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Dan Berger, of Santa Rosa, California, is one of America's leading independent wine journalists. Head of California's Riverside International Wine Competiton and prime mover behind the Riesling Sweetness scale, he publishes the weekly Vintage Experiences newsletter.

He wrote this piece for that newsletter after judging at the Michigan Wine Competition. It's a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how a well-informed, objective outsider views Michigan wines and their position in the larger wine world. Reprinted by permission; the original can be viewed here. --JG

by Dan Berger

Dan BergerLANSING, Mich.--A lot can go through your mind when you’re judging regional wines, as I did this past Monday here. 

The Michigan Wine and Spirits competition has been staged for decades, and only in the last few years has the event displayed the sort of quality about which the wine makers here have been crowing for decades. 

The early praise wasn’t unwarranted. There were flashes of brilliance as long ago as the late ’90s, when I first visited. Former colleague and long-time friend Christopher Cook exposed me to Michigan’s vinous hospitality back then and I saw huge potential.

Problem was that almost none of this was available to the American public. Bottles could all have been labeled “Sold in Michigan only,” a horrid situation that exists to this day, exacerbated by the state’s antediluvian shipping regulations. Even if you know about the superb Rieslings, Pinot Gris and other wines, you’d have to travel to Michigan to get them.

Even then, finding them here is well nigh impossible. Michiganders routinely disparage Michigan wine.

Another thought: Imagine what passes for great wine these days. The highest scoring California wines are usually overdone. Meanwhile, most lighter styled wines are demeaned.

Reds almost have to be over-ripe, alcoholic, and jammed with extraneous —and atypical—aromas to be blessed with a high score. Wines with honest varietal notes, regional characteristics, and any sort of distinctiveness are all kicked in the gut by the in-crowd.

Worse: Wine makers who challenge the trend and make wines of balance and structure often find that sales suffer because the marketplace fails to
understand what they’re doing. If a wine isn’t soft or full, it is written off.

As a result, many California wine makers try to push their wines to achieve more ripeness than their grapes can gracefully deliver. The wine
they make becomes an oaf.

Here in the upper Midwest, wine makers can try all they like and can’t replicate the ideology of simplicity that dominates high-scored wines. A wine judge who wants Michigan wines to deliver what it cannot is going to be sadly disappointed.

Yet some local judges seem in love with fullness and softness. Fortunately, Cook has industry support for his view that great wine judges must understand regional characteristics that reflect their soils and varietals. The result is that Cook intelligently goes after judges who understand regional elements.

These “outsiders” get the regional elements and appreciate Michigan wine’s unique style.

I’ve appreciated wines with a regional bent since a winter 1977 tour of the New York wine country. A bit like the late Leon Adams, I’ve found a lot to like in wines from “backwater” U.S. regions. As the best of these (including Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Michigan and others) have improved, some of the wines have proven themselves to be world class.

Not that you’d know it from the proclamations off haughty perches of the number-based rags that continue to judge all wines as if they stemmed from the same exact tree.

Using a number of key California and New York judges, Cook altered the template. And the results are more meaningful than ever.

One reason: the judges know that the wines they’re tasting are from Michigan, and ought to be judged in that context. This doesn’t mean they excused inept or poor wine making. Some of what we saw here was bad, due to bad winery management — sloppy winery sanitation or inexact cellar procedures. (This happens in a lot of emerging wine regions.)

Wine education being somewhat minimal hereabouts, and wine lab services and wine consulting being almost non-existent, Midwest wineries often are hamstrung by circumstance.

As a result, Cook asked judges to collect data on flawed wines, to pass along to wineries that didn’t get a medal. It’s a learning experience.

Many of the gold medals went to world class wine. Others went to stylish wines with a regionally distinctive bent.

Example: A great Gamay Noir. [Ed. note: 2007 Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir Reserve]  I can’t find one of such a distinctive character in California. Gamay Noir once grew brilliantly in Napa Valley, but today probably not a single vine of it remains there. And I can’t imagine anyone who paid as much as they did for land in Napa putting in any Napa Gamay.

In this way, Michigan does stunningly with some wines from varieties long since pulled out of California.

Michigan wine country hearkens back to an era when wine was a beverage of regional interest; tasting room visitors learned about how ultimately agricultural was this sublime beverage.

To wine country visitors of the bygone era, wine carried the fingerprints of the man with the plough, and was more designed for the dinner table or the patio than it was for klieg lights, TV cameras, glitzy auctions, and blonde brand models.

I tasted a lot of very good Michigan wines on Monday. Some were world class. Sadly, most of the number scorers will never taste them. And if by some chance they do, I hope they’ll understand and appreciate them.

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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.