This Year’s Vintage Didn’t Begin With Bud Break

Harvest has begun, not just in California but also here in the East. We think of a vine’s growing season as bud break to harvest, but the 2014 vintage throughout much of the United States has been shaped and even defined by what came before — the harshest winter in memory.

I had seen reports of the devastation in wine regions such as Michigan and northeastern Ohio, but I wanted to see for myself winter’s effects and learn how vintners were coping. So last month I went to Michigan’s Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas (and reported on winter’s effects here) and Ohio’s Grand River Valley, where as late as May many growers were thinking of quitting rather than replanting. But then the vines began to grow, from the ground. There will be no crop this year, and probably little if any in 2015. But the vineyards will survive.

The first Ohio vintner I met was Arnie Esterer, who began planting vinifera vines near the shores of Lake Erie in Conneaut (I learned it’s pronounced Connie-at, as in, “Where’s Connie at?”). This is outside of the Grand River Valley AVA, where several other growers told me it was impossible to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. I just chuckled, because Arnie’s Markko Vineyard Cabernet was among the best I’ve ever tasted, from anywhere. He poured me his 2010 and a 1991, which tasted almost as fresh. And he is justly proud of his Chardonnay, which he calls Homage in honor of his mentor back in the 1960s, Dr. Konstantin Frank.

Arnie Esterer of Ohio's Markko Vineyards

Arnie Esterer of Ohio’s Markko Vineyards

Here’s the piece I wrote for The Washington Post about my visit to Ohio. I mentioned it on social media when it was published, so I apologize for any repeats. But this is an important story about the growth of wine in the Eastern United States, one that cannot be told adequately through weather reports.

Arnie Esterer considered giving up. He and his 45-year-old vineyard had survived the winters of ’94 and ’03, but now the vines were ravaged, reduced to blackened, bare stumps following the record low temperatures that struck the eastern United States in early 2014. There clearly would be no crop this year, and the vines themselves were lifeless.

Until late April. That’s when shoots began to emerge from the ground, giving hope that the vineyard could be revived. So Esterer, the first vintner to plant European vinifera grape varieties along the Lake Erie shore in northeastern Ohio, began training those shoots up the trellis wires in hopes of growing new trunks and cordons that might bear a crop in 2015. Having planted the vineyard near Conneaut in 1968 as a young man and built a cult reputation for his Markko Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and Riesling, Esterer, 82, was starting over.

This year’s severe winter, with its “polar vortex” that brought record low temperatures to much of the eastern half of the country, was devastating to wine grape growers.“Once every 10 years” is a common refrain of vintners describing the likelihood of harsh winters and their effects on viticulture. It echoes a decades-long debate over whether eastern U.S. vineyards should be planted with European varieties or native American or French-American hybrids. The vinifera advocates have won that debate, but they pay the price in years like 2014. Native grapes, such as concord, and hybrids like chambourcin and vidal blanc survived this winter in fair shape.

Esterer was a disciple of Dr. Konstantin Frank, the Russian immigrant who championed the vinifera varieties for the Finger Lakes in New York and other areas along the east coast throughout the 1960s and into the early 1980s. Dr. Frank gave him advice and sold him his initial vines. Today, Esterer makes a stunning cabernet sauvignon in a region where other vintners are still quick to say, “You can’t ripen cabernet here.” His chardonnay, aged for three years before release, is savory and rich, as though the vines managed to transmit a message from deep within the Earth.

A soft-spoken man who is not shy about dropping a few profanities into his discourse, Esterer resembles Robert E. Lee, with his white hair and beard. His winery is essentially a backwoods cabin, where he offers guests a tasting at a rough-hewn wooden table that promotes conversation more than sales. To get inside, I had to pass inspection by two shaggy sheepdogs, one of whom goosed me to check my bona fides. Once there, Esterer produced a notebook full of spreadsheets with data about every one of his vines.

“I know exactly how many were killed,” he said. The toll: Out of 10,000 vines, more than 3,000 will never grow another grape. One third of his life’s work, destroyed.

A harsh winter can harm a vineyard in two ways – by killing the buds that form the previous year and carry this year’s crop, and more seriously, by freezing the sap and shattering the vine from within. The extent of damage from last winter is still uncertain. In northwest Michigan, growers on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas along Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay (which actually froze in late February) are expecting to harvest a 2014 crop only 30 percent the size of a normal vintage. Yet these areas have apparently escaped major vine kill, thanks to heavy snow cover that protected the vine roots and the sensitive area where the American rootstock is grafted to the European grape vine.

Winter damage in Virginia was worse than initial assessments indicated, according to Virginia Tech viticulturist Tony Wolf. The true extent of damage may not be known for years. Johannes Reinhardt, owner/winemaker of Kemmeter Wines in New York’s Finger Lakes, remembers the harsh 1985 winter in Germany’s Franken region. “Three years later, when we had the next heavy crop, vines damaged that winter simply collapsed,” he said. Damaged vines may also be susceptible to crown gall, a disease that can eat away at a vine’s nervous system.

No region was hit harder than northeastern Ohio, along Lake Erie and the Grand River Valley northeast of Cleveland. After a mild December, temperatures plunged from 42 degrees to minus 19 over a period of 36 hours in early January, and stayed there for several hours. There was no snow cover to protect the vines. Subsequent cold spells magnified the damage.

“As late as mid-April, we feared an entire growing wine region had been destroyed,” says Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. “Now there’s at least hope for the future.”

Restoring vineyards with the shoots emerging from the roots will not be easy, nor inexpensive. “I’m spending five times as much in labor costs to retrain these vines than if I had planted from scratch,” laments Art Pietrzyk, owner of St. Joseph winery in the Grand River Valley.

At Markko Vineyard, Esterer says he has enough inventory from two productive vintages in 2012 and 2013 to sustain him through a cropless 2014 while he restores his vineyard. “I’m retired, I have nothing else to do,” he says.

Yet he knows the damage could have been avoided, or at least lessened, if he had followed the advice of his old mentor, Konstantin Frank.

“We didn’t mound up enough,” he says, referring to the practice of piling dirt around the vine trunk to protect the sensitive graft union from winter’s wrath. “I didn’t follow Dr. Frank’s rules. After 40 years, I got lazy. I’m the only one to blame.”

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Barboursville Opens Its Cellar

Luca Paschina, the talented winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards north of Charlottesville, has long argued that Virginia needs an iconic wine that is consistently good across vintages and can age well. Such a wine is necessary for Virginia to earn a reputation as a truly world-class wine region, he says. Paschina has offered his Octagon, a Merlot-based Bordeaux blend, as such an icon. Other wineries are aiming as high with their top cuvées, but Octagon has a head start if only because Paschina has been making longer than most.

Barboursville Vineyards Winemaker Luca Paschina. (From Barboursville’s website.)

Barboursville is now ready to make a statement about the age-worthiness of its wines. In July, the winery opened Library 1821 (named for the year James Barbour took residency in the mansion designed for him by Thomas Jefferson) for weekend visitors to enjoy selected older wines from the winery’s cellar. And in August, Barboursville made older vintages of Octagon, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc and Malvaxia (a passito-style dessert wine) available for sale online.

I’ve been fortunate to enjoy some retrospective tastings at Barboursville over the years. Octagon, the Nebbiolo Reserve and Viognier Reserve age impressively well, remaining fresh while developing complexity and additional character over time. The Malvaxia develops an exotic richness as it mellows. Virginia wine fans are in for a treat.


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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, 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.


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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

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,, Eastern US, Wine | Tagged | 11 Comments