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.