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

DC Chefs Love Virginia Wine

(In the “Trying to catch up on really good blog material I haven’t had time to post” department … )

Virginia wine has gotten some prominent loving recently from two of DC’s top toques.

Robert Wiedmaier, chef-owner of Marcel’s, Brabo, two Brasserie Beck and a few Mussel Bar locations, featured Virginia wines at a week-long “pop up” he did in London, as well as a dinner in honor of the new U.S. ambassador to the Court of Saint James. And José Andrés took a flamboyant tour across Virginia wine country with Food & Wine magazine’s wine editor, Ray Isle, looking for wines for his new restaurant, America Eats, which opened in Tyson’s Corner, Va., in early June.

Remember when, just a few years ago, it seemed like Lee had an easier time crossing the Potomac than Virginia wine? Things are definitely changing.

Wiedmaier previewed his pop-up at Marcel’s in late March, and it was one of the better meals I’ve ever had. He allowed me to interview him in the kitchen beforehand, while he was wearing a GoPro camera to film a video for Jason Tesauro, who emceed the evening. (Luckily, I did not make the final cut, which you can view here.)

Worst selfie ever ...

Worst selfie ever …

Wiedmaier told me he was not new to Virginia wines, though his enthusiasm had really kicked in recently, especially after attending last October’s Virginia Wine Summit in Richmond. He had an interesting perspective on why Virginia is gaining popularity now.

“Ten years ago I wasn’t such a big fan of Virginia wines,” he said. “Back then you had so many other wines emerging from around the world that weren’t Italian and French – you had the whole South African thing going on, and the Australian thing, then Spanish wines went through an explosion. People weren’t thinking about Virginia wines. But in the past four or five years, through blind tastings with Moez (Ben Achour) and Ramon (Narvaez – Wiedmaier’s two sommeliers), I’ve tasted wines that are absolutely delicious, and I thought, My God, that’s a Virginia wine?”

Like many Virginia wine fans, Wiedmaier compared the Old Dominion’s new quality spurt to the frontier spirit of Napa and Sonoma three or four decades ago. He also pointed out that he makes a special effort to source local ingredients for his menus, so featuring local wines makes sense. And he realizes that he doesn’t have to give his entire list over to local wines.

“I’m embracing Virginia wines,” he said. “I like that they’re in my back yard, down the road here…. I’ve already got all the great French, Italian and Spanish wines on my lists, why not have a few great wines that are local? I can have my sommelier walk up to a table of customers from Europe and offer them something different.”

José Andrés and Ray Isle toured several Virginia wineries in early May, and thanks to Twitter those of us not lucky enough to be along for the ride (which reportedly included a helicopter flight from Glen Manor Vineyards to Charlottesville) were at least able to follow along.Screenshot 2014-06-29 14.56.13

Lucas Paya, who was Andrés beverage director before leaving the company in early June, told me that the list at America Eats will feature several Virginia wines.

So I’ll be gearing up to brave the Beltway rush hour traffic and get to Tyson’s soon.




Posted in Local Wine, Restaurants, Virginia, Wine | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

The Grape American Road Trip

Andrew Stover is taking his regional wine portfolio on a road trip around the DC area this summer

This post is especially for Washington D.C.-area readers. Andrew Stover, known to wine lovers around the region for his advocacy of wines from unexpected places around the country, is celebrating the fifth anniversary of his Vino50 portfolio with “The Grape American Road Trip,” a summer-long series of events showcasing wines and winemakers from New York, Missouri, Arizona, Texas, Michigan, and probably a few other places that would have you saying, “They make wine there?”

Over the years I’ve written about Stover for Washingtonian (2007) and for The Washington Post (2010). Back when it was extremely rare to find local wines on D.C. restaurant wine lists (not so long ago!), Andrew was already evangelizing for wines from Georgia, Ohio and Texas at Oya restaurant in Penn Quarter, where he was sommelier. As a millennial, he was quick to tap into that generation’s thirst for new wines unencumbered by preconceptions and prejudices.

The Grape American Roadtrip features a recurring Southwest Wines Flight at Green Pig Bistro in DC, several events with Brooklyn Enology winemaker Alie Shaper, a Texas BBQ dinner and several wine tastings and seminars at local stores. The calendar is still evolving, so check here for updates.

Posted in Eastern US, Local Wine, Texas, Uncategorized, Virginia, Washington Post, Washingtonian, Wine | Tagged | 2 Comments