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Joel's Blog

Tuesday, 07 September 2010 06:42

A funny thing happened on the way to my September column in The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

The column highlighted Spotted Dog Winery, a micro-winery in Saline that successfully markets its kit-made wines through a raft of local retail stores. It recently announced an expansion that will triple its capacity to 3000 cases, in order to meet demand for its wines -- and managed to land admiring press coverage not only on annarbor.com, but a filmed-on-site segment on Detroit's Channel Spotted Dog Winery2 .

Whatever your take on kit wines -- and mine isn't especially positive -- when it comes to selling them, many small, from-scratch Michigan wineries would do well to emulate Spotted Dog's example.

They've assembled a smart package of local-oriented branding, attractive labels that jump off the shelf, and slick marketing -- including a retail store display that probably looks irresistible to many grocers and some specialty stores eager to offer more made-in-Michigan products. (Never mind that most of the grapes grew in California or Australia.)

They've also hired a salesperson to represent them to retailers throughout the metro Detroit area; their website claims you can now buy Spotted Dog wine at close to four dozen stores.The winery's co-owner, John Olsen, plans to grow that further once the expanded winery begins operation, in the next few months.

Kit wineries do have some built-in advantages that allow them to concentrate on marketing. Their cost for raw materials is low and highly predictable. They don't spend any time worrying about weather, vintage variations, and growing (or buying) grapes. They don't have to pay for expensive crushers or presses. Their consistent-quality wines pretty much make themselves, without tweaks. Inventory can expand quickly if needed to meet demand, whatever the season.

But from-scratch wineries start with a number of advantages, too. They can brand their labels with grape varietals, vintages and geographic identities. They can schedule attractive events around the seasonal growing and winemaking cycles. Local wine trails and the state Grape and Wine Council offer them numerous marketing opportunities.

And, when everything else is said and done, there's one overriding advantage: well made from-scratch wines taste better than anything that comes out of a pre-packaged, pasteurized kit.

It's almost as if Spotted Dog knew that it had to work harder on its own to survive in the marketplace -- and taught itself to have the loudest bark on the block.

So why don't more small Michigan wineries do a first-rate job packaging and marketing their wines? And why can I find Spotted Dog in more stores around Ann Arbor than most other Michigan wineries of a similar size, including those right in my own backyard?

What do you think?

Monday, 30 August 2010 20:00

So now it's come to this.

Last week, New York wine writers Lenn Thompson and Evan Dawson announced that they would no longer judge at large, medal-awarding wine competitions. They urged fellow journalists to follow suit.

Thompson and Dawson aren't just a couple of basement bloggers grabbing for a headline. Their consumer-oriented wine site, the New York Cork Report, is considered the gold standard by many of us who toil in the backroad vineyards of regional wine journalism. They've got the American Wine Blog Award to prove it.

Lenn Thompson and Evan Dawson
Lenn Thompson and Evan Dawson


So when they speak, a lot of industry and media players pay attention. When they dropped their Shermanesque manifesto just a few days after New York's annual Gotham-sized self-congratulatory wine bash -- and its controversial pick of a sweet, sparkling Riesling as top wine -- the timing seemed more than coincidental.

The rationale for their stance is a compendium of complaints against competitions made by many, including this writer, in recent years. Distilled to their essence, these encompass two categories:

  • Competitions have multiplied like tribbles and now hand out gazillions of medals annually. No one, least of all the average consumer, can possibly track the quality of each competition, who judges at them, or how many medals they award. Their primary function seems to be minting medals in numbers sufficient for wineries to tout their wares as medal winners -- as often as not, dishing inaccurate or misleading information to consumers in the process. The money quote: "Ultimately these medals and discussions of them have become nothing more than white noise, like static on your television."

  • The judging behind all those medals is seriously suspect, since competition judges don't apply objective, consistent standards. Thompson and Dawson draw heavily on the much-cited studies by academic (and winemaker) Robert Hodgson, claiming to show that competition judges can't reliably replicate their blind-tasted evaluations, and the medals they award regress toward the random. The result? As Thompson and Dawson put it, "If you make a competent wine, you can enter enough competitions and that wine will almost certainly win gold eventually."

Monday, 16 August 2010 20:00

Michigan growers and winemakers have good reason for cautious optimism about the grapes currently ripening on their vines. An early spring followed by an unusually warm summer have vineyardists across the state reporting bumper crops that are maturing between one and three weeks ahead of usual.

In other words, visions of a potential top vintage, like 2007 or 2005, are starting to dance in their heads.

The numbers at MSU's Enviro-weather --  the go-to website for obscure state weather data -- tell the story. On Monday, August 16, their Benton Harbor station, smack in the Lake Michigan Shore wine appellation, showed 2296 degree-days since March 1. The comparable numbers were 2238 in 2007, and 2232 in 2005.

In contrast, last year's unusually cold summer coughed up just 1831 degree-days by the same date.

You don't need to be a meteorologist or plant scientist to get this stuff. Degree-days approximate the amount of usable heat during a growing season -- assuming your metabolism functions like the average plant's, that is.

Data from up-north is even more striking. MSU's Traverse City station records 1944 degree days so far this year, compared to 1844 in 2007, 1894 in 2005 -- and a lowly 1336 at this time last year. 

In other words, the summer of 2010 is running slightly warmer than Michigan's two best vintages from the last decade. Depending on where you are, that's also a full 25% to 40% above the seasonal heat accumulation that gifted us with last year's seriously under-ripe crop.

Customary cautions apply: in Michigan, it ain't over 'til the late harvest Riesling is in the tank. Too many things could still turn 2010 into just another mighta-been year: an intense heat wave, high humidity, too much rain as harvest approaches, a freakish early frost. And total heat isn't the sole criterion for top vintages; a gentle, lengthy growing season yields grapes with better flavor profiles and more balanced acidity than a late-summer heat wave.

But one thing is certain: if Michigan's grapes don't receive enough heat to fully ripen -- a not-infrequent occurrence -- it's hard for anyone to make first-class wine.

And by coincidence, that's just the problem our California friends face -- most unusually -- in 2010.

One reminder of this flip-flop between the states arrived a couple of days ago as the lead story in a newsletter from Tablas Creek Vineyard, one of my favorite California wineries, located just off the Pacific in Paso Robles. Their litany of woe is reminiscent of many Michigan vintages:

"We got our last rain and last frost remarkably late this year (both in May)... We started the year a couple of weeks behind because of the cool spring, and this weather isn't allowing us to catch up... we do not see any veraison in the vineyard at the end of July..."

But wait -- there's more. This may also sound familiar to folks in Michigan, especially the LMS crowd:

 The relative lack of heat and the relative availability of moisture -- by Paso Robles standards, at least -- have meant that we've had to struggle against mildew this year more than any year in our history... with the more frequent fog cover... and the abundance of moisture in the ground from the 140% of  normal rainfall.

[We've] been going after it with sulfur, copper and the other organic products we have available to us. It's under control, but not gone..."

Those with long memories may recall the Michigan / California flip-flop of 1998, when Michigan vineyards set ripeness records and El Nino kept most of California's grapes from fully maturing. It's too early to call 2010 a replay, but so far the vineyards of Team Michigan are holding up their end of the bargain.

Friday, 13 August 2010 08:50

I confess to some small satisfaction when voters gave the hook to two of Michigan's most anti-wine consumer officeholders in the state gubernatorial primary earlier this month.

Both losers -- Republican Attorney General Mike Cox and Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon -- had dined frequently and well at the trough of the Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association. And both repaid their patrons in kind. Cox squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars in scarce state funds in 2005's winery shipping case, betting a losing hand all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, who finally called his bluff.

He seemed prepared to do the same over retailer shipping three years later, but that proved unnecessary, thanks to Dillon. Determined to avoid the pesky public scrutiny and outcry that sank a legislative ban on winery shipping following 2005's case, Dillon quietly slipped a retailer shipping ban into a no-notice committee hearing, then rammed it through the 2008 lame-duck House session in the dark of night.

Thanks to voters' wisdom, neither will hold higher office next year. Turns out that even the wholesalers don't have as much money to lavish on their handmaids as Rick Snyder, or the ability to put as many boots on the ground as Virg Bernero. Potential future recipients might take note.

But that's not what provokes my fantasy.

Today, the press is reporting that neither California's Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger nor Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown plans to appeal the court defeat of the Prop 8 gay marriage ban on behalf of the state, because neither of them thinks the ban is good law.The only folks taking up the cudgel are those who put the ban on the ballot in the first place -- and they may lack legal standing to prove irreversible injury if the ban is set aside while the appeal proceeds.

This isn't about gay marriage (though I'm all for it). It's about the willingness of public officials to take a stand on litigation based upon their reading of what makes good law and what's in the public interest, rather than kowtow to a high-rolling lobbyist or follow the course of least resistance by simply saying, "Of course we must defend any law of our state against court challenge."

So what if...

Someday soon, another consumer or retailer or winery challenges another of Michigan's antediluvian (Dan Berger's word) beverage laws.  The state's Attorney General du jour, who regularly issues legal interpretations with the force of law, looks at the law in question and announces, "I agree with those who are challenging this, and have decided, in all good conscience, not to waste the state's money or my limited staff on a lengthy court battle that we are destined to lose. We will stipulate to a verdict that overturns this statute."

And then the legislative leaders of that time say, "We appreciate the contributions that 90% of our sitting legislators receive from the beverage wholesalers, and the fundraising parties they regularly throw for us at their Lansing headquarters. But we realize the law they'd like us to pass is even more anti-competitive, anti-Michigan business and anti-Michigan consumer than the one that was just overturned. So we're not going to pass it."

Well, a blogger can fantasize, can't he?

Tuesday, 03 August 2010 03:13

8:10 AM

Good morning! Please refresh this page to see the latest posts.

It looks like our live chat isn't working, so we'll make do with just blogging for now.

We're  getting ready to start this morning's tasting at 8:30.

Right now, Competition Superintendent Chris Cook and Wine Council Program Director Linda Jones are looking very smart -- we have a no-show judge from Indiana, but they'd scheduled an extra judge to rotate in, for the first time. So we still have enough judges in the house -- 6 tables x 4 apiece.

Several judges are still buzzing over last night's dinner, when we were served a bottle of Gill's Pier trophy winning 2007 Cab Franc / Merlot from last year's competition. Anyone who says Michigan can't make excellent reds in the right vintages needs to try a glass of this one.

Gotta run now -- first flight, dry whites.


Just tasted 10 Pinot Gris, all 2009 vintage. Gave out 3 golds, 2 silver, 1 bronze. Some very nice wines in there. Actually surprised that so many good wines were coming out of the 2009 vintage.

Just tasted 8 unoaked Chardonnay, 2 from 2008 vintage, rest 2009.  No gold medals, two silvers, two bronze. Frankly, the 2009 vintage showed its weakness in this flight -- some examples showed unripe or herbal characteristics, chaptalization, etc.

Tasted 6 semi-dry roses -- gave out one gold medal to a 2009 Pinot Noir -- maybe 45 North or Left Foot Charley. Really nice!

Just voted our first trophy of the day: TOP SPARKLING goes to a 2008 Brut, blend of Chardonnay / Pinot Noir / Pinot Blanc. Congratulations to whoever made it -- we won't find out until later in the day.

Getting ready to vote for TOP  DRY WHITE. We have 17 gold medal wines to taste for this trophy -- that's a lot. We'll taste in 2 flights, and then do a taste-off among the tops.

First time ever! A 2009 PINOT GRIS just won the best dry white wine trophy. This was no fluke; 6 of the 17 dry white gold medalists were Pinot Gris or Grigio. Pinot Gris has come of age in Michigan!

Sorry I haven't been able to chat -- not enough time.

Unusual circumstance -- we just tasted ONE rose wine, to vote on whether to award a best of class trophy for rose wines. Even though it's our only gold medal winning rose, by the competition rules it still needs a majority of judges voting in its favor in order to award a trophy.  It won; this was the 2009 Pinot Noir semi-dry rose that canme through our judging table. It needed 13 votes from the 24 judges to get a trophy -- and it got 16. Congrats to either 45 North or Left Foot Charley -- will find out later.

Disappointing flight of 9 semi-dry Rieslings. Five with no medals, three bronze medals, one that we couldn't agree on -- so we're sending it over to another table to resolve our conflicts.

It's become clear that, overall, 2009 was not a strong Riesling vintage in Michigan. Only two dry wines got gold medals, and we didn't give anything higher than a bronze to the semi-dry that we tasted.

Headed  to lunch now -- will try to get some chat time afterward.


Back from lunch, and first item on the agenda was the trophy for best semi-dry white. Six gold medal wines to choose from. Our pick: a 2009 Riesling, 2% RS. Just beat out a Gewurz and a Vignoles, both of which will be eligible for the Judges Special Trophy, to be voted on later.

Our table is headed for one of my less-favorite categories next -- dry red proprietary blends. 


Surprisingly good flight: five wines, we gave out one gold, two silvers and a bronze. Gold went to a -- what else? -- 2007 vintage blend of Cab Franc, Regent, Lemberger. Nice wine, wonderful blueberry fruit. I'd put this one in the cellar for another year or two.

Purely impressionistic at this point because there's no time to count, but it seems like we're giving out fewer medals than past years. That would be a good thing.

Does anyone remember when Pinot Noir was considered THE coming red grape in MI? Not our batch... Tasted seven samples from 2006 (???) to 2009, gave out three bronzes, three no medals, and sent out one wine to another table for a second opinion (undecided between bronze and no medal).

Next flight was six 2008 Cabernet Francs. Again, it's clear that 2008 was not a great red wine vintage in Michigan. Two silver medals, one bronze, three no medals. Very disappointing after so many good reds from the 2007 vintage, that we tasted the last couple of compettitions.

My friend, Robin Garr (of wineloverspage.com) has a theory: the  first duty of a fruit wine is to be true to the fruit from which it comes. If that's the case, the eight "Miscellaneous Fruit" wines we just tasted fell far short; one silver and one bronze in the lot. 

Rant: We make truly excellent cherry and raspberry wines in Michigan, but I seldom taste wines from other fruits that measure up to their standards. Would someone tell me why that is?

Gotta run -- we have ten gold medal reds to taste for the best-of-class trophy.


Very telling: At a competition when most of the red wines come from 2008, half of the ten dry red gold medalists in the running for the best dry red trophy were late arrivals from 2007, a far warmer, riper vintage.

The winner: a 2007 Cabernet Franc, the third straight year that 2007 was the winning red vintage. Won't know the name until later.

Vote for the trophy winner "Semi-sweet red" from among three gold medal winners: a non-vintage blend of Chancellor, Chambourcin and Noiret. Very nice -- though not something I'd be likely to buy or serve.

Next up: best fruit wine.


And the winner is a Cabernet Franc / Cherry blend. Folks, this is seriously good wine, at 2.5% residual sugar. I'm already fantasizing about getting a couple of bottles to reduce in a sauce to go with roast duck.

Our last flight before the dessert sweepstakes: five Vidal Blanc icewines. Our table gave out its first unanimous double gold of the day to a 2008 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine. It tasted remarkably like the 2008 "42" Vidal Ice Wine from Fenn Valley that won the trophy for best dessert wine last year.

Up next: Best Dessert Wine, and a review of all the wines eligible for the Judges Special Trophy. House rules say that's any wine with 75% or more of the votes of the trophy winner in its category. Did that make sense?

David Creighton,  who's judging at the same table with me, said his two favorite wines of the day may be the trophy-winning dry Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir Rose. I wouldn't disagree about the PG, but the rose was a little sweet for my taste, though very well made.

And the best dessert wine is the Vidal Ice Wine that our table gave the double gold. Like last year, a stupendous ice wine from 2008. I can only hope they sell it near the same price as Fenn Valley's 42 -- $15 from the winery. 

Very close second, in my book: a fortified raspberry wine @ 19% alcohol.

While we wait for the judges' special award, it's worth considering that, overall, the wines didn't seem quite up to the last couple of competitions. Attribute that to vintage variation.



Sparkling: 2008 Black Star Farms Arcturos

Dry Whte: 2009 Black Star Farms Pinot Gris

Rosé: 2009 45 North Blanc de Pinot Noir (2nd consecutive vintage winner)

Semi-Dry White: 2009 Black Star Farms Arcturos Riesling

Semi-Dry Red: NV Lawton Ridge "AZO" Chancellor / Chambourcin

Dry Red: 2007 Bowers Harbor Erica Vineyard Cabernet Franc

Fruit: Uncle John's Franc-N-Cherry

Dessert: 2008 "42" Ice Wine, Fenn Valley (2nd year winner for the same wine.)

Judges Merit Award: 2009 Chateau Fontaine Woodland White (Auxerrois)

Monday, 12 October 2009 20:00

Welcome to Regional Wine Week, when wine writers and bloggers nationwide take up arms in support of their local juice.

It's the brainchild of newspaper wine guys Jeff Siegel, who writes for papers in Dallas and Fort Worth, and Dave McIntyre, of The Washington Post. Last year, they jointly started the Drink Local Wine website and recruited wine writers from around the country to participate in the Regional Wine Week project.

Now around here, scribbling about local juice happens year 'round. Asking MichWine to "Support your local winemaker" carries all the impact of suggesting a vegetarian give up steak for Lent.

So what makes this week different from all other weeks?

Most of the year, I take for granted that folks who stumble onto these pages already number among the faithful. But this week -- if Jeff and Dave and their other minions are doing their job -- regional wine sites like MichWine find lots of new visitors who may need a primer -- or a refresher course.

So let's review the Top Ten Reasons to Drink Michigan Wine.

(Note: If you happen to reside elsewhere, feel free to substitute the name of your state for Michigan. Unless that state happens to be Ohio, in which case simply accept the fact that your wines are inferior to ours.)

#10: You'll always have a built-in excuse for a day or weekend trip. "Honey, we're almost out of Pinot Gris. Let's go out to the winery and pick up another case this weekend." Try doing that with something from Australia or Spain. 

#9: If you're obsessive-compulsive, visiting 65 Michigan wineries is a more manageable goal than visiting all 50 state capitals.

#8: It's planet-friendly. Wine shipped from California or France burns more fossil fuel and pumps more noxious emissions into the atmosphere than bottles that travel a couple of hundred miles at most to reach your palate.

#7: You'll learn lots of new words. Names like Vidal, Vignoles, Traminette and Frontenac. Some of them will taste very good and enter your long-term vocabulary.

#6: On a related note, you'll find out that Lemberger is not a cheese.

#5: You'll support local agriculture. Every time you buy wine from Michigan grapes -- check the label carefully! -- you help another Michigan farmer to stay in business.

#4: You'll befuddle wine snobs at blind tastings when they discover that Riesling they were sure came from Germany's Rheinpfalz was actually made from grapes that grew on Old Mission Peninsula.

#3: You'll help Michigan's economy -- and we can sure use it. The wine industry is one of the few growth sectors in Michigan business, creating new jobs and pumping hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the state's shaky finances.

#2: Michigan is the only state where you can suggest your guests might enjoy some Sex* before dinner without giving offense.

And the #1 reason to drink Michigan wine:

It's really good juice. These days, Michigan's top wines regularly earn trophies, medals and critical plaudits nationwide. So if you haven't tried Michigan wine recently, you haven't tried Michigan wine.


*For noobs and out-of-staters, "Sex" is a sparkling wine made by Larry Mawby under his M. Lawrence label.


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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.