MBTB Tasting Room, The Sequel

I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life and I quite like it here. However, I don’t much like our flag. In the first place, it depicts two bipedal ruminants—an elk and a moose—neither of which are actually bipedal ruminants, but both of which are actually gigantic quadrupedal rodents with hooves. Such a symbol makes PETA-pumping animal activists go all warm and gushy until they notice that the smaller image between them is a dude with a rifle.

michiganCompounding this is the fact that, although flags should be made of bright colors and soul-stirring emblems like rising suns or a crosses cramponnée, they should never contain words, because who can read words on something that by its nature is meant to be waving in the wind fifty feet overhead? Yet the Michigan flag not only contains a bunch of words, they’re written a strange, alien tongue that looks like somebody inserted that awful ipsem lorum dummy text while trying to think up a genuine motto. Between squinting and hemming and hawing, by the time you give up on trying to read our flag, the Michigan National Anthem is over.

But I digress. This story begins with the reasons that I never display the Michigan flag  and ends with a couple of kids I know have been waving it vigorously since they launched their website in 2009.

Shannon and Cortney Casey

Shannon and Cortney Casey

I say ‘kids’, although Cortney Casey raises her eyes when I suggest that she’s prime ‘hipster’ age, assuring me that at 34, she’s too old to be one. Not that I thought she was a hipster in the first place; if I did, I wouldn’t be waving her flag, I’d be burning it on the steps of the Michigan Capitol building.

Along with her husband Shannon, Cortney first ran the notion of an all-Michigan wine tasting room up Shelby Township’s flagpole to see who’d salute—and the response was overwhelmingly patriotic.  So, this year, they’ve grown their retail family to two, opening a second tasting room on Woodward and Webster,at the cusp of Royal Oak and Birmingham.

The business model that has proven so successful for them involves partnering with various Michigan wineries and providing tasting flights of select, home-grown wines, accompanied—if it suits your druthers—with ‘small plates’ of Michigan-made cheeses and chocolates.

1The couple have proven themselves ample taste-smiths over the years with their popular Michigan By The Bottle podcasts, and have arranged the flight menu in easy-to-digest wine categories like ‘Oaked Dry Whites’ and ‘Fruit-Forward Reds’ along with brief notes so that neophytes can have a logical experience among the styles they prefer while geeks can have a discerning one, hopefully discovering gems among styles they don’t. My wish list might include a section reserved specifically for hybrids; a category of grape that has not only formed the backbone of a sustainable wine industry in Michigan, but which has arguably come as far in the past couple decades as has vinifera.

Cornel Olivier

Cornel Olivier

Among the outstanding selections to be found on the list are 2 Lads’ Cabernet Franc; a luscious, cassis-dribbling beauty with gentle tannins and genuine varietal character by winemaker Cornel Olivier. Chateau Aeronautique’s Pinot Gris is a heady, appley and pearish mouthful; a benchmark for what this cool variety can do with Michigan TLC.  I’m also a huge fan of Chateau de Leelanau’s Cherry Wine—a Balaton-based fruit wine that raises the bar on this oft-maligned bevvie.

An all-Michigan tasting room as conceived of by the Caseys is a concept with legs as remarkable as those in a glass of Sandhill Crane Sur Lie Chardonnay, and I anticipate the Royal Oak location will be as successful as the first.  And, will hopefully lead to a third outlet, which I am currently in negotiations with them to have opened up in my living room.

Run that one up the flagpole, Caseys, and I’ll guarantee a dawn-to-dusk salute.

Posted in Fruit Wines, Michigan, MIDWEST | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Merry Meursault And A Châteauneuf Christmas

Christmas is for the young; so it was with perfect propriety that I sat with eternally young wine merchant Elie Boudt over a couple of French classics as re-interpreted by a new generation of winemaker.

Elie Boudt

Elie Boudt

The techniques employed were not an overhaul of soul, but a redefined focus on the specifics that have affixed these names to the panoply of paradigms.

First, Meursault; the Henry VIII of Burgundy: White, fat, impassioned and acidic. Meursault is an old line Côte de Beaune aristocrat, nurtured by the hard Comblanchian limestone that resurfacing here after having burrowed beneath the red wines districts of Nuits-Saint-Georges. The monks of Cîteaux recognized these chalky soils as a white wine wonderland as early as 1098; a little red is produced in Meursault, but it is often used in adjacent Volnay under the climat Volnay Santenots.  No, Meursault is white power in a Burgundy bottle—although the appellation contains no Grand Cru vineyards, that’s mostly wine politics; some of the Premier Cru labels can rival the best of the hyphenated Montrachets.

Domaine Michel Caillot Meursault, 2010, around $50

Michel Caillot

Michel Caillot

Domaine Caillot is one such propriété. Founded in 1961 by Roger Caillot and covering approximately 32 acres, vine age averages around 40 years. Michel Caillot took over the reins from his father in the nineties and has nudged the estate into modern, eco-friendly practices. He considers himself of the non-interventionalist school of winemaking, relying on indigenous yeasts and minimalist—if any—sulphur introduction, but a trademark bâtonnage, through which the lees (deposits of dead yeast at the bottom of the aging vessel) are regularly stirred into the wine, give it its characteristic, Rubinesque heft.  Caillot consistently allows this lees-time for two full years, although he transfers the wine to stainless tanks at the midway point, thus preserving the fresh-fruit backbone.

label meursaultThe wine opens with an intense aroma of yeasty bread dough; the scent dissipates, replaced by whiffs of spice. I note ginger, but Elie—who grew up in a Moroccan spice-trading family—suggests jasmine, and that is spectacularly accurate. There’s an appealing fattiness in the mouth, punctuated by a shaft of acid and a base of minerality that fills sensory crevices; for lovers of thick, oak-dominated Napa Chardonnays, this wine is a reminder that the grape is capable of producing buttery-plump and forcefully explosive flavors on its own merits.

Domaine La Barouche Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Signature’, 2011, around $70

Julien Barrot

Julien Barrot

2002 was to Southern Rhône was 1929 was Wall Street—a Biblical-grade bust. Poor flowering was followed by savage hail, subsequent rot and decimated yields capped by torrential rains in September. That disastrous vintage was Julien Barrot’s first; that was the year he went to work at Domaine La Barroche. It was a family affair; his great-something grandfather bought the La Barocche acres in the village de Châteauneuf du Pape in 1703, but the property had been known primarily as a custom crush facilitator with a couple of presses that would move between estates. Julien’s father, Christian Barrot, cites the wine crisis of the 1970s, when the focus of the industry had switched to high yields and low prices to his decision to take the road less traveled: He began to nurture his plots, vineyard by vineyard, until he began to understand what a truly world class terroir he sat upon. He sold most of his wine to prestigious estates in the north, but bottled a small portion himself under the label Lou Destré D’Antan, which means ‘The Winepress of Days Gone By’ in Provençal in honor of the family tradition.

pae bottleHis children have taken these traditions and turned La Barocche into a consistently producer of estate-bottled Châteauneuf-du-Pape—at least, since 2002.  Julien represents the new generation of winemaker in this consecrated commune in southeast France, both open to experimentation and beholden to historical praxis.  It’s a narrow rope to walk, but Julien proves his agility unquestionably in ‘Signature’ 2011.

The wine shows a majestic nose of fresh blackberry jam with an appealing touch of menthol; deep, ample and warming with a jaunty, full-bore  cherry/berry palate underscored with botanicals like lavender and garrigue. Tannins are soft, but still a bit youthful; they coat the mouth and form a framework of wood that should meld seamlessly into the fruit in coming years.

Both wines are a nice nod to the special quality of season; somewhat pricey at a time when we’re known to splurge; ardent, alive, accessible, forward-thinking while remaining true to the spiritual roots of their lineage.

Posted in Burgundy, FRANCE, Rhône | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Christmas: The Alternate Endings

Although I wear the social face of an altruistic wine scholar while living a public existence of citizenship, leadership and responsibility (using life skills I learned at the 4-H Club—‘Heart, Hands, Health and Heroin’), the truth of the matter is that privately, I am quite misanthropic.

Especially around Christmastime.  At any season, of course, I find a ‘happy ending’ that does not involve a Thai masseuse to be a metastic melanoma  on the butt cheek of reality, but—much as the portly gentlemen with credentials assured Mr. Scrooge regarding the poor, ‘it is a time, of all others, when want is keenly felt’—so in the weeks leading up to the world’s perennial feel-good anticlimax, we are subjected to a plethora of smiley-face classics designed to mask the fact that the rest of the year is a steaming pile of cholera dookie.

Thus, as a public service intended to keep us all firmly grounded in real-time honesty, I will tackle and rewrite as many of these Yuletide abominations  as I can before the combined tug of delirium tremens, withdrawal symptoms and unmedicated catatonic schizophrenia forces me back into writing about wine.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas

grinch_santa[1]…All the Whos, still a-bed

All the Whos, still a-snooze when he packed up his sled,

Packed it up with their presents! The ribbons! The wrappings!

The tags! And the tinsel! The trimmings! The trappings!

Three thousand feet up! Up the side of Mount Crumpit,

He rode to the tiptop to dump it!

“Pooh-pooh to the Whos!” he was grinch-ish-ly humming.

“They’re finding out now that no Christmas is coming!

“They’re just waking up! I know just what they’ll do!

“Their mouths will hang open a minute or two

“The all the Whos down in Who-ville will all cry BOO-HOO!”

“That’s a noise,” grinned the Grinch, “That I simply must hear!”

So he paused. And the Grinch put a hand to his ear.

And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.

It started in low. Then it started to grow…

riotsAll the Whos had awoken, and finding their loss,

Declined their Who coffee, Who brushes, Who floss,

They took to the streets which were  normally quiet,

And like Ferguson’s outraged, they launched a Who riot.

They tore up the Who stores, trashed other Whos’ cars,

They robbed from Who strip malls, they burned down Who bars,

They beat up non-Who folks and mainlined Who-meth,

cindyPoor Cindy Lou Who was thus trampled to death.

Then they all lit Who torches and stormed up the hill,

They found the Grinch trembling;  frightened and still.

They lit him on fire and  salvaged their feast,

Finding Grinch meat quite scrumptious—as good as roast beast.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Band-Aid- KIDS[Bono:]
Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.

[Will Young & Jamelia:]
And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime.

[Rest of world:]
What about on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, you blithering douchenozzles?

[Ms Dynamite & Beverly Knight:]
Where nothing ever grows,
No rain nor rivers flow

[Rest of world:]
For Christ’s sake, people, get a map: The Nile is the longest river in the world.

[Group of ten and Joss Stone:]
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

[Rest of world:]
Considering that  47% of the African population is Muslim, accounting for 1/4 of the world’s Muslim population, even if they did know it was Christmas it wouldn’t have the slightest relevance in their daily lives, would it?

[Joss Stone & Justin Hawkins:]
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

[Rest of world:]
Shut up, now, ‘kay? Shut up, shut up, shut the fuck up… ♫

A Christmas Carol

Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!

“I don’t know what day of the month it is!” said Scrooge. “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!”

He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!

a-christmas-carol-1951-window-4Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his stirring, cold cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!

“What’s to-day?” cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

“Eh? ” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scrooge.

“To-day?” replied the boy. “Why, Easter Sunday.”

“Easter?!” said Scrooge to himself. “The Spirits have kept me insensate until…?”

Suddenly, the white-clothed attendant took hold of his arm in a tight, tight grasp and cried in his irritated bark, “Back to bed, you old cramp-bone.”

“Where… where am I?” cried Scrooge.

bedlam“Why, the  hospital for the insane—St. Mary of Bethlehem; Bedlam, you nutter.  You were committed in December when you woke up babbling like a loon about ghosts and fezziwigs.”

“Call my solicitors instantly,” Scrooge demanded, puffing  up his chest in a pique.

“Ain’t none left,” the attendant chuckled.  “Not since they repossessed your home for unpaid taxes and Cratchett bought your business for a penny on a pound.  You’re destitute, you foul-smelling  old batty fang.  Hurry up and die so Nurse and I can use the bed for our afternoon nanty narking ; ain’t she got the jammiest bits o’ jam, now?”

Scrooge died at once, dead as a door-nail, and it was always said of him, never a man alive so lived the Total Asshole Principal and thus deserved to die penniless and in mental turmoil!

And so, may it truly be said of all of us, as Tiny Tim observed…  But never mind; Tiny Tim died too.

“White Power Christmas”  (from the Broadway hit Rosewood: The Musical)

burning crossI’m dreaming of a white Christmas,

Just like the ones we used to know.

Where the schools refused ‘em, and stores abused ‘em,

And there were towns they couldn’t go.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,

With every wooden cross I light.

May your pale-skinned buddies unite,

And may all your Christmases be white.


A Charlie  Brown Christmas

Charlie returns to auditorium, places tree on piano.


Children gather around piano.

Violet: Boy, are you stupid Charlie Brown. You were supposed to

get a good tree. Can’t you even tell a good tree from a poor


Patti: (sighs) You’re hopeless Charlie Brown.

Lucy: You’ve been dumb before, but this time you bit it.

Children laugh, exit. Charlie is alone by piano.

Linus approaches.

Charlie: I guess you were right Linus; I shouldn’t have picked

this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess

I don’t really know what Christmas is about. Isn’t there anyone

who understands what Christmas is all about?

Linus: Sure, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.

linusLinus goes to center stage, spotlight.

Linus:  A couple of minutes before you came in, Pig Pen drew a semi-automatic pistol  and forced us into the auditorium to listen to a manifesto.  It went like this:

“Dear Peanuts Gang:  After a lifetime of being mocked for my poor hygiene and given a name by Charles Schultz as offensive as if he’d named  Franklin ‘Bicycle Tire Lips’, I have gathered you all here to let you know that I have been diagnosed with ebola and that the dust cloud that I emanate every couple steps is filled with the active virus.  Thus, you all have been infected.  Your body’s collagen will soon turn to mush as your skin layers liquefy while blood clots thicken your  bloodstreams, causing internal and external hemorrhaging and you all die in slow agony.  Merry Christmas.”

pig penThis is what Christmas is all about,  Charlie Brown:  Togetherness.  We have voluntarily quarantined ourselves within the auditorium and will die as we lived: As an irritating group of parentless larvae with a dog who talks in thought bubbles.  Fortunately, we have Lucy here to help us through the worst of it, although she has raised her psychiatric fee to $500 a second.

Lucy enters.

Lucy-van-pelt-1-Lucy:  Afraid of blood clots?  If so, you have coagulatophobia.  What about fear of tiny white blisters and red spots on the surface of the skin that can tear off with just a small amount of pressure?  You have Epidermatitiaherpetiformiphobia.  Scared of bleeding from the eyeballs?  That’s subconjunctival haemorrhagophobia…

Miracle on 34th Street (Original screen treatment)

cagneyKris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is indignant to find that the person (Mickey Rooney) assigned to play Santa in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is intoxicated. When he complains to event director Dortmund Walker (James Cagney), he learns that the drunk Santa is actually Walker’s favorite nephew, Slobbery Sluíreachadh. Fearing bad publicity if Kringle should go public, Walker (a member of the Irish syndicate), has Kris Kringle murdered and hung on the hundred-foot Norway Spruce in Rockefeller Center with a stake of holly through his heart.

'My Santa, what roving hands you have.'

‘My Santa, what big roving hands you have.’

Slobbery Sluíreachadh remains as Santa, but touches Walker’s second grade daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) inappropriately while she is sitting on his lap, and Walker has him publicly boiled in pudding.

Later, at a formal hearing before New York Supreme Court Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart), Walker confesses to both murders, but Harper’s political adviser, Charlie Halloran (William Frawley), warns him that convicting the well-connected gangster would be disastrous for his upcoming reelection bid. Harper buys time by deciding to hear evidence before ruling.  During that hearing, a mail sorter (Jack Albertson) delivers to the court 21 bags of letters from Leprechauns asking for clemency, and in the spirit of the season, Walker is acquitted.

Of course, since (unbeknownst to anyone) the real Santa Claus has already been murdered, Christmas never arrives that year, nor in any following year, and in a flash forward, the film ends with the holiday finally being declared officially extinct in 1984.

(A sequel involving the subsequent war between the Leprechauns and the orphaned Elves was filmed by David Lean in 1959, but never released.)


“The Little Drummer Boy”

Nativity-Scene1Baby Jésu, pah rum pah pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pah rum pah pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pah rum pah pum pum
That’s fit to give our King. pah rum pah pum
Pum pah pum pum, rum pah pum pum.
Shall I play for you, pah rum pah pum pum
On my drum?

Mary called security, pah rum pah pum pum…

The Bible (Matthew 2:1-12)

And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, Herod  demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

'Whaddya mean he told ME to bring the myrrh??  He told YOU to bring the myrrh, dickhead!'

‘Whaddya mean he told ME to bring the myrrh?? He told YOU to bring the myrrh, dickhead!’

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east went before them, till they halted to ready their treasures and Balthazar was seen to bear only the skins of animals.

 When the other Magi saw this, they were sore displeased, for Balthazar had misheard Herod, thinking he said fur instead of myrrh.

Yet however wise, not one of the Magi  knew the nature of this substance myrrh, nor was its availability known to them, and they were many weeks in search of it throughout the Judea, and when they found some at last, the Star in the East was long extinguished and  all the world perished unsaved.

Verily, Three Men of the Orient: Close, but no rubber cigar.  Amen  [The End]

Posted in GENERAL | Leave a comment

Lee Lutes: Putting the ‘Star’ in Black Star

You don’t need a degree in finance to know a gold mine when you see it, but Lee Lutes has one anyway. And by gold mine, I don’t mean cash flow that cascades at the expense of ideology, but a brass ring grab in the heart of wine country where a vintage can be as big a disaster as it can be a godsend—and coming up with the prize.

Lee Lutes

Lee Lutes

If there can be a ‘perfect storm’ in nature, perhaps there can be a ‘perfect convergence’ in human nature, which seems to be case when Lutes was approached by Don Coe and Kerm Campbell to become a managing partner in Black Star Farms.  Coe had the class, the pockets and sauce savvy—he was once the president of Hiram Walker—while Campbell’s rap sheet included being the CEO The Prince Group and the president of Herman Miller; but as a grape grower, he also had good old Michigan dirt beneath his fingernails. In 1997, they had purchased a sprawling, 120-acre horse farm on Leelanau’s east coast and laid the groundwork for a stellar winery in the center of an appellation that was just beginning to find its stride. Key to success was engaging the right winemaking partner, and in Lee Lutes, all the stars seemed to have aligned.

Lee was a local kid then at Peninsula Cellars; a winemaker who understood the value of hybrids as well as the nuances of blends, but—having lived in Australia and trained in Italy—he also had a deep and abiding love for vinifera, especially red wine grapes.

“My fondest earliest memories are filled with Australian Riesling,” he says; “sitting outside in a vineyard in Yalumba, my folks sipping wine with friends while I marveled at the beauty of the surroundings. That image has stayed with me throughout my life, and possibly, directed it.”

'When E.F. Hutton speaks, it's on the advice of their attorneys'

‘When E.F. Hutton speaks, it’s on the advice of their attorneys’

His folks had moved to Sydney, then Adelaide, to pursue teaching opportunities, ultimately moving back to the United States and settling in Traverse City for the same reason. By then, Lee was ten, and spent his teen years in Northern Michigan, waiting tables and banking proceeds to pursue that finance degree at MSU.  “I went to work for E.F. Hutton directly out of college, but I never forgot those beautiful Australian afternoons. By the time of 1987 crash, I’d learned enough about brokerage to realize that the guy I was working for was a crook, so, like my parents did, I hauled off and moved back to Australia. I spent the next few months doing a grand walkabout, meeting viticultural types and hanging out in vineyards.”

Larry Perrine

Larry Perrine

But love beckoned, and within a year he was back, following his girlfriend (now wife) Terry to New York where she was a student. After a brief stint with importer Neil Rosenthal—quickly concluding that peddling wine on the streets on Manhattan was not a career for a 23-year-old noob from the Midwest—he went to work at Union Square Café, then among the top wine restaurants in the world. Danny Meyer taught him retail lessons that he retains today; meanwhile he was able to pick up some cellar-rat hours at Long Island’s Gristina Vineyards. At the time, Gristina’s winemaker was Larry Perrine—now at Channing Daughters—and from his mentorship, Lee credits having helped train his wine palate.

Dolcetto di Ovada

Dolcetto di Ovada

After a tour of Europe, culminating in five days at VinItaly, he met winemaker Elisabetta Currado, whose father was a Piemontese pioneer, among the first bottle wines with a single vineyard designation.  She took on Lee as ‘her jolly’ (his term) which has no ‘pool boy’ connotations; (Terry was there) but what she called her assistant.

Like Australia’s, his memories of the Italian wine country are steeped in sunny nostalgia: “Nobody could replicate that kind experience,” he says.  “It was my stroke of luck to end up making wine in Northern Italy, with room and board supplied and a stipend to boot.  $300 a month wasn’t a lot, but nobody starves in Italy.  I learned about lesser know DOCs like Dolcetto di Ovada, and varietals like Arneis, at which the Currados excelled.”

Warren Raftshol

Warren Raftshol

In 1992, Northern Italy suffered one of the wettest vintages in viticultural history, with Biblical-quality rains at harvest. He and Terry returned to Traverse City, only to find one of the wettest vintages in history.  Fortunately, he was hired by Bill Skolnik at Leelanau Cellars and dove into the Michigan wine scene headfirst, blown away by the ability of local grower Warren Raftshol to succeed with European grapes in Leelanau:  “Raftshol Red [a field blend done at Leelanau Cellars] was the first wine I can recall that gave people a solid idea of what vinifera could do up here. I was as impressed as everybody else.”

Black Star Farms

Black Star Farms

Fast forward to 1998, when it was Don Coe and Kerm Campbell’s turn to be impressed: With Lee’s skill in the cellar—and the feeling was mutual. In them, he found partners with a wine vision directed by quality and stoked with a significant investment. An invaluable part of the Black Star business plan was adopting a co-op mentality, where a number of wine grape growers would have a financial interest in the company and—the theory went—have a bigger stake in growing quality fruit.  Says Lee, “The idea was unique for Leelanau, but it was a sound principal: If you can give me fruit good enough to make a twenty dollar bottle of wine instead of a fifteen dollar bottle of wine, everybody benefits. Don and Kerm own 63% of the business; the rest is divided up between growers and myself.  No decision is made without the core group’s approval.”

Don Coe

Don Coe

Success of the plan seems most obvious in the fact that although Black Star Farms is by no means the biggest wine producer in the appellation, it is arguably the most diverse and among the most talked about.  Here, there is a premium placed on innovation (the short-lived, on-site cheese-making operation, for one) and evolution is constant. It is rare to wander into one the three tasting rooms and not find something new, eclectic and frequently puzzling: Distilled mead is an example.

Coe’s Hiram Walker tenure made him the head cheerleader for an on-premise distillery, and—with Lutes as the distiller—has seen the release of a number of beautifully precise, award-devouring eaux de vie (fruit brandies) from nearly all from the locally-grown standards; cherries, apples, apricots. Distilled mead is a new one; part of the diversified face that Black Star Farms likes to put on its ‘argritainment’ variety show, making customers eager to find out what’s making a premier performance on any given visit.

As for the future, Lee Lutes—with a perfectly straight face—points  to a couple of grape cultivars that should have most wine people raising their eyebrows: Marquette and Gamay.



Gamay is the bellwether grape of Beaujolais, but it has struggled to make a statement in most other wine regions.  In the Loire Valley, it is often blended with Cabernet Franc, although in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, as a stand-alone, it has reached heights that some consider on par with Cru Beaujolais. In Northern Michigan, Chateau Grand Traverse’s Gamay Noir has been a light, tart, plum-flavored winner for decades, but few other local producers have relied on it.  Lee Lutes has five acres planted and plans for more: He loves it for its versatility as well as its fidelity.

“In warm vintages, I have no doubt that we can produce serious Gamay. It’s a prolific grape, tough through the winter, and even in years where it doesn’t entirely ripen it doesn’t produce green or vegetative flavors. And in wet years, its relatively thick skins can withstand a lot of abuse. With Pinot Noir, thin skin and cluster compactness turn it into a gerbils-on-the-vine; mushy and virtually impossible to work with.  Gamay is durable—the integrity of the fruit holds together beautifully after rain.”



And then there’s Marquette. Marquette is a fairly new hybrid, introduced by the University of Minnesota in 2006; it’s related to both Frontenac and Pinot Noir and is not only extremely cold hardy and disease resistent, but unlike most red wine hybrids, it has a strong vinifera profile, similar in flavor (blackberry, cherry, black pepper) to Malbec. And it ripens consistently in northern climates, with high sugar and moderate acidity.

“As a blending grape, Marquette will be viticultural gold. To produce reliable red wines every vintage in Northern Michigan it makes no sense to rely entirely on vinifera; the yield for the classic reds in 2014 is abysmal. And if my decades up here have shown me anything about weather patterns, winters like the last one come in cycles, sometimes four years in a row. We need we need to grow a backbone of red grapes that will ripen regardless of the season; Marquette is impervious to most temperatures we can throw at it; supposedly, to minus thirty.  Time will tell.

He concludes: “But that is the amazing part of being a winemaker on the frontier of the arctic—we adapt.  The negative side, of course, is that every vintage is a question mark.  The positive side, the one I love, is that the dynamics are always alive, always a new challenge to tackle.”



Posted in Michigan, Old Mission Peninsula | Leave a comment

Introducing The ‘Fcuk, Marry, Kill’ Wine Scale

Call it the ‘Great American Novel’ for wine writers who can scarcely manage to scratch out a legible blog. Or the Holy Grail for atheists; the better mouse trap for entrepreneurs; the honest man for Diogenesians; the solution to the Goldbach Conjecture for socially awkward guys with Buddy Holly glasses and palm hair.

It’s what we all dream about once the Emma-Watson-naked and sugar plum themes wear out:

Inventing a wine rating system to replace the 100-point Parker scale.

The problems with the Wine Enthusiast’s process are legion, but no one has stripped them to the buff better than Brit blogger Jamie Goode:

Jamie Goode

Jamie Goode

“The 85/100 of 20 years ago has become the 90/100 of today. You want to be the critic whose score is cited, so it’s very hard to resist the pressure to score highly. Australian critics have been the worst in this regard, where a solid commercial wine is frequently rewarded with a low-to-mid-90s score, leaving very little room for the decent stuff.”

In the past, lesser mortals than me have offered alternative scales, of course. Back in the day, when most English-language wine reviews came from Goode’s countrymen, critiquery was largely a pursuit of aristocratic braniacs who not only read books, but occasionally wrote them.  The scale they most often resorted to was 20 points, which is just a distilled version of Parker’s, with more per-point oomph, but equally silly, especially when you see a score like ’18.5’.

Old school wine critics

Old school wine critic

When you start using decimal tenths in a 20 point scale, you are admitting that mentally, you actually use a 200 point scale, right?

Likewise Parker scores like ‘95+’.  Or the fact that nothing under 50 points ever gets mentioned.  In the first case, why all the cryptic vaguery?  If you can’t make up your mind, go mow the lawn and try again later.  In the second case, why not simply use a 50 point scale to begin with?

Not only that, but ‘letter grades’ are as ludicrous now as they were in Sister Evangelista’s Social Studies class; nobody is content with simply doling out a ‘B’ or a ‘C’—there have to be all these douchey pluses and minuses, which, as we all know, can (and are) instantly translatable into a hundred point scale.

Thus, another return to the Mother Ship, and another fail.

Jameson Fink.  Nuff said.

Jameson Fink. Nuff said.

Jameson Fink (a goddamned well-nourished, blue-blooded name if ever there was one) of the Grape Collective recommends a simple four-point scale, which he explains like this: “One = Would serve this for a special occasion; Two = Would buy this again; Three = Would not buy again.”

He’s rambling on just fine until he gets to four:  “Four = Would tell friends not to buy this.”

Throkie Three

Throckie Tray

Somehow I didn’t end up in Jameson’s world, where one calls up friends with names like  Dickerson Throckmorton III and advises them, “Say, Throckie, old chap, don’t buy the Chave Hermitage ‘02; it’s beastly.”

No, my world was more ‘doing one too many lines at the strip club and calling up Throckmorton III at 4 AM to borrow money’.  Thus, Throckie old chap no longer accepts my calls.



I feel that I represent the ‘new age’ of wine critic; one who is unashamed of his alcoholic, drug-addled, semi-coherent Neanderthal lifestyle, where the collars are blue, but never the blood, where where people named Jameson are drowned during swirlies given them right after Social Studies. For us, I have invented a simple, inclusive, decisive, ingenuous wine scale which is, because there are three choices and that’s it—with no metrosexual pluses or minuses or wishy-washy deviations allowed—the ne plus ultra wine scale, and everybody else can just shut up now and start using it.

‘Fuck, Marry, Kill’

Friends---The-Girls-friends-66512_1024_768Let’s reference the game we played as kids.  One guy named three girls—the trio from Friends is a good example—and you had to rate them based on your willingness to 1) engage in a carnal, one-time act of physical union; 2) bond heart and soul in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony or 3) waste.  Actually, the trio from Friends is a lousy example because it’s too easy.

Phoebe.  Monica.  Rachel.  Duh.

* For straight humanoids of the feline persuasion, go the three Friends dudes, the Three Musketeers—or better yet, the Three Stooges.

Charlies_Angels_movie_stillTougher would be Charlie’s Angels. Carmen Diaz would seem to be a shoe-in for the first category, but that leaves you having to marry your intellectual superior, dooming you to a life of emasculated pouting and couch-sleeping, not to mention that your children would end up looking Chinese. And then you’d have to kill someone who would likely injure you in the process. So, what do you do? Kill the brainy one, marry the goofy blonde and bump nasties with the… But hang on; nothing about that doughy, pasty, annoying, man-jawed harpy who looks like she has a mild case of Down Syndrome says ‘schwing’.

In fact, there is an entire Facebook community called ‘Drew Barrymore Is Not Hot’. Look it up.

But, see; there’s the rub: That’s the game. It’s supposed to be tough.  And what’s more, you have to commit to one—and only one—grouping.  That’s the fun of it, in fact—it reveals more about you than it does about the product.

On To Wine…

As a template to see how effective this scale is in real-time bloggery and reviewageness, let’s pull three stray Syrahs from the Sargasso Sea of samples sitting in my cellar.  See if you can guess the rating…

Clipboard courtneyMannina Cellars Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, 2012, $32:  Gamey and ready to rumble; a voluptuous wine showing beautiful legs and a sensuous mouthfeel dripping with fleshy, forward fruit.  Hot and alcoholic, she displays supple, immediate energy and impressive length, but should be enjoyed now, as she may not have the structure to mature further after a year or two.

Clipboard graceDomaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage, 2002, around $200:  Screw Jameson, huh, Throckie?  She’s old money, from the northern branch of the Rhône family and may even boast some royal blood—her great-something grandmother was the mistress of King Louis XIV.  She’s rich and refined with dense, pure fruit and polished textures; she was born to show off in an elegant setting with her trousseau of blackberry cordial, peppery savor and multiple layers of tannin. She’s beautiful now and will continue to age with grace and reliability.

Clipboard killSmoking Loon Syrah, California, 2013, about $8: Aggressive notes of concrete floor and shipping container behind a  soupçon of sinus medication; she is moribund after the first hiccup of blackberry and oak juice, and pretty much just flops around in the glass waiting for the coup de grâce.

I am guessing that even the most depraved, deprived teetotaling Mormon among you got all three correct; correct?  Without breaking a sweat?  And that is not because you know anything about wine; it is because my scale rocks the Casbah.

Adopt it and forthwith, every wine you encounter can be instantly diddled, domesticated or dispatched without having to remember complicated mathematical formulas or the illogical order of the alphabet, which frankly, looks nothing like a keyboard like it should.

Making your life simpler?  That’s what I do, folks; that’s moi: More fun than a barrel of junkies.

Posted in GENERAL | 2 Comments

Carménère For The Holidays

The sum total of my social media prowess is writing something inflammatory and hitting ‘Tweet’. The convoluted netherworld of hashtags, mobile device aps and tweeps retweeting tweets I leave to my technological betters, meaning anyone who is still in high school.

twitterNonetheless, I was asked to join an online chat that required I put a pound sign before the words ‘CarmenereDay’, and by the time I figured out how to do that, the damn chat was over. Nevertheless, I ended up with a carton of Carménère in advance; a fine selection from Chile, where this many-faced grape has been raised in status to somewhere between icon and godhead. They ranged in price and character, but proved—at least in this group, which I tasted blind—a distinct correlation between sticker and stature.

Stuart Sutcliffe

Stuart Sutcliffe

Carménère, as you recall, is the Stuart Sutcliffe of Bordeaux—the Sixth Beatle. Not Pete Best, the Fifth Beatle, who was fired but still managed to make millions in residuals from a single album, but poor Stu, who died on the vine at the age of 21.

Petit Verdot

Petit Verdot

Petite Verdot—the most expensive grape now grown in California—may be the Pete Best of Bordeaux. Carménère plantings have all but died out in that part of France, and most people speak of the five—not six—classic grapes of the region.

In Chile, the transplanted variety has found an almost supernatural Happy Hunting Ground. To reach its true potential, Carménère requires a long, hot growing season with an overdose of sunshine; these are amenities that are often luxuries in Bordeaux, but come as standard issue in Chile. Unripe Carménère picks up a striking pepper vegetality in the glass and may be blisteringly acidic. With an extended hang time, the acid mellows and a rich parade of sweet dark fruit flavors emerge along with a distinct box of spices, notably cardamom and black pepper.

Casa LapostolleCarménère’s biggest Chilean irony is that, until the mid 1990’s, nobody was exactly sure what it was. It had been introduced to the South American coast as Merlot, and even when DNA analysis revealed the grape’s true identity, winemakers continued to release it under the name of the more popular and pronounceable variety. It was not until 2007, when French-owned Casa Lapostolle released a single-variety Carménère that blew the socks of critics that the Chilean wine industry realized what a marketing gem they had.  Since then, ripe, regal, rambunctious wines from the region have made remarkable ripples in the sea of trendy reds, and the ones I sampled for Carménère Day showed consistent quality and a certain thematic integrity. The wines on the lower end of the price spectrum, while not flawed, were far less interesting than the wines that were only a few dollars more. The conclusion I drew is that the sweet spot for price/value ratio appears to be around $20, where the fruit is lush and the tannins are tamed and the acidity held in check.

And yeah, feel free to Tweet that if you can figure out how.

Tasting Notes:

MontGras Carménère Reserva, 2012, about $12: Somewhat clumsy up front, with new oak cream and an odd nose of smoked meat; the wine is quick and rather pleasant with a candied fruit appeal, but it dissipates quickly with an instantaneous drop-off at the end.

Maquis Carménère, 2011, around $20: Needs a minute to open up, then the nose gradually fills with aromas of sweet rhubarb, camphor, blackberry; the palate is somewhat thin, but balances out with yet more time in the glass, offering black currant and wood smoke along with mouth-coating tannins.  If the fruit could survive it, the wine would benefit from another year in the cellar.

Los Vascos Carménère Gran Reserve, 2012, around $18: A screechingly good value; ink black in the glass and filled with chocolate-dipped cherry scents along with sharp, bright fruit. The palate shows tea leaves and cassis and a crushed-rock minerality that blends well with rich, integrated tannins.

Santa Rita Medalla Real Carménère, 2009, around $18:  And earthy, spicy nose above a whiff of barnyard and spark of ripe red fruit.  In the mouth, it shows a warmer undertow of cherry cobbler.

Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia Carménère, 2011, about $22: A lush and flamboyant wine filled with mocha, cedar and an appealing touch of bell pepper; the bouquet is echoed in the palate with sweet dark fruit and an interesting, chocolatey finish. (The Santa Carolina spec sheet refers to this wine as ‘nervous’; presuming something was lost in the translation.)

Montes Alpha Carménère 2011, about $24: Cocoa powder, blackberry jam, light toasted cinnamon in the bouquet; the midpalate is sharply acidic with some lingering fruit and a slight tannic bitterness, but well integrated into the body. 10% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Maquis Viola Carmenère, 2009, around $55: Nearly unplumbable depths of plum and crème de cassis; a rich, profoundly deep bouquet filled with intense fruit, focused blackberry and sweet spice. Silky but still aggressive in the mouth, it shows a wide and sophisticated range of tannins. This is a stunning wine that should benefit from 4-5 years of cellaring and keep easily for 20+ years. 15% Cabernet Franc.

Posted in CHILE | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Mike Beck: The Apple Of My High

‘If Eve sold her soul for an apple, it’s hard to imagine what the babe would have given up for a gallon of Uncle John’s ‘Melded’.’

Mike Beck

Mike Beck

Shake hands with Mike Beck and you wonder why he needs an apple press at all.  He’s not just big, he’s defensive tackle big—his hands are the size of RV hub caps and look as powerful as any Kreuzmayr fruit mill; given a pot of strong black coffee and a truckload of Ida Reds, and I have no doubt he’d do a John Henry on them before the noontime whistle blew.

With a sort of serene potency simmering beneath his titanic surface, Mike Beck has the whole gentle-giant Hoss Cartwright thing going on, but along with the brawn comes the brains, and it soon apparent that Beck—a fifth generation cider man—has thought about apple wine as much as apple wine can be thought about.  And the results may well redefine the way you think about apple wine too.  They did me.

To begin with, there is no enological difference between hard cider and apple wine—the two terms are simply colloquial or legal semantics—TTB regulations require cider to have an alcohol-by-volume of 7% or less, while to legally be considered wine, fermented apple juice must have more that 7% ABV (but less than 24%).  Since apples do not naturally reach anywhere near the sugar concentrations of grapes,  and since alcohol is a by-product of yeast after it eats sugar, (the more sugar it eats, the more alcohol it produces), most un-chaptalized or non-fortified ciders will ferment out in the 5% to 7% range; a punch that is closer to beer than wine.

meldedAnd that is fine by Mike Beck—his hard ciders hover beautifully around the legally prescribed ABV; they contain nothing artificial and show an array of characteristics unique to a stand-alone variety or as part of a the blend.  And when it comes to his only product that wears the word ‘wine’ on the label, his 14% ABV Apple Dessert Wine, it owes its extra oomph from apple brandy, distilled on premise by Mike.

That said, citing cider as a beer alternative makes Mike scoffs—in his world, that’s sacrilege.  As proof, he holds his massive palms in an upward cup, saying, “Imagine I am holding apples in one hand, a bunch of barley in the other.  Which juice would you rather drink?”

Hard to argue the answer even if you wanted to, which you don’t.

Going Beck in Time

The Beck Bunch

The Beck Bunch

The ‘Uncle John’ in Uncle John’s is Mike’s father; he bought the wholesale produce farm from his own parents in the early 1970s and first conceived the value in ‘agro-tainment’, combining produce with a fun day out for Mom, Dad, Buddy and Sis, when the market went a little south. John began by adding doughnut sales to the cider mill and evolved the idea into weekend entertainment acts, seasonal festivals with a whole lot of family-friendly events in between. So many of the original John’s nieces and nephews went to work at the farm that the nickname ‘Uncle John’ stuck.

Where does hard cider and apple brandy fit into that family formula?  In a whole different building, of course.

The farm currently sprawls across three hundred acres, of which about eighty are planted to apples, and it was in the tasting room at the Fruit House Cidery, overlooking those trees, that I first had my pint-sized hand shaken by Mike Beck’s prodigious palm.

Russet apples

Russet apples

I don’t know it he displays the same passion when talking about the asparagus he likewise grows, but when it comes to chatting cider, his eyes shine like the apple sitting on teacher’s desk in those iconic clip-art illustrations.  His pomaceous prowess is astonishing; he has experimented with nearly every sort of heirloom apple you can imagine, helped revive varieties like the Golden Russet—whose rough, potato-like skin makes it unpopular in US grocery stores—and developed cider blends that put him in the forefront of most discussions of the bevvie’s revival.

‘Revival’, of course, because cider was the most popular drink in pre-Revolutionary America, where water was unsafe and barley was difficult to grow and process.

“The importance of cider to our founding fathers is actually immeasurable,” Beck explains. “Entire political platforms were based on it.  It was the favorite drink of colonists because it could be made with little technology and with readily available fruit.  Beer and spirits required specialized equipment, heat energy and hard-to-source raw product.”

"Today, England, tomorrow... Is there such thing as Vietnam yet?"

“Today, England, tomorrow… Is there such thing as Vietnam yet?”

In fact, I nurture a fond little personal theory postulating that our very nation’s foundation owes itself to hard drink intake; In 1790, United States government figures showed that annual per-capita alcohol consumption for everybody over fifteen amounted to thirty-four gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits and one gallon of wine.  That pretty much means that all adults and most teenagers operated on a low-grade buzz from dawn to dusk.  Now, suppose you were sitting around with a bunch of friends and colleagues and up came the question, “Should we—a bunch of struggling colonies without a navy or organized military force—declare war on the most powerful army in the world?”

What single variable can you imagine adding to equation that would make the answer come up ‘Yes’?


Cider House Rules

Actually, to be won over to the glories of apple wine, there is one cardinal rule that you will need to understand: It isn’t grape wine.

By this I mean, it does not have the full-flavored concentration of many of the white wines you’re familiar with; ciders are graceful, insinuating and beguiling in their delicacy.  Tannins are softer.  Bouquets are seductive, subtle and tentative; mouthfeel is bright and refreshing—cider is often effervescent, with flavors are fresh and quick to dissipate.

Understand that, and you can approach a tasting with a fair overview of what to expect and not be disappointed by the transience—even brevity—of cider’s sensory experience.

canned ciderWe began with his line of cider-in-a-can, a year-round Uncle John’s offering concocted from apples like Northern Spy and Jonathan, which have a longer shelf life than the delicate seasonal apples he prefers for his higher-end ciders.  It’s a simple and refreshing thirst-quencher gone in search of an entry-level cider market.  Mike tells me that the entire operation to can 16 ounces of cider costs less than the label on one of his bottles.

These are his pot-boiler ciders; the bill payers.

Stuff starts getting sérieuse with Uncle John’s ‘Baldwin’—a crisp, mineral-laden cider made entirely with the eponymous fruit—once the leading dessert apple grown in the United States.  A severe freeze in the nineteenth century killed off a large portion of American Baldwin trees, allowing the emergence of cold-hardy Macintosh, but Mike believes that as a stand-alone, Baldwin is the superior variety, offering a striking, slate-like character to cider, emerging only when the apple is fermented completely dry.

‘Russet’, from the ugly apple that the fruit stand can’t sell, is a complex, honey-perfumed cider with a rich, earthy palate and a slightly smoky undertow.  Russets tend to be sweeter than other golden-skinned apples, and develop aromatics in cold storage, suggesting a water permeability to the russeted skin, leading to dehydration and a greater intensity of polyphenol molecules.



The most visually striking cider in the Uncle John lineup is the limited-edition ‘Rosé’, made from several rare, red-fleshed apples including Geneva, Redfield and the Asian jawbreaker Niedswetzkyana. It is a beautiful deep pink in the glass, touched with light floral scents and soft apple flavors behind a prickle of effervescence and acidity.

“But the best cider comes from blends,” Mike maintains.  “And some of the varieties we’re bringing back from the dead are indispensable components in our ciders.”

He’s gradually planting more European varieties—a difficult process as he experiments with American root stocks (Gala is a favorite) to suit the variety of soils on his acreage, ranging from beach sand to heavy clay. It’s always, he says, a crap shoot: Dabinett has adapted well to Michigan’s rising damp, he claims; Kingston Black—a variety he loves—has not.

Winter Banana

Winter Banana

Most of his unique apples (Winter Banana, for example, is a beautiful, golden-skinned apple that offers cider a unique aroma that Beck describes as ‘daisy’ and strikes other as ‘ripe banana’; hence, the name) along with standby You-Pick-It orchard varieties like Winesap, Golden Delicious, Jonathan and Cortland, find their way into Beck’s twin distilling projects.  First, apple vodka, distilled as a neutral spirit, is a cool, crystalline-clear sip, only slightly reminiscent of apples and only when you know in advance what it is made of—then, remarkably, it becomes a clear indication of the source.  Beck sells it as a satiny stand-alone, and also uses it to fortify his dessert wine—essentially, hard cider with the proof punched up.

His apple brandy requires a bit more time and finesse; it’s a well-crafted and rustic eau-de-vie, aged in French oak and one to give Calvados a reason to sit up and take note.  It’s fierce and floral and long on the palate with hazelnut, toffee, green apple and citrus sliding in tandem from the glass.

The Northern Connection

TandemCiders1Speaking of Tandem, although Uncle John’s Cidery is near Lansing, hundreds of miles from Traverse City, Mike Beck warrants this chapter based on his mentorship of Northern cider makers like Dan Young of Tandem Ciders.  In fact, in Leelanau and Old Mission, it is virtually impossible to find a cider maker up who didn’t learn their chops from Mike, including—or especially—the best.

That, by Mike Beck’s reckoning, is Dan Young’s ‘Pretty Penny’,  Jay Briggs’ (of 45 North) ‘Heirloom’ and Bryan Ulbrich’s ‘Relic’. These ciders all display the Beck signet: Bold dryness, charming effervescence and clarity of orchard flavors.

In fact, by a timely gift tossed me by the Cider Gods, when I contacted Ulbrich for a Mike Beck sound bite, the two were together, noodling over the Relic blend for 2014.

Ulbrich, maker of such iconic Traverse City wines as Missing Spire and Riesling ‘Prose’, caught the cider bug a few years ago when Beck came to town and infected everybody.

Bryan Ulbrich

Bryan Ulbrich

“It’s actually sort of amazing to be in the room with him, “ Bryan says. “His understanding of cider making is that intense, that encompassing.  I’d been making apple wine for years before I met him; the year did, I I made five gallons of cider based on his advice.  This year, I’ll make 18,000 gallons of cider, based on a lot of the same advice.”

I called Ulbrich the next day to learn the outcome of the brainstorming session, and for 2014’s Relic, he’ll use about 30% Winesap—an aromatic, acidic fruit with a good sugar content—20% Baldwin—his ‘backbone’ apple for structure and depth—and the rest divided between York, sweet Grime’s Golden and a favorite, rare apple among cider makers, who vie for the limited crop grown in Buchanan, Michigan, Arkansas Black.

“The right tannin level is always the Holy Grail of cider maker, and Arkansas Black seems to add this element to the blend better than most other varieties.  I’d use more if I could get them, but so would everybody else.”

Just as everybody would use more of Mike Beck’s malus aforethought if they could get it–he is, after all, Michigan’s Sultan of Cider, the Pope of Pomme.

But with his own mill running in overdrive, a quarter million guests passing through Uncle John’s each year, fifty thousand gallons of his own cider to make, his massive mitts are full.

Posted in Fruit Wines, Michigan, MIDWEST | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment