Michigan’s Varietal Variety

My recent visit to the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas in northwest Michigan led to me Lansing, where I helped judge the 37th annual Michigan wine competition. Michigan’s emergence into our wine consciousness seems too recent for the state to have had a competition for 37 years, but maybe I just don’t want to admit that would be about when I graduated high school.

The competition results are on www.michiganwines.com, I don’t have the code list to match the wines that particularly impressed me with their names, but I of course have extensive notes from my winery visits and discussions with winemakers.

A very enjoyable tasting of wines from the Leelanau Peninsula

A very enjoyable tasting of wines from the Leelanau Peninsula

Rather than present a complete list of all those wines, I thought I’d list wineries by grape variety. So here are my favorites from a three-day immersion into northwestern Michigan wines.

Riesling: With the cool climate and a topographical resemblance to the Finger Lakes, it’s no surprise that Riesling excels on the OMP and the LP. It comes across the sweetness spectrum; some winemakers I spoke to thought Michigan could fill a market gap left by Germany’s move to a bone dry style. Look for Rieslings from Left Foot Charley, Black Star Farms (Arcturos), Blustone (Best of Category Winner), Chateau Grand Traverse, Brengman Bros., Verterra.

Pinot Blanc: I was surprised at how much I loved the Pinot Blancs I tasted in Michigan. This grape can make a nondescript crisp white, or it can be intensely fruity with bracing acidity. Alois Lageder from northern Italy is my personal benchmark for Pinot Blanc, but now I have several to add from Michigan, where the wine seems a bit riper, fuller and fruitier. Recommended Producers: Left Foot Charley, Brys Estate, Blustone, Verterra, Chateau Grand Traverse (Ship of Fools, a blend with Pinot Gris).

Pinot Gris/Grigio: Several wineries are producing Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, and the winemakers I queried were generally honest enough to acknowledge that the choice of name was more a marketing decision than an indication of the style of wine. Generally, I wasn’t thrilled with this category. The best I tasted was the Pinot Grigio 2013 from Ciccone Vineyards on Leelanau, where Tony Ciccone plays the Italian-American patron presiding over the good life. (There was a large and raucous wedding party when I visited.) This was the first time I tasted his wines, and by accounts they have improved since his daughter Paula joined the team. (Yes, you’ve heard of his other daughter.) “She’s an enologist,” he explained, shaking his head, “always going through the vineyard plucking leaves off the vines.” Well, I replied, “giving her a title is easier than arguing with her.”

Gewurztraminer: Gewurz is a no-brainer for this cool-climate area. Most are done dry, and they tend toward the lychee flavor rather than the rose petal, soapy character. Recommended Producers: Brengman Bros., Bel Lago, Verterra, Black Star Farms (Arcturos).

Grüner Veltliner: The Austrian variety is coming on strong in northwest Michigan, as is its sister red, Blaüfrankisch. I’ve tasted delicious GV from California, Oregon, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, but the ones from Michigan come closest to capturing that lemongrass, talc-like character that make Grüner one of my favorite white wines. Recommended Producers: Black Star Farms (Arcturos), Chateau Fontaine, Chateau Grand Traverse, Water Fire.

Chardonnay: This is not such a big variety here, as the growers seem to have resisted the “People expect it, so I have to grow it” logic. However, the Chardonnays I tasted from the Leelanau Peninsula showed an impressive intensity of flavor, especially in their unoaked versions. Unoaked chardonnay, according to Paul Hamelin of Verterra and Jay Briggs of 45 North, are especially popular with younger drinkers, another example of Millennials driving the market. Recommended Producers: Verterra, Chateau Fontaine, 45 North, Brengman Bros.

Auxerrois: With the emphasis on Alsace (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc), it’s not a stretch to think Auxerrois would do here. There isn’t a whole lot planted. Charlie Edson at Bel Lago has staked a claim to it as his signature wine, and it is excellent. I also tasted a very nice Auxerrois from Chateau Fontaine. Both are on the Leelanau Peninsula.

Pinot Noir: Pinot Noir does well here, mostly in a light style both in color and intensity. Some wineries have moved toward Dijon clones, which give deeper color and more familiar Burgundian flavors instead of the stewed tomato notes from older clones. Results were uneven, ranging from spectacular to “Stick with whites .. ” Recommended Producers: 2 Lads, Black Star Farms (Arcturos), Brys Estate, Blustone, Chateau Fontaine.

Blaüfrankisch: I only tasted BF from two wineries: A tank sample of the 2013 from Left Foot Charley and two from Shady Lane. All three were excellent, and I hope they inspire more vintners to plant this variety. Despite its name — or the alternate, Lemberger — this is a deep-colored red wine that emphasizes fruit and spice and handles a moderate oak treatment with ease. These were by far the best BF’s I’ve tasted from the United States. The LFC, especially, transported me mentally to Austria’s Burgenland region with a single sniff.

Sparkling: Not a grape variety of course, but a style worth mentioning as Michigan does it well. There’s primarily one man to thank for that: Larry Mawby, who was one of Leelanau’s pioneers back in the 1970s, first with hybrids, later with vinifera and then sparkling. Mawby makes several Champagne-method sparklers under his L. Mawby label. My favorite was an explosively fruity blanc de noirs. He is also producing a wine called “TALISMØN,” using a solera begun more than two decades ago. “There’s probably a molecuie of 1992 in there,” Mawby quipped. He also makes a line of wines called M. Lawrence using the cuve closed or tank fermentation method. The most famous of these is called “Sex,” and you can imagine the

Other grapes: Michigan is still in an experimental phase, trying different grape varieties to see what will thrive in the cold climate and occasional harsh winters (such as the most recent one). Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Franc make cameo appearances. Chateau Grand Traverse, which planted the first commercial vinifera vineyards in 1974, makes a delicious Gamay, and I’m surprised others haven’t followed suit. CGT also has small plantings of Nebbiolo on the Old Mission Peninsula. Ciccone, true to its Italian heritage, makes a nice Dolcetto, though I didn’t hear of anyone else growing that grape. There are still some hybrids, though the ones I saw were mostly used in dessert wines. Interestingly, hybrids survived the winter better than vinifera did, so they may be more prominent on the 2014 vintage.

There’s plenty of potential vineyard land for expansion, especially on the Leelanau Peninsula. After my visit last week, I hope we will see many more wines from northwest Michigan on the national stage in years to come.

Posted in Local Wine, Michigan, Riesling, Sparkling Wine, Wine | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Michigan Reels from Winter’s Fury

Northwest Michigan wine country — the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas around Traverse City — is as beautiful as you’d expect. Vineyards are interspersed among fruit orchards (yes, it’s cherry season!) and McMansions. Driving up the OMP, the Grand Traverse Bay is on your left one moment, then visible to the right the next. As you drive up the Leelanau, water is seemingly always “just over there”– either Lake Leelanau or Lake Michigan itself. All this water, and its moderating effect on temperature and climate, is a primary reason wine grapes grow so well here.

Until last winter, when Lake Michigan froze.

“We had two events of 19 hours when temperatures were 9 below or less, one in late February, then one less than a week later in early March,” explains Craig Cunningham, who manages several vineyards on both peninsulas. I met Craig, a wry, soft-spoken man with the ruddy complexion of a farmer, at Left Foot Charley winery during my tasting with Bryan Ulbrich.

“Then we had a long winter, and as the vines were losing their domancy in April, we had periods of 5 degrees,” Cunningham said. “The longer days didn’t help, and the snow cover was going down. That’s what sealed our fate.”

A panoramic view of Chateau Grand Traverse on the Old Mission Peninsula

A panoramic view of Chateau Grand Traverse on the Old Mission Peninsula

Today, in early August, the vineyards look lush, with lots of foliage. But you practically have to search for grapes. There simply aren’t many hanging on the vines, and the clusters I could see looked scrawny and appeared to this untrained eye to be ripening unevenly. The summer has been pleasantly mild, which hasn’t helped the remaining grapes to ripen.

Winemakers I spoke to over three days of winery visits told a similar story of bud loss to the extreme cold of the past winter. Most estimated they would be able to harvest about 30 percent of a normal crop this year. Bordeaux varieties were apparently hardest hit, with Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer taking strong losses as well. The damage varied across each peninsula according to site and proximity to the water, but the most optimistic estimate I heard was for 50 percent crop loss.

Strong winter winds magnified the cold and desiccated the vines, but heavy snows protected most of the trunks from suffering severe damage. And in at least one case, at Brengman Brothers winery on Leelanau, the wind helped by drifting snow up the slopes where their Gewurztraminer vines are planted.

“We had five-foot snow drifts on that slope, so it covered the fruiting zone of the vines,” explains Bob Brengman. They are expecting a normal crop of Gewurztraminer this year.

Hybrid grape varieties fared better than vinifera, but without evident trunk damage affecting the long-term outlook, I didn’t hear of anyone giving up on the European varieties. This is still Riesling country.

And Pinot Blanc country. And Pinot Noir. And don’t rule out Gruner Veltliner or Blaufrankisch. Or Gamay.

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Entering Michigan Wine Country, Left Foot Forward

I arrived Friday in Traverse City and drove straight to an insane asylum. Not to check myself in, but to check out the wines of Left Foot Charley and to chat with their creator, Bryan Ulbrich.

Left Foot Charley, or LFC, is an urban winery on the grounds of an old asylum that has been repurposed as a shopping village, with art galleries, senior citizens residences, and restaurants, including the award-winning Trattoria Stella. (I can recommend the fetuccine with goat-cheese-stuffed fried squash blossoms),

It’s a popular place. As we chatted and tasted wine on the patio during an ideal summer afternoon, dozens of customers gathered to listen to a live band and chow down on charcuterie from LFC or pizza from a bakery across the street. Young children played in a sandpit, leaving their happy parents alone to sip some wine and relax.

“We’re like a Heuriger,” Bryan said, referring to the popular wine cafe’s of Vienna. “We stole a page from the Austrian guys.”

Bryan and I sat on the patio for about three hours tasting his wines. We were joined by Lee Lutes of Black Star Farms and Craig Cunningham, who manages several vineyards for various wineries on the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas.

LFC specializes in white wines, with an emphasis on preserving freshness and acidity. That’s a popular mantra here up and down the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas, and I heard it repeatedly over the weekend as I visited with winemakers. And it is key to understanding the wines of this region: Cold-climate varieties, especially whites such as Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and Gewurztraminer, do especially well here.

LFC’s Austrian theme runs through Bryan’s Rieslings, of which he makes six, to perhaps the best Blaufrankisch I’ve tasted from the United States. One sniff and I was in Burgenland. He also makes a zesty Kerner and a racy Sauvignon Blanc.

Bryan calls LFC “a capitalistic cooperative.” He works with 16 growers, most on the Old Mission Peninsula, and likes to make single vineyard wines to express the character of each site. “I was lucky to start 10 years ago with a couple sites that already had some age on them. The oldest was planted in the late ’90s, so getting them through the freshman blues was interesting. But now I’m really getting excited about my white wine brand.”

Wines from the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas should appeal to those who like high-acid whites. Describing his 2012 Dry Riesling, Bryan said, “For a lot of the world, this would be high-acid. For us, it’s the start of what we call dry.” The wine came from a site near the southern base of the OMP, with sandy, loamy soils sheltered from much of the influence of the Grand Traverse Bay. The 2012 Riesling, in contrast, came from further north near the peninsula’s tip, where the soils are sandier and the vines exposed to winds from the bay. “It tends to retain acidity better than the other vineyard, so to me the wines require a little residual sugar.” This one had only 1.8%, and is in no way a sweet wine. That would be his “Missing Spire” Riesling, which is similar to many semi-dry Rieslings from the Finger Lakes.

About that Kerner – I hope more people grow it up here, as LFC’s was zesty and vibrant. Those words were sprinkled throughout my notes, as they describe nearly all the Left Foot Charley wines I tasted. It was indeed a terrific introduction to this intriguing and beautiful wine region.


Posted in Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Summer Wines with Soul & Substance

The weather is unusually pleasant for mid-summer this week in the Washington area, leaving me thinking of warm days and cooler nights, those wonderful “diurnal swings” that supposedly contribute to well-balanced wine. But since the 2014 Virginia and Maryland wines are still just potential, I’m content to sip This week’s wine recommendations feature two outstanding moderately priced white Burgundies that show chardonnay at its best, red blends from Colorado and California for your summer grilling, and a delightful moscato from Chile to get your patio parties off to a great start.

Maison Roche de Bellene, Bourgogne Chardonnay Vielles Vignes 2011, France, $23

Good news for wine lovers: Basic Burgundy, as in chardonnay and pinot noir labeled “Bourgogne,” is getting better and better. Maison Roche de Bellene is a negociant — producing wines from purchased grapes or blending purchased wines — run by popular winemaker Nicolas Potel and imported by Loosen Bros., the import company of famed German winemaker Ernst Loosen. It is impeccable, rich with tree fruit flavors and moderate oakiness. Consider this a mini-Meursault, and stock up. Alcohol by volume: 13 percent.

Domaine Daniel Pollier “En Messie” 2012, Saint-Véran, Burgundy, France, $16

Wow. This wine demonstrates why we should not snub “oaky” chardonnays. Yes, oak is evident in the toastiness and richness of texture, but it is beautifully balanced with fruit and mineral flavors, making this as good a chardonnay as I’ve had under $20. ABV: 13 percent. M. Touton Selection. 

Guy Drew Meritage 2011, Colorado, $22

Colorado wine? Oh yeah! This stylish red blend of Bordeaux grape varieties combines fruit and earth in an intriguing, stylish wine. ABV: 14.1 percent. (Siema in the DC area)

Santa Ema Moscato Soul 2013, Central Valley, Chile, $10

Fans of moscato should try this off-dry version – not as sweet as most but quite fruity. It is delightful for sipping before dinner or with light appetizers. ABV: 11.5 percent. TGIC Imports.

The Seducer Red Rendezvous 2012, California, $15

This juicy, appealing red blend is better than most California reds at the price, excellent with casual foods off the grill. Great label art, too. ABV: 13.5 percent. TGIC Imports.

Posted in Bargain Wines, Burgundy, California, Cheap Wine, Chile, Colorado, France, Wine | Tagged | 1 Comment

The Monteith Trophy

At the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition this past weekend, I was flattered to be honored by the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association with its Monteith Trophy, presented “to individuals or organizations that have performed exceptional contributions to the development and sustainability of the American wine industry by actively providing leadership and motivation in addressing both legislative and regulatory issues that confront the industry, supporting innovative and technical research in both the fields of enology and viticulture, also encouraging wine and health related studies, as well as contributing to consumer public wine education and appreciation through the arts, literature and the public media.”

Gordon Murchie, president emeritus of the AWSA, made the presentation, mentioning my writings about local and regional wines and my role in co-founding Drink Local Wine. Michael Birchenall summarizes Gordon’s tribute at Foodservicemonthly.com.

I’m in good company. The ASWA, originally called the Vinifera Wine Growers Association, first presented the trophy in 1980 to Dr. Konstantin Frank for his work in promoting vinifera grape varieties in the eastern United States. The trophy has also been presented to Margrit Mondavi, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Congressional Wine Caucus, and Bobby Koch, for his work as president of the Wine Institute.


SWA President Carl Brandhorst (left) and President Emeritus Gordon Murchie (right) present the Monteith Trophy to Dave McIntyre - photo by Michael Birchenall

ASWA President Carl Brandhorst (left) and President Emeritus Gordon Murchie (right) present the Monteith Trophy to Dave McIntyre – photo by Michael Birchenall

I didn’t have any prepared remarks, but improvised a brief thank you, which went something like this (with the benefit of hindsight and what I should have said):

I am not the story. The winemakers who produce better wines each year are the story. The work of organizations like the ASWA and the judges who devote a weekend each year to evaluate wines from the East Coast — they are the story. The viticulturists, university extension experts who experiment with different grape varieties, trellising systems, and vineyard sites — they are the story. The consumers who are increasingly willing to try local wines with an open mind — they are the story. My job is to tell their story.

That said, when Jeff Siegel, “The Wine Curmudgeon,” and I started Drink Local Wine in 2008, we felt like we were beating our heads against a brick wall. Locavore restaurants ignored local wines. The Winestream Media ignored American wines that didn’t come from the West Coast. Our mission was to encourage wine writers to highlight their regional wines.

That has changed, dramatically. Today, it’s hard to go a few weeks without seeing a writeup of top wineries to visit or wines to try from around the country. Virginia seems to be the hot wine region, but Maryland, Texas and others are getting their share of ink, too. I’d like to think that Jeff and I, and our colleagues at Drink Local Wine, had a little to do with this. This trophy is theirs as well, though I’ll be sure to polish it before I give it back.

Posted in Competitions, DrinkLocalWine.com, Eastern US, Wine | Tagged | 11 Comments

50 States of Wine – Le Metro Underground Goes Cross Country

Earlier this year, after I wrote about the difficulty of finding the so-called “New California” wines, I was introduced to Aaron Epstein, a San Diego-based entrepreneur and new father who operates Le Metro. Wine. Underground, a subscription direct-to-consumer retailer. To use the modern lingo, Epstein “curates” a monthly selection of six wines according to various themes. March was New California, and July is “From Sea to Shining Sea.” He has put together a great selection of wines from across the country other than the West Coast.

Aaron and I traded some emails as he was putting this collection together, and I could sense his enthusiasm as he tasted the wines and asked me for suggestions. (“There’s only room for six!” he reminded me at one point.) Here’s what he came up with:

Each edition of Le Metro. Wine. Underground features an original illustration by Elaine Chukan Brown and tasting notes by Aaron Epstein.

Not only did Epstein come up with a great selection, but he even found one (the Garagista) that I’d never even heard of. I love it when the youngsters school me on something.

Epstein’s selection, and his enthusiasm for it, demonstrate again the increasing acceptance of regional wines both on the West Coast and among younger consumers. I can’t stress this point enough, and have a recent anecdote to illustrate the generational difference and how millennials are the best market-driving audience for these wines.

I was at a recent Rhone Rangers dinner at Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington, sitting between a 20-something winemaker from a Northern Virginia winery and an acquaintance of mine I first met in the late 1980s when I had more time to loiter in wine stores. As we discussed the impressive growth of Virginia wines, my friend sniffed, “I tried Virginia wines when I first came to Washington in the 1970s, and I didn’t like them.”

No, really, I swear this actually happened. She said that. There are still people out there with that attitude. But attitudes are changing, more rapidly now than ever, and people like Epstein and his customers, with their curiosity and adventurous palates, are helping fuel that change.


Posted in Cabernet Franc, California, Colorado, Eastern US, Local Wine, Rants, Riesling, Sparkling Wine, Texas, Virginia, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Peter Chang’s Return to DC – Coming Soon

Peter Chang is known as the finest Chinese chef in the United States, and one with a sense of wanderlust. He made his name disappearing from restaurant after restaurant in Northern Virginia, Charlottesville, Knoxville to Atlanta, fleeing whenever he was discovered, elusive as the wok qi of a fine stir fry. In the last three years, Chang has returned to Virginia and built a five-restaurant empire that seems to expand faster than my waistline.

After opening restaurants in Charlottesville, Richmond, Williamsburg, Fredericksburg and Virginia Beach, Chang appears ready to return to the Washington, D.C. area. He told me Sunday his next restaurant will be in Rockville Town Square, his first foray into Maryland.

Gen Lee, Chang’s business partner, told me Wednesday they have agreed on a lease for an existing restaurant space. While Chang said the new outpost should open in late September, Lee said October was more realistic.

Chang said he knows Rockville has a lot of Chinese restaurants popular with the local Chinese community, but he hopes his cuisine will appeal to a broader audience. He wants to introduce “authentic” Chinese cuisine to Americans who have become accustomed to Americanized Chinese food. He also intends to open in Fairfax, but Rockville will be first because the space requires less renovation.

Chang’s followers are sometimes skeptical of his burgeoning empire, convinced his mastery cannot be taught to other chefs. I admit to an added satisfaction when I know he’s in the house, but I’ve also eaten at his restaurants when he wasn’t there and always had a delicious meal. And as I explained in that blogpost linked above, I love his food not simply for the spice, but for the complexity and nuance he achieves with his flavors.

I met Chang when I wrote this feature for The Washington Post about his first appearance at the James Beard House in Manhattan, featuring Virginia wines from Jefferson Vineyards. On his subsequent Beard House dinners he featured wines from Trump Winery and ciders from Foggy Ridge. I helped select the pairings for those events.

Learning about his Rockville opening was a stroke of luck. I was in Virginia Beach to visit family and offered to take my Dad to lunch for the best Chinese he’d ever have. As it turned out, Peter was there preparing to cook for a wedding reception that afternoon. My Dad now has a new favorite chef. And I, with a day job just a 10-minute drive from Rockville Town Square, am contemplating an even more expansive waistline.

Peter Chang and Dad

Peter Chang and his new fan, John McIntyre

Posted in Cider, Restaurants, Virginia, Washington Post | Tagged , , | 3 Comments