineries are value-added producers. That means they take raw agricultural commodities -- grapes worth a buck or two -- and turn them into bottles of wine that people buy for $20. The economic yield per farmed acre is akin to what we'd see if every cherry grower turned into Cherry Republic

Along the way, this added value creates jobs in the wineries and related industries. Instead of shipping their crops to a distant processor or distributor, wineries hire local employees to trellis and prune the vines, turn the grapes into wine, and sell it to their visitors.

Cherry WineThose visitors comprise the advance guard of a wine tourism avalanche that already pumps tens of millions of dollars annually into northern Michigan's regional economy and creates opportunities for entrepreneurs and workers in businesses like restaurants, lodging and retail.

Integral to the value-added winery model is a flexible, mixed-use physical plant. Urban boutique wineries like Bryan and Jennifer Ulbrich's Left Foot Charley work less well for their larger colleagues, which function best when vineyards, production facilities and retail tasting / sales rooms lie in close proximity to one another.

But wineries face legal obstacles that cherry growers never dreamed of, which could eventually keep the industry from realizing its full potential. Incredibly, the bulk of these roadblocks emanate from the same government entities that proclaim their desire for new economic engines to replace the automotive dinosaurs of the past. 

These roadblocks can lead to head-knocking impasses with local government, which invariably prefers black-and-white zoning regulations. They want land that's either agricultural or industrial -- not part of each. They like "if you didn't grow it here, you can't sell it here" types of zoning. It can be impossibly difficult to persuade local officials that the virtue of preserving and enhancing the value of 30 acres of prime vineyard land might be worth the cost of allowing construction of a winery and tasting room on the adjoining two.

For the record, I'm no fan of untrammeled winerey expansion and tourism -- see the last blog entry about what's currently happening in Niagara. There's nothing I'd less rather see than 60-passenger motor coaches plying the roadways of Old Mission. But neither is there anything rational about unrestrained NIMBY-ism, or local residents who refuse to acknowledge the inevitability of some change, with or without their assent.

Yet that's the minor league compared to the obstacles wineries face from faraway Lansing, which subjects them to alcoholic beverage oversight by Liquor Control Commission bureaucrats and lawmaking by grandstanding politicians, who rant against underage drinking while padding their campaign coffers with donations from the free-spending wholesale distribution monopoly. Three years ago, Michigan wineries nearly lost the right to deliver their own wines to in-state customers. Time and again, wineries find themselves in Lansing, hat in hand, simply to beg for the right to act like rational businesspeople: to charge for samples if they wish; to sell their wines by the glass for on-site consumption; to operate a restaurant at their winery.

Ironically, things that Lansing could be doing to support our wine industry, they've not. Other states with rapidly-developing wine industries -- like New York -- operate sizable state-funded promotional organizations. Michigan's Grape and Wine Industry Council -- with stagnant funding over the last decade -- just eliminated one of three staff positions that support Michigan's fastest-growing agricultural sector.

Wine may indeed be northern Michigan's new cherry. Or it might become far more. But government has the ability to turn it into just one more of Michigan's many squandered opportunities. Remember "Cool Cities"?

Monday, 15 September 2008 20:00

Tawse Winery: Gravity feed and flash
Tawse Winery: Gravity feed and flash
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO -- A visit to Ontario wine country invariably supplies a great reality check for any excess enthusiasm about the state of Michigan's wine industry.

Niagara's icewine-fueled juggernaut benefits from strong support by the province's alcoholic beverage monopoly, not to mention a fortuitous microclimate located within an hour drive of three million people. By nearly any measure -- except the quality of its cool-climate white wines -- their industry has advanced well beyond ours.

In the past, this caused slightly sheepish feelings driving back along Route 401 toward Michigan. But not this trip. These days, "advanced" means the Napafication of Niagara, with new wineries spawning on a scale that begins where Chateau Chantal leaves off.  As in Napa, they're often multi-million-dollar trophies to entrepreneurs from the Big City -- in this case, Toronto -- that carry muscular one-word names like "Stratus" or "Tawse" (the actual name of its owner).

Southbrook Vineyards: Wall to nowhere
Southbrook Vineyards: Wall to nowhere
The longtime produce grower and purveyor formerly known as Southbrook Farms could serve as poster child for this transformation. In recent years, owner Bill Redelmeier commissioned numerous wines -- plus an outstanding Framboise -- from Niagara producers, selling them at Southbrook's emporium just north of Toronto, which eventually found itself in the crosshairs of urban development. So earlier this year, Redelmeier uprooted the farm and transplanted Southbrook -- lock, stock and barrel cellar --  to Niagara-on-the-Lake, rechristened as Southbrook Vineyards. Now housed in a minimalist building fronted by the massive exterior eyesore of a functionless wall, they offer a full line of "Triomphe" wines; fruits and vegetables pulled a disappearing act en route to wine country.

Stratus: Sky-high shelving
Stratus: Sky-high shelving
Several elements appear nearly mandatory among the Napafied generation of Niagara wineries. Most feature a gravity-flow design. Each aggressively trumpets its earth-friendly credentials and environmental donations, while climate-conditioning an enclosed space the size of Joe Louis Arena. Each requires at least one ostentatious architectural flourish -- floor-to-ultra-high-celing arrayed bottles (Stratus), the exterior wall (Southbrook), a glassed-in overview of the entire gravity-feed winery (Tawse) -- designed to render the visitor awestruck in the face of grandeur.

Suitably intimidated by all that flash, you're already primed for the Napa-style pricing: often $35 for a bottle of Riesling, $45 or more for Cabernet and Bordeaux-blends, levels previously unheard-of in Niagara, and especially painful to those whose U.S. Dollars now trade nearly even-up to Canada's Loonies. But they'll gladly accept our greenbacks.

Except for Hidden Bench, which takes the opposite tack: calculated, understated exclusivity. Don't hunt for their rustic, farm-style winery in the regional directory, or among the roadside signs along the wine trail. If you need to ask, you don't belong there. And when you do arrive, you may find yourself the only customer in the tasting room -- even on Saturday afternoon.

Hidden Bench: Exclusivity at a price
Hidden Bench: Exclusivity at a price
Exclusivity comes at a price, however. Sorry, you can't buy the brilliant 2005 "La Brunante" Merlot / Malbec blend -- even at its jaw-dropping $70 retail. Yes, it IS available -- but only by joining their Wine Club, which obliges you to purchase six bottles apiece of ten additional wines. Total annual layout for 66 bottles: $2473. Welcome to the Club!

Without slighting the flotillas of stretch limos and 13-passenger vans that now criss-cross Niagara's back roads, did I mention the tour buses? Few sounds strike greater terror into the heart of a wine geek than the screech of bus brakes outside a tasting room door, closely followed by the disgorging of dozens of revelers to descend on the counter en masse. Directly in front of your party of two, needless to say.

Long the norm in Napa, this experience is now available much closer to home. Sixty-passenger motorcoaches prowl the Niagara countryside, operated by several companies all seemingly named "Niagara International Wine Expeditions". For one giddy moment, I envisioned two of these behemoths careening from opposite directions toward a meeting along Old Mission's Route 37, between Peninsula Cellars and Two Lads. Folks up north, you've been warned.

Alvento's Bruno Moos: Against the tide
Alvento's Bruno Moos: Against the tide
The only torture more exquisite? Waiting in the cashier line behind an entire busload, each passenger clutching one bottle of Icewine.

To be sure, artisanal wineries still play an important role in the Niagara wine scene -- especially those with long-established reputations. But among the startups, small operators clearly have difficulty gaining notice against the tide of size and sizzle.

At one newer small winery, Alvento, owner Bruno Moos treated us to stunning barrel tastings of Viognier, Nebbiolo and a St. Emilion-style blend that left me planning to return for all three when they're released. Moos, who formerly lived and ran a winery in Tuscany, acknowledged that his winery's business has been fairly slow to get off the ground, although he's willing to be patient.

Viognier? Nebbiolo? In Ontario? Customers should be lined up at his door to taste the amazing things he's able to achieve with these varieties in our cool climes.

But, unfortuntely, he can only present them in a modest, if attractive, tasting room -- no gravity feed winery is on display behind floor-to-cathedral-ceiling glass panels. And the Napa-to-Niagara Bus Tour runs nowhere near his slightly out-of-the-way tasting room door.


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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.