Charlie Edson Rings My Bel

charlie wineAmong Leelanau’s most unique boutiques, Bel Lago is positioned right out of the chute.  For one thing, it is not in the mainstream ‘loop’ of money-shot, photo-op, rich man’s wineries up and down the coast.  For another, it doesn’t even seem to be in wine country.  All the farms on the way in are planted to corn or hay—a few scraggly apple trees, many left to the wild, are the only fruit to be found; the buildings along Lake Shore between Schomberg and Kabot are not slick tasting rooms, but ramshackle, imploding barns with vintage Fords on cinder blocks out front.  Along the fifteen minute drive from Cedar you’ll find the kind of old school agricultural spreads that made Oliver Wendell Douglas cream his Ralph Lauren overalls, and by the time you see the first grape vine, you’re already in Bel Lago’s driveway.

Clipboard frisbeeThere, leaving your vehicle, you may be greeted by Moses, who is not on premise to part the red sea of pinot noir nor to fetch the Ten Commandments of Tasting Room Etiquette, but to play catch.  He’s Charlie Edson’s boxer and either has a Frisbee permanently between wedged his teeth or Charlie has fitted him with a Ubangi lip disc.  In any case, the dog will trail behind you and nudge you while John pours you a flight of Bel Lago’s finest; Moses doesn’t know from tasting wines, but fortunately, John Hall, manning the tasting room, does.  The Bel Lago line-up contains the familiar, the fantastic and the phantasmagorical, including clones and grape varieties that even wine pros have to rack their brains to recall and classify.

Auxerrois

Auxerrois

Among these, Charlie Edson’s most snazzy success is auxerrois, a grape which even in its native France is prone to certain colloquial confusion.  In Alsace, it is treated as a blending grape for Crémant and is so often a component of pinot blanc that the name ‘auxerrois’ may be used interchangeably in the vineyards.  Auxerrois is a cousin to chardonnay, part of the direct gouais blanc and pinot noir ancestry, but that doesn’t stop Cahors vignerons from referring to malbec as auxerrois, those in Languedoc-Roussillon for doing the same thing with valdiguié nor those in France’s Moselle (who themselves seem to have pilfered a patronym from Germany) from calling auxerrois ‘chardonnay’.

It’s almost like you need a Ph.D in Vinology to figure this grape out.

Enter Doc Aux: Edson is the Edison of Leelanau

Stan Howell

Stan Howell

It’s one thing to want to be a farmer—all that land spreadin’ out so far and wide, keep Manhattan just gimme that countryside jazz—it’s quite another to to pursue a doctorate in it. Farmer John, Ph.D has a peculiar ring, right?  Nonetheless, Charlie Edson, who grew up near Muskegon, (where an interest in agriculture is considered normal but an academic obsession with it less so) followed his heart to the soil via the lauded MSU program under the tutelage of Stanley Howell—the professor emeritus who has figured largely in the development of Northern Michigan viticulture.  From there, Edson signed on as a research tech with Missouri State’s viticultural program, spending the next four years at another MSU, but always with his eyes on the Leelanau skies.

“I determined by age eighteen that Leelanau was where I wanted to live, so in Missouri, I saved up vacation days and spent every harvest here.  I had a hobby acre planted with various experiments—including the first Dijon clones planted in Leelanau.”

In 1987, along with his wife Amy Iezzoni and Amy’s folks Domenic and Ruth, he established Bel Lago, the lago being Lake Leelanau and the bel being the view.  As a winemaker, Charlie’s view is equally bellish: Long hang-times, ripe flavors, deal with the potential downside.

“A lot of wine growers up here pick early to avoid rain, but I am willing to take that risk.  Pick early, you’ve capped the ripeness.  If I leave the clusters on the vine and it rains, it takes a few days for the plant to metabolize the water.  If the rain doesn’t stop, I lose, but I have to say, I have been rewarded more times than not.”

And the resulting wines display a broader range of flavors than might otherwise be expected, for reasons that don’t require you to have a doctorate to understand.  Extending grape ripeness is—no pun—a flavor of the month in viticulture across the globe, but in areas where the harvest season is generally hot and dry, excessive sugar accumulation (often at the expense of acidity) can produce wines with aggressive alcohol-by-volume, diluted acids and a somewhat jammy taste profile.  They also tend to be rewarded at competitions by judges who have embraced, and in certain cases created, the ‘hang-time wine’ phenomenon.

brixBut that does not necessarily hold true in Northern Michigan, where grapes often struggle to hit the minimum concentration of sugar needed to produce table wine; chaptalization—the addition of processed sugar to boost must sweetness and corollary alcohol levels—is not only allowed by Michigan regulation, but in dicey vintages it is often required.  The standardized Brix scale used to measure the sugar content in grapes before fermentation finds that most table wine is harvested between 19 and 25 °Bx, corresponding to ABVs between 10.8%  and 15.1%.  Much above 25 °Bx, without specially engineered yeast strains, the concentration of ethanol begins to kill off yeast cells before they have fermented the must to dryness.  Not only that, but grape mass is pretty much complete at that point, and afterward, measurable sugar accretion is said to be ‘virtual’—meaning that it is the result of dehydration, causing agita among contract growers who sell grapes by weight.

Bel Lago; rainbow

Bel Lago; rainbow

That said, in Michigan’s northernmost wine country overall, the decision to balance hang time with climate concerns is similar to a marathon runner who trains all summer and wants to get the race under her belt before flu season hits.  Achieving °Bx above 25 is a rare occurrence even in top vintages and the degradation of natural acids is as much a plus in Leelanau and Old Mission viticulture as it is a negative in hotter climates; high TA has been an albatross around the neck of vinifera growers virtually from the outset.

So, the balance that Edson seeks to strike is flavor-ripeness, often seen in the browning of grape seeds as well as tasted in volatile aromatic compounds that appear during the final stages of véraison.

When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Brut Rosé

According to Dr. Edson, vintage 2014 has struggled a bit with its chemistry final:  “It’s been a mixed-bag harvest, with the hybrids showing great flavors, but for the vinifera, we will have to make necessary adjustments. Chardonnay is low in sugar, high in acid; pinot noir will not be suitable for the ripe, rich style I prefer, so it will be used to make a Brut Rosé; sparkling wine can tolerate the lower pH.”

For the record, an ideal pH for wine is in the range of 3.5, which (on the logarithmic scale used to measure a solution’s ability to donate or accept hydrogen ions) is midway between battery acid and water.

So, for a tasting flight, it may be better to concentrate not on the here and now, and instead, on the there and then:

grigio labelStarting with a flight of pinot grigio—a name that Edson sticks with despite the wine’s stylistic resemblance to an Alsatian pinot gris more than the crisp, almost herbal wines of Northeast Italy.  It’s a marketing game that wine buyers might play, but wine folks won’t fall for: Bel Lago Pinot Grigio 2012 is gris all the way, creamily luscious and soft in the mouth with aromas of peach and yellow plum leading to an earthy minerality.  The Reserve from the same vintage mingles honey and spice with the ripe stone fruit; a year in neutral oak barrels adds a touch of smoke and enhances an attractive viscosity of the texture.  2013 is a leaner wine, with a floral and citrus bouquet and light flavors of white Bellini peaches and crushed almonds.

I believe that 2012 was the watershed year for gewürztraminer in Leelanau; it was the first harvest in which a handful of wine growers up here were able to harmonize its contrarian faces.  Based on a number of factors, a gewürz may lean toward the flagrantly floral or the markedly musky, and it takes a studied and patient winemaker to help the stars align—one who understands the grape, knows the vineyard’s microclimate and soil composition, is willing to allow the hang time required to develop distinctive varietal character and perhaps most importantly, plants the correct clone for the site.  Edson’s 2012 gewürz shows all the above; it is a heady nectar resplendent with tropical flavors of mango, grapefruit and a bit of lychee with gardenia and honeysuckle on the nose.  But above all, retains an alacrity and elegance that is nearly impossible to achieve when this grape is grown in warmer climates.

pinot noirPinot noir suffers the same fickle finger of fate, and for the same reasons, which is why California produces very few world-class pinots and Louisiana, none.  Northern Michigan, at the far end of the climate spectrum, requires a conspicuously cooperative year to end up anywhere near a fleshy pinot with bragging rights.  2014 may not have been the game-winner, but 2010 sure was.  Doctor Charlie has 32 unique pinot clones under tillage, and I’m not sure what went into Bel Lago Pinot Noir Reserve 2010, but it worked, resulting in one of the finest Michigan incarnations of this notoriously high-maintenance, prima donna grape—the Maria Callas of viticulture—I’ve tried.  Tightly woven at first whiff, the wine opens within a few minutes of air time, displaying soft, smoky black cherry notes, racy cinnamon and a solid core of classic Burgundian forest-floor.

And then there’s auxerrois, a varietal favored by Charlie’s wine-team member Cristin Hosmer and one that has helped to put the grape on America’s homegrown wine map.  He planted it in 1987 and secured a TTB approval in 1998, six years before Adelsheim—Oregon’s auxerrois ambassador and the only other US winery (that I’m aware of) to produce a 100%, stand-alone varietal.

“My original plan was to use it to shore up chardonnay in years when I could get the maturity out of those grapes, but I’ve never had to do that,” Edson maintains. “At three-and-a-half tons per acre, it makes a lovely wine on its own.”

Team Lago: (L - R) Blake Lougheed, Cristin Hosmer, Charlie Edson

Team Lago: (L – R) Blake Lougheed, Cristin Hosmer, Charlie Edson

No argument here: Bel Lago Auxerrois 2012 is endowed with energy, showing ripe pineapple and jasmine on the nose and a richly-ingrained creaminess across the palate, due in part to the year it spent sur lie and the neutral oak in which it was aged. Threads of vanilla and fresh fennel run through the body and linger on the finish, the sort of syncopated structure that vaults this wine into the ranks of can’t-miss Leelanau whites.

In fact, tasting through the Bel Lago catalogue, there is a persistent theme running through Doc Aux’s wines: Texture. Even those from lesser vintages, which necessarily run thin and sharp, have an underlying framework; an essential and signature fabric.  He’ll credit hang time; I’ll credit a wine scholar who thinks about a glass of wine wearing a horticulturist’s trifocals, seeing all aspects of its history, from seed to stemware.

In all, for a wine country which seems often attracted to a homogeneous winemaking style, these selections are exactly what the doctor ordered.

Posted in Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Bernie Rink: The Laird of Leelanau

soup naziIn the beginning, God created Leelanau Peninsula, and very shortly after that, Bernie Rink was born.  Today, at 88, you can find him sitting in the half-light at the entrance of Boskydel’s tasting room, exactly where a bouncer would sit if Boskydel needed a bouncer.  But, with an ‘Open’ sign that easily flips over to ‘Go Away’ and Bernie owning the reputation as someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, no outside muscle required.  Known locally as ‘The Wine Nazi’ after Seinfeld’s soup-strict character, the tasting room remains a place where only non-fools dare to tread.

Bernie Rink

Bernie Rink

Lest Bernie consider me a fool, I thought better of naming this piece ‘The Little Librarian Who Could… And Did,’ even though it would have been perfectly accurate.  But it is not sufficiently deferential, and although Bernie Rink is somewhat self-effacing in a ferocious, confident sort of way, and even though he is, in fact, a little (ex) librarian, the truth of the matter is that in the intervening Biblical years between Leelanau’s formation and Bernie’s eureka moment in the early 1960s, nobody up here had thought to put a wine grape vine in the ground.  Now, it’s about all anybody thinks about, and so, credit where it’s due: Humble schmumble—leave that for the pie. When Mr. Rink sits at his doorway and looks across the expanse of vineyards that festoon this fair finger of frontier farmland, he is truly the monarch of all he surveys.

And in my book, that is worth a boatload of deference, with a little reverence thrown in for good measure.

Jim Rink reacts to my interviewing prowess

Jim Rink reacts to my interviewing prowess

Bernie Rink came from an Avon, Ohio subsistence farm, where his father grew truck (his word) and surfaced from the Depression by selling bootleg wine for three dollars a gallon.  Ohio was—and is—an often overlooked wine producing region, and in the years after the Civil War, made more wine than any other state in the country.  It was forgettable stuff, no question; Bernie uses the pejorative ‘foxy’ to describe wines made from the widely-grown Ohioan wine grapes catawba, niagara and delaware, and he admits that his father’s bootleg barrels were likely at the lower end of that spectrum.  But the whole process fascinated him, and with ethanol in his bloodstream—figuratively more than literally—he went off to his first post-college job as a librarian at Northwestern Michigan College.  There, according to his son Jim—an excellent writer who has chronicled much of the human history of Leelanau with wit and detail—Bernie came upon a book on winemaking by Phil Wagner and decided to revive his latent—and now legal—winemaking skills by planting a number of grape cuttings purchased from Wagner’s Maryland nursery.

Phil Wagner

Phil Wagner

“The first plot was a single test acre; by then I owned sixteen acres in the center of the Peninsula.  It was all a wild experiment—no one had ever grown wine grapes up here.  I worked with Stanley Howell of Michigan State University—he brought students up here as a field research opportunity.”

Those students may have counted themselves among the lucky ones; Rink’s five sons, not so much. Taking the whole enterprise very personally, Jim writes in his essay, ‘Field Of Dreams in Leelanau County’:

“I first realized that my father was serious about growing grapes when he announced his intention to raze our modest, but popular baseball diamond in favor of a nursery. My brothers and I created that ball park, hacking it out from a fallow field with a regular push-type lawnmower. We even built a substantial chicken-wire backstop to halt the progress of an errant pitch.

“In a rude reversal of the magical ‘Field of Dreams’ scenario, Bernie Rink told us the diamond would have to go, replaced by a crop that no one in those parts had ever heard of: Wine grapes.”

To add insult to injury, Jim suspects that Bernie saw the vineyard as an ideal way to keep the boys occupied.  He goes on to lament:

“As economic assets, we were expected to chop weeds in the sweltering heat of mid-summer and pick grapes in the stinging sleet of late fall. Not to mention pruning in knee-deep snow in the winter and sorting out the good wood, which would be plunged into our new-found nursery in the spring to repeat the endless, monotonous cycle.

But it was fun. We used to make up lively little songs about the vineyard to the tune of ‘Tah, Rah, Rah, Boom-de-ay’:

“We work at Boskydel,

the closest thing to hell.

We’re never treated well,

at Slave Camp Boskydel.”

The House That Rink Built

As it happens, Jim and his brother Andy Rink are still at work at Slave Camp Boskydel.  While Bernie holds court in his seat by the doorway, they’re the ones behind the tasting-room counter, quality control and the day-to-day winemaking grind; it’s a regular three Rink circus.

Bernie Rink, Leon Adams and Bob Herbst.

Bernie Rink, Leon Adams and Bob Herbst.

According to Jim, the vineyard test lasted seven years, and during that time, score was kept, with points going to the varieties that survived the frosty finger relatively unscathed, meaning, were resistance to disease and winter-kill while still producing commercial quantities of grapes that could make commercially sellable wine.  Meanwhile, Bernie’s buddy Bob Herbst, a retired chemistry professor, had a similar experiment going on the eastern shore of the peninsula and over the years, they compared notes.  In the end, Rink settled on soleil blanc, vignoles, seyval blanc, aurore, cascade noir and de chaunac—varietals that produced the dry, French-style wines that he was after without actually being French grapes.  Chardonnay and pinot noir gave it their best shot, but didn’t make the final cut.

As for riesling, the vinifera that most experts believed showed the best promise in Leelanau, Bernie says, “I planted it in what turned out to be a natural wildlife corridor between a couple of swamps.  In short, the deer ate all my riesling.  That took care of that.”

The Baxevanis American Wine Review in all its glory

The Baxevanis American Wine Review in all its glory

That was the early Seventies; now, in the middle Teens, Rink remains reliant on hybrid grapes, especially, de chaunac.  Among his current labels, there’s nary a vinifera to be found and none needed. As the liner notes note, some obscurely-named publication called the Baxevanis American Wine Review considers Boskydel De Chaunac the best wine of its kind in the United States.

Speaking of obscure names, Bernie Rink speaks with fond nostalgia about the late Professor Al Bungart, to whom he refers as ‘a one-suspender farmer and professor; both my mentor and my friend.’  Al wrote a Tolkien-esque poem called ‘The Elves of Bosky Dingle’, which was never officially published but reaches the hoi polloi via the Boskydel (edited into a bite-sized word by bookworm Bernie) label, depicting a couple of elves—not monks as has been suggested—filching wine from a vat.  Although to Bernie’s amusement someone suggested that ‘bosky’ is a synonym for ‘drunk’, it’s more likely a derivation of the Middle English bosk, from Anglo-Latin bosca for ‘firewood’. Without debate, however, the dingle in the jingle is a dell.

A Rinky-Dink Operation

Boskydel-stoveOutside the battered barn that serves as the wine-talk locus at Boskydel sits a tractor, a trashcan and either a snow shovel or a chair for Bernie, depending on the season.  Inside is a rustic, lived-in tasting room heated with a wood stove and hung with mostly obscure and often private-joke photographs.  It’s been described as ‘primitive’ and ‘off-putting’, but since it only has a capacity of eight, neither descriptor matters to those wine people in search of local lore and all-go, no-show legend and not just another tour bus whistle stop.

Jim and Andy, who have not yet achieved curmudgeon status, seem more eager to chat and swap tales than oversell the wine.  And gratefully so: At under twelve dollars a bottle, the used-car sales approach is neither appropriate nor necessary.

In short, this is the sort of rinky-dink roadside attraction that gives the multi-million dollar-hoopla hoop vineyard being erected on Old Mission Peninsula a run for my money.

“ We’ve had customers loyal for thirty-eight years,” says Jim.  “We sell everything we make, so we don’t worry much about judges or competitions.  We love our repeat customers, but one newer groups with which we’ve had a lot of success are Millennials; they don’t seem to have as many preconceptions about wine; they don’t have the brand loyalty of their parents, but they also don’t come in demanding pinot or riesling…”

bottlesWhat most of them come in to find is a set of varietals they’ve never even heard of let alone tried—a introductory course to the unique Land of Hybridia; wines with an individual backstory.

You either like this kind of experience or you don’t.  I’m a ‘do’.

Soleil blanc means ‘white sun’; a bit more poetic than its former name, Seibel 10.868, but that hasn’t made the grape more vineyard-popular. In fact, I can’t find another winery that produces it.  Rink’s soleil statement is bright and brisk with a pineapple-scented bouquet, a tropical palate and a sharp, acidic conclusion.

vignolesVignoles is among the most successful hybrid in Michigan; vinified dry, like Boskydel’s, it produces a soft, supple wine resplendent with notes of green apple and undertones of peach.  Rink’s 2012 Vignoles is tinged with an unexpected touch of clove and a stylish citrus finish.

Seyval blanc is a viticulture balancing act; it ripens early and can fight off the most inclement winter weather, but is susceptible to the twin mildews, powdery and down, while producing large clusters that can rot (nobly or otherwise) if not picked at peak ripeness.  When it is, the result is as demonstrated with Boskydel’s 2013—a round, chenin-like wine with melon and grapefruit on the nose, and a creamy apple mid-palate.  As with all of Bernie’s wines, there is a finish that’s shivery-crisp with acid.

Boskydel’s go-to red wine grape is de chaunac; the winery produces a full-bore chocolate-cherry wine that is firm on the palate and filled with tart boysenberry flavors and very light oak notes.  The rosé is an equal palate pleaser, with bright raspberry and watermelon in the nose and a sweetness that the Rinks emphasize comes only from Michigan-grown beet sugar.  Talk about locavoracity.

In fact, so insular is Bernie Rink that when I asked him about the above-mentioned hoop vineyard being erected a few miles away on Old Mission, (which hadn’t opened yet but whose wines have been available for a year or more—make of that what you will—) he shook his head; he hadn’t heard of it.

Bernie by the door; an icon.

Bernie by the door; an icon.

“I never leave the county,” he maintains with a shrug.  “Every since they put up the third traffic light on Division, even Traverse City is too damn much for me.”

Which works out fine for the rest of us.  Primogeniture being what it is and two Rink brothers manning the bottle stations, there is no doubt that Bernie Rink’s scepter will pass into worthy and deserving hands—hands that rose from the Rink ranks of indentured servants at Slave Camp Boskydel and now run the plantation.  Until the final curtain, the sight of Bernie in his chair by the door, autumn light filtering in from the doorway, rows of vines tumbling down toward the bay, remains one of the transient glories of Leelanau Peninsula.

Posted in Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Barefoot: Fizzy Wine For Toe-Jam Barbie

'That ain't workin'

‘This ain’t workin’

There’s a common misconception among you readers that being a wine writer is nothing but free chicks and playing the guitar on the MTV, but I challenge the most cynical of you to explain to me exactly how hauling a heavy case of wine from the hands of the UPS man to the kitchen table is any less ‘blue collar’ than moving microwave ovens and color TVs.

Got you there, huh?

And what’s worse, suppose I unpack my new custom kitchen delivery and discover that it is, in fact, a cheap, pint-sized polystyrene diorama from a 1970s Barbie Dreamhouse set?  Would you laugh at my earring and makeup and call me a faggot?

barbieI certainly hope not.  So, you will presumably empathize with (and not mock) my dilemma, having eagerly torn open the carton in the hope-against-hope that it would contain something wild and wonderful from, say, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti—getting a blister on both thumb and finger if you must know—and discovered instead that it contained a quartet of bottles best described as something Barbie would use to stock her miniature polystyrene wine cellar.

Barefoot Wine’s New ‘Fusion’—All Con, No Pro

I am under the impression that Barefoot Wine subscribes to some really cheap social media monitor like Hootsuite that alerts them every time they get mentioned in a wine column, and that their shipping department is populated by minimum-wage automatons programmed to send wine samples to any critic that utters their name, regardless of whether or not it’s uttered in vain.  I am led to this conclusion by the fact that I regularly mention Barefoot in the context of everything that sucks about modern, mass-produced, Big Box wine, likening their Modesto production facility to Mordor, comparing their founders Michael Houlihan & Bonnie Harvey to Augusto Pinochet and Pol Pot, their winemaker Jennifer Wall to Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, referring to Barefoot fans as dysfunctional subhuman vermin who drink like alcoholic eight-year-olds and who are, consequentially, to wine appreciation what an abscessed lateral incisor is to a Hollywood grin. And that’s right before I start relying on hyperbole to make my point.

Clipboard grin

And still, like clockwork, a week or so after thus calumniating the crapola corporation, I receive via a case of whatever is on latest release.  If you have a better explanation for this anomaly than the one I just offered, I’m all ears—from head down to bare feet.

My crackshot, crackpot, crackhead tasting crew.

My crackshot, crackpot, crackhead crew.

In any case, the carton I just blisterized my bongo hand tearing open in the hope of finding Burgundy, contained an au contraire: Four bottles of bubbly from the new Barefoot ‘Fusion’ oeuvre:  Berry Fusion, Peach Fusion, Citrus Fusion and Tropical fusion, leaving me in a state of pro-found con-fusion.

Still, being as conscientious as I am contrary, I would feel guilty accepting free wine, even free wine I intend to use to kill the black mold in the shower stall, and not write about it.  So I invited over a trio of folks who I know will drink anything I put in front of them, and we did an honest analysis of Jennifer Wall’s latest foray into Teen Spirit Deodorant wine flavors.

The headwaters of Lake Barefoot Berry Fusion

The headwaters of Lake Barefoot Berry Fusion

Barefoot Bubbly Berry Fusion:  Before beginning, I searched the weasel words at the bottom of the press release to see if this product was originally called ‘Dingleberry Fusion’ but found instead this descriptor: ‘Sweet and vibrant with flavors of pomagranate [sic], cranberry and juicy plum’.  My tasters agreed with every word except ‘pomegranate’, ‘cranberry’ and ‘juicy plum’, substituting ‘skin infection’, ‘Gowanus Canal water’ and ‘prune that fell down a radiator grate and wasn’t retrieved until after Easter’.  Otherwise, letter perfect.  You go, Jenny! And by go, of course I mean ‘go away’.

'Hello, kids! I'm Footsie the Arch!  Let's get plastered!'

‘Hello, kids! I’m Footsie the Arch! Let’s get drunk!’

Barefoot Bubbly Peach Fusion: ‘Sweet and juicy with flavors of ripe peach and bright honeysuckle with subtle citrus notes’ say the marketing crackerjacks, but the only thing subtle we could find in this exaggerated, overly-carbonated left-hook-to-the-jaw was the creeper nausea that followed it.  This wine screams for a cartoon mascot, because the only demographic that could possibly appreciate it is the juice-box crowd.

Barefoot Bubbly Citrus Fusion: This one, evidently, is ‘Sweet and vibrant with flavors of blood orange, passion fruit and sweet peach,’ which explains in part why it was difficult to nail down the citrus profile they were after—two of their own three descriptors are not members of the citrus family.  Actually, we noted less passion fruit and more motel mattress, less peach than Screech and the blood in the orange tasted like it had clotted and spoiled some time after the police tape went up.

Barefoot Bubbly Tropical Fusion:  The sensory blitzkrieg, the full court press, the part of the battle where you bring in the cavalry and hope for the best.  Alas, it is Little Big Horn in a bottle.  ‘Sweet and vibrant with fresh pineapple, island mango and papaya’ says the PR juggernaut, for some reason making a distinction between a mango grown on an island and a mango grown in a Fresno hot-house, even though the wine contains neither.  In fact, it tastes so aggressively artificial that you presume if the FDA made them list ingredients on the label, they’d need a bigger label.

Closing Notes:

Golden_Raspberry_AwardThis quartet is indeed plastic wine for a plastic age; the sort of stuff you suppose pairs well with a McDonald’s Happy Meal and reduces wine to an episode topic on Barney & Friends—‘I love wine, wine loves me, we’re all shaking with DT’. Soap boxing this liquid diabetes involves bragging that Barefoot Wine is the ‘Most Awarded’ sparkling wine in California, but you cannot imagine that these awards come from responsible wine judges, unless they were given out in jest, like the Court of Master Sommeliers’ version of the Razzies.

Speaking of which, what an ideal idea for another label!  Three words for you, Jenny Wall:  Golden Raspberry Fusion:  ‘Sweet and juicy with kitschy, low-end  flavors of ripe pabulum, processed regurgitant and Teletubby drool with subtle notes of tacky logo and the sort of body-lotion fragrances Olay used to market to tweens in the ‘90s. ’

romaneeThat should do it, right?  After that release of radioactive review isotopes, even the most befuddled Public Relations android should realize that I am no longer a good candidate for samples.  No more bubbles for nothin’ and my brix for free.

And the next time the UPS man comes bangin’ on the knocker like a chimpanzee, you can be damn sure what I’ll be singing:

♫  “I want my, I want my, I want my DRC…”

Posted in CALIFORNIA | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Tony Ciccone: Papa Can Too Preach

I wonder if when Tony’s kids were small, they used to say, “Papa, tell us the dead cat story again!!”

Actually, you probably know at least one of Tony’s kids—pretty well, too—but  enough about that for now.  I’m of an age to be one of Tony’s kids, and every time I interview him, like a tot on his old man’s knee, I pester him to tell me the dead cat story again.

And every time he tells it, I laugh my culo off.

Tony C.

Tony C.

See, when Tony growing up in an Italian enclave in Aliquippa in western Pennsylvania, the six Ciccone boys (known locally as ‘The Zero Brothers’ because their names all ended in an ‘o’) had no sisters and as a result, had to learn all the household chores—ironing, bread making, sewing and so on.  One of young Tony’s jobs was to monitor the wine barrels bubbling away in the cellar, which was a vital gig in any self-respecting do-it-yourself Italian household.  One day, he’s checking the wine and he finds that a neighborhood cat has fallen into a barrel and drowned and he immediately runs to tell his father.  “So take it out,” Silvio—fifty years a mill worker at Jones & Laughlan Steel—insisted.

And Tony claims that they drank it anyway, with no one the wiser.

cicconeAt 84, Tony (Silvio Jr.) Ciccone has strained and drained many a wine barrel since, and it is fair to say that in the intervening years, his quality restrictions have grown while his pet allowance has shrunk.  He’s now the helmsman of Ciccone Vineyard, an estate-focused winery overlooking West Grand Traverse Bay in the Leelanau Peninsula, producer of (among a host of vinifera and hybrids) Michigan’s only dolcetto. Like the cat from the vat, you can take the Italian out of the enclave, but you can’t…

The Ciccone kids

The Ciccone kids

The path that took Tony from his tight knit PA hood to the wilds of Leelanau, felines to grapevines, was a convoluted one.  After high school he joined the Air Force and was stationed in the Aleutian islands—about as far away from the grit and grime and bowling alleys of Western Pennsylvania steel country as could be managed.  In fact, in outlook more than distance, so was Geneva College, rated among the top ten regional colleges in the country by US News & World Report: His degree in physics—for which he is still called ‘The Professor’—was a direction not many sons of mill workers took.  After that, however, Tony went the way of any good Italian kid in the Fifties: He married a Catholic girl named Madonna Louise and began making babies.  Eight in total, of which two—Paula and Mario—are now employed at the vineyard; Paula learning the winemaking ropes and Mario managing the vineyards.  These two, though ever-present and starring in Ciccone Winery: The Next Generation, may not be the Ciccone you know.

Another one of Tony's babies; the Abrams.

Another one of Tony’s babies; the Abrams.

Tony put in his braniac years developing tanks for Chrysler’s defense division, indispensable for the high-priority M1 Abrams tank which remains, to this day, the principal battle tank of the United States Army.  When Iacocca sold the division, Tony transferred to General Dynamics as an electro-optical engineer and began working on guided missiles and other rocket-sciencey projects. Tragically, in the interim, his wife died and left him with a handful of—well, handfuls; a bevy of bambinos with wills as strong as his own.  Ultimately, he married Joan, who remains by his side to this day, forty-eight years later; a foundational figure in the winery.

Joan has been an anchor of whom he cannot speak highly enough.  The going, at times, has been rough.  “This is a passion that requires a well-rounded sort of dedication,” he points out, “because the business parameters of winemaking are quite different than the vineyard parameters. That means competing with the world while maintaining a focus on Michigan wine, and that includes dealing with seasonal disasters like last winter; unfortunately, the bills don’t stop coming in just because the grapes don’t grow.”

The example he gives is as irrefutable as a physics equation: Powdery mildew, a yearly scourge to these valiant vintners on the 45th parallel, needs yearly treatment whether the vine’s fruit sets or not; the same labor and materials are required if it’s boom or bust.

“And 2014 is pretty much a bust,” Tony admits.  “We still have to spend the thousands of dollars to spray, and without fruit, you might as well be spraying the shoulder of the road. But it has to be done. I think you’ll see a lot more wineries for sale up here after the stock from ‘12/’13 is gone; there are just so many slices of the pie the region can handle, and in poor vintages, everybody scrambles for juice, driving prices up.  Not everyone can—or cares to—swing it.”

Joan and Tony

Joan and Tony

One constant I have noticed about Ciccone wines each time I visit is that, with allowances for vintage variation, they keep getting better and better.  When I first tried Tony’s dolcetto, the vines were infants and the wine showed as simple and acidic; now, it is sleek and refined with a sensational bouquet of cherries and lightly toasted almonds.  Some of this is vine age, of course—older plants with deeper roots tend to make wines that are more complex—but the rest of it is Tony’s earning his physicist’s degree over and over again.  He is a compulsive tinkerer and is never entirely satisfied.  Now, every winemaker makes the same claim, I know, but I have watched the trajectory of this winery’s wares and it has been rationally consistent—not unlike the M1 tank, as it happens, which began development in the mid-Sixties and did not enter U.S. service until 1980.  Slow and steady wins the race, whether its warfare or winefare.

Not that there is any flash or exuberance missing; these wines are easy to enjoy, bright with pure fruit and multi-layered with Michigan terroir.  But, with Tony, there is also growing sense of nostalgia in these wines; his labels and wine names often pay homage to loved ones, living and dead—his mother, his wife, his daughters.

Guido, Rocco, Niello, Guitano and Pietro have gone before and he is the last remaining Zero Brother, but he speaks with obvious pride about his grandson, another Silvio.  Of Paula’s winemaking, he says: “When you get to arguing about process, you know you’ve taught her it right.”

And incidentally, unless you have recently returned from an interstellar vacation, Tony’s eldest daughter (named after her mother Madonna) is probably the kid you know.

BARNAs for Tony, the papa who wasn’t supposed to preach, if he’s getting tired of telling The Cat In The Vat, he doesn’t let that particular cat out of the bag.  He looks fondly out of his window, surveying his fourteen acres, and when I ask him if he still makes wine in the cellar he spreads his arms at the the sprawling vineyards and the big red barn beyond and answers, “Sure.  Only now, that’s my cellar.”

Preach it, Papa.

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Getting Your Goat At Traverse City’s Baddest Bodega

Long ago and far away, no circumambulation of Northern Michigan wine country was complete without a didactic pit-stop at the odd blue shop wedged between Peninsula Drive and E. Front Street.

BobPaulinskiThere, surrounded by a cornucopia of bottles from distant galaxies like Priorat and Rheinpfalz (as well as the best collection of Michigan wine then available), sat a bespectacled young man whose nose was always stuck in some bizarrely huge wine book; he was a wine nerd extraordinaire, and back then it was sort of fun to pester him with extremely off-the-wall questions, like, “What’s the difference between degrees Brix and degrees Plato?” to which he’d always reply, “That’s easy,” and give you a response so technically convoluted that you wound up being more confused than before.

The fellow’s name was Bob Paulinski, and he went on to achieve the nearly impossible feat of becoming a Master of Wine, then sold the shop and went on to do something even harder: He re-invented himself as Sam’s Club’s corporate wine director, where he grew the chain’s private label wines from zero to $82 million in less than five years.

I imagine that to Barefoot Cellars, his tenure at Wal-Mart was what Armageddon is to Christianity.

outsideThat was then and this is now, and my first inkling that the Blue Goat might be a new goat was the marquee out front advertising Barefoot Cellars, and a Googled interview with store manager Ryan White contained this quote: “Barefoot is a staple here.”

I guess that Barefoot would have been a staple for Paulinski, too:  A staple from a Makita pneumatic gun to the sulcus terminalis of his tongue.

The Smiths

The Smiths

But like first impressions, first inklings are often wrong, and I after spending half an hour with Ryan White and his dad (who owns the place), I am man enough to do a huge and genuine mea culpa.

Maybe nobody on the current Blue Goat staff is passing any Masters of Wine exams any time soon, but of course, less than three hundred über-geeks in the visible universe have proven themselves the equal of that task since 1953.  Today’s Blue Goat educational font is the Wine Spectator School, an online course that Ryan swears by. And the shelves are stocked with ten thousand excellent bottlings prove it; the small display of two Barefeet for $11 is easily overlooked.

“We strive to be what I think of as a ‘genuine’ wine shop, a place is prepared to hand-sell wine to exactly suit a customer’s needs.” Ryan says. “I’m willing to spend as much time with a customer as they have to spend.”

And it’s rare or never that Ryan can’t find something that works; The Blue Goat offers the widest selection of wine in Northern Michigan, both domestic and imported and a pretty heft beer list as well.

mich roomBut that brings us to local wine, the star that crowns the Goat.  When Paulinski ran the joint, Michigan wine was represented, but area wineries had not nearly reached the apex they have today.  Indeed, The Blue Goat has an entire room dedicated to them, and they make up a good 30% of stock keeping units.  Ryan points out that his price structure is sometimes better than what you’ll find in the various tasting rooms themselves, (although the tasting rooms hope you forget that I just said that).  In any case, The Blue Goat is a Michwishlist, with the best from the local best.  Back in the day, when Paulinski was noodling The Wine Economist behind the register, the state of the art was very much the state of the start-up.

My conclusion?

You don’t have to know the difference between Brix and Pluto if your brix and mortar remains true to purpose.  Blue Goat is now an blue icon that outstrips its blue iconhood; even better than before.

And not for nothing, Bob Paulinski is now a Senior Vice President at BevMo!, which sells more Barefoot Cellars in an hour than Ryan White does all year.

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I’m Too Good For Wine Reviews

Clipboard clownYou know, sometimes, when the lights outside grow dim and the walls of my room start closing in, it occurs to me that despite having written more than two million words on wine over the years, and four hundred columns on this site alone, I actually shouldn’t be here at all.  I should be a lumberjack or something, like that Python skit; I should be a lion tamer, like that other Python skit. I should be a cheese shop owner like… never mind, I’m just depressing myself.  I can’t even think of an original fictitious career, except maybe being a leper junkie clown in Peoria or something that at least has some romance behind it.  Maybe I should be a writer.  See, that’s it.  My problem.  I should be a real writer, not some dipshit blogger counting Facebook likes and measuring success in terms of Twitter shares; I should be an old school tortured lonely drunken novelist or epic poet diddling nubile poetry students or something easy like that.

fI mean, look at Fitzgerald.  Take away his good looks, his money, his talent, his golden girl of Montgomery youth society and what do you have?  Oh yeah, me.

Who cares?  I’m on strike.  I’m turning the column over to my betters, the unfettered Men of Letters, and let them slog around in the shitstream of plonk for a while, see how they like it.  They’ll all emerge with a newfound respect for this poor schmuck’s schtick, boy howdy, lemme tell you, you betcha, can I get a witness?

You’re on, boys:

Castillo Monjardin Garnacha, Navarra, 1992:

A wine from a rare off-year in this quaint D.O. near Pamplona—the place where the bulls run.

Clipboard hemThen there was the bad vintage.  It was a sad year, and even the drunkards in the cafe who stayed drunk all the time could not remain drunkards that year on the local wine. The sadness started in the early part of the season with the first cold rains of spring and I drank a rum St. James when I sat in the cafe to write about it. I drank all through that summer, on sad days and happy days, until the fall came and the harvest was in.  It was a poor harvest and I asked my wife if we should leave and she said, “If you want.”

“Oh, yes, I want to leave, because there will be good harvests in other places, places where the sky is bright and the sun looks like a halved lemon in the sky.”

She smiled, because she liked decisions that were simple and easy.  “I’m sure you are right,” she said.

“Where shall we go?” I said.

“Let’s go without knowing,” she said.  “Let’s go and drink wines from places we don’t know but where the vintages are good.  We need more true mystery in our lives.”

Old South Winery ‘Blue Bayou’, Natchez, NV

‘Ahhh, nothing like a fresh muscadine!’ reads the web site, and I agree.  Thank God for small favors, huh?

Clipboard faulknerThis was muscadine:

Clumsy cloying, wine-like only in the shape of the bottle which tapered to a too-thin neck the color of a bronze coin, offering a whiff of mid-summer peaches wet with rain, but also like the smell of the place under the kitchen where the dogs huddled.

I must drink this, I thought, I must drink this and talk about it, even when I would rather have some of the Negro’s whiskey from the demijohn.  So I drank: Outside, secret night sounds blended with the sugary sap within the glass.  The owl’s cry echoed my confusion, high and abject, not ‘what’ but ‘who’ although both were clear by the label.  I drank: Even in this land of sweet tea and Coca Cola and Dr Pepper, wine was a called a woman’s drink, but this wine was strong and hot and rank, some condensation of the wild immortal spirit without mitigation or gender, and I drank quietly; drank the mongrel juice of these native grapes, fierce and bold against the incursion of vinifera, clinging to the untamed tastes of liberty and freedom, the invincible power of nature against the yards of men too proud of their white blood to defy its origin and who preferred the wines of tamer lands.

And then, I slept.

donneThree Choirs ‘Midsummer Hill’, Gloucestershire, 2012

From one of England’s most significant producers as well as the second largest, this lyrical and crisp white is made by Martin Fowke and, though simple, is worthy of words which are not.

‘Tis the year’s harvest, and it is the man’s,
Fowke’s, who well-trained in wine now tasks;
The solstice spent, and now his flasks
Sit barren dry, as empty spans;
The field’s sweet sap is spilled;

From glass to throat th’ hydroptic drunk hath filled,

And more, from cask to flask, by him is willed.

Full and weight’d; not hock nor claret,

In England’s yore what man could bear it?
Study me then, you who shall critics be
At wine’s next fair, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every late thing,
In whom global warming wrought new alchemy.
For man’s art and him the fool
A quintessence wrought from fossil fuel,
To foil both land and nature’s rule;
He ruin’d farms, but they were re-begot
In chard, black Pinot—vines once grew here not.

‘B.OE.’ Brooklyn Oenology ‘Montley Cru’, North Fork of Long Island, 2008

A winery in Brooklyn?  Indeed; grapes sourced from Long Island and Finger Lakes and vinified with all the love of a place surrounded by vineyards instead of dumpsters and Giants fans. Art by Brooklynites adds a further note of local flavor; good or bad is an aesthetic call.

Clipboard boeYup, yup, how come I like your wine, but I don’t like you?  Dig, this broadgash gal called Alie Shaper, she’s got money-making breasts and all the technical anxieties of a winemaker but she wants to swing with the big town NYC art crowd by displaying their wares on the bottle label, but man, that stuff is just an illusion.  That stuff is chatter-chatter blah blah. This grape, now, that’s some Zen Master reality.  This stuff makes you want to tear off your undershirt and sock yourself in the head and forget about the bourbon-aroonie.  Man, this juice makes you wanna go down that raw road and not stop until you get there.

Gargiulo Vineyard ‘Aprile Super’, Oakville, 2010

Napa sangiovese; always an interesting proposal, even when priced as a Super Tuscan.

Clipboard chaucerWhan that Aprile with his shoures soote
The Napa droghte hath perced to the roote,
And parch’d every vyne without licour,
Of which lasse engendred is dago flour;
Whan Poseidon eek with his yvele quake
Inspired dread in every copse and brake
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken sup,
Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up.

Chambolle-Musigny ‘Les Sentiers’ Groffier, 1999

james-joyceLes Sentiers is the northernmost Premier Cru of Chambolle-Musigny in the Cote de Nuits. Whereas the wines of Chambolle-Musigny are known for their delicacy, the terroir here is perhaps more closely resembles neighboring Morey-Saint-Denis, meaning a bigger, fuller body.

- How’s things? Have you any Burgundy?

- Tip top, let’s see.  I’ve a Chambolle-Musigny, goes well with sardines and Plumtree’s potted meat.

Deep colour here.  Violetred with flecks of purple. Tannic.  Pungent. Touched his sense moistened remembered. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, O wonder!  Rains came. Down in the hollow playing a new game, laughing and a-running, hey, hey.

- Pour another, Davy.  I’m overcome thinking about making love in the green grass behind the stadium.

Davy Byrne said with tearwashed eyes:

- Not making love with me, I hope! Here’s another Burgundy.  Have some plovers and toast, too.

- Not you, indeed.  Give the devil his due, I’d rather eat some sick knuckly cud from the cobblestones than make love with you.  Not you, that girl from the mine with the transistor radio.

- Eyes brown?

- That’s the one.

No more said.  Silence easy.  Born again.  He drank Burgundy, prolonging in solemn echo the closes of the bar.

*The regularly scheduled program will return next week; same time, same channel.*

-

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Warren Raftshol: Peripheral Persistence

warrenWhenever I stop in to see old Warren Raftshol in Leelanau’s answer to Area 51, I’m sort of overwhelmed; I feel both wildly lonely and strangely optimistic. He hangs on inside his wayward depot despite the odds, and Warren—whose sculpted face is a Dorothea Lange wet dream—greets all comers, new and old, with a sort of fierce, fatalistic indifference.

Asked about his views about the changing face of Leelanau wine country, he offers exactly that, shrugging, “The wine business is pretty much a blur to me.”

grand-traverse-lighthouse-1915Such a response might be viewed by some scribes as interview-kryptonite, but not me—by golly, to me Warren Raftshol is the Grand Traverse lighthouse, still standing and always accounted for despite the ravages of time, the gales of November coming early or juggernaut technology.  Like the lighthouse, Warren Raftshol essentially serves the same function as he has always served; and, like visiting the lighthouse is accompanied by a certain wistful melancholy, a glance at Warren Raftshol’s secluded, ramshackle tasting room, where inside, unsold wine sits in cardboard cases and outside a stone silo slowly crumbles to dust, the experience is a snapshot of the flip-side of Leelanau’s emergence as an appellation worthy of notice.

Seated, far right.  Give 'em hell, Rudy.

Seated, far right. Give ‘em hell, Rudy.

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse has been operating since 1857, and although Warren’s tenure as a winemaker is less, I wouldn’t bet on it being too much less.  From what he can remember and from what I can glean from outside sources, the Raftshol family has been a fixture on the peninsula for many generations.  A page from the Sutton’s Bay High School Class of 1926 yearbook shows Rudolph Raftshol—Warren’s uncle—among fifteen graduating seniors; a 2014 edition of Leelanau Enterprise notes Olivia Raftshol—Warren’s niece—entering the Marines.  Within the archives of that same newspaper, Warren’s name keeps surfacing with a certain WTF? charm.  For example, in a February, 2012 column about Leelanau County’s ‘Odd and Quirky’, Warren is described as ‘a one-time write-in candidate for Leelanau County sheriff whose political views appear to come from somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun.’  Yet another piece on medical marijuana that same year leads with, ‘Finding someone in Leelanau County who will admit publicly that they plan to vote “yes” on Proposal 1 in November is not an easy task,’—then goes on to quote the single yes-voter willing to go on record, Warren Raftshol.

Needless to say, he did not win the sheriff’s badge.  Nor a bong.

ClipboardStories abound about Warren’s eccentricities, and most of them are pretty quaint and pretty hilarious, but I won’t relate them.  Not because I don’t want to, but because the people who told me them don’t want me to—and I have to respect that.  See, around here, Warren Raftshol—if not exactly venerated—is treated like any Historical Marker.  Regardless of your opinion over what it represents, you don’t leave your cigarette butts on the front lawn.

What Warren Raftshol and his one-man wine show represents is Leelanau wine country as it was in the beginning, ain’t now, and likely will never be again.

warren and bottleLike many area winegrowers, the Raftshols began in the tart cherry business, souring on it in the ‘60s when prices dropped, finally tossing in the red-stained towel in the 1980s after Warren’s father passed away and the trees had outlived their productive cycle.  By that point, Warren had jobbed himself out as a pruner at Leelanau Wine Cellars in nearby Omena, and had developed a fascination for what grapes could do on land that had formerly been planted to montmorency and morello cherries.

Although today he expresses no interest in hybrids, in the early days of wine growing in the peninsula, the Leelanau Fruit Company of Sutton’s Bay was advising farmers who wanted to get into the nascent wine biz to go the safe route.

“The co-op was more cautious in those days,” Warren relates with a small sneer. “And farmers tended to do what the co-op told them.”  He cites the lead taken by the pioneers of the Leelanau wine community: “Bernie [Rink], Larry [Mawby] and Bruce [Simpson] all planted hybrids, so that what I did. I put in aurora and chelois; didn’t like the wine.  Those fields have since been grafted over to cabernet franc.”

In fact, according to former Raftshol winemaker Chris Guest, one of the props due Warren Raftshol is his dogged persistence of vinifera in the peninsula, particularly red grape varieties.

“Peninsula Cellars made a popular blend from Warren’s vineyards; Raftshol Red,” Guest says.  “A mix of everything, cab franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir.  That was not only one of the area’s first attempt to promote vineyard-specific bottlings, back when the industry was trying to gain a foothold, those vines were often the first indication to outsiders driving through—a few of ‘em lost trying to get to the casino—that the focus of the peninsula was shifting from cherries to grapes.”

By his own admission, Warren Raftshol can no longer afford a winemaker.  He also (proudly) insists that he stopped chaptalizing his wine in 2008 and one is forced to wonder if he simply can’t afford the sugar.  While true to variety, his wines are uniformly and sometimes painfully acidic—a teaspoon of sugar would have no doubt helped the cabernet go down.

winesAcidic wines, ramshackle winery, unkempt-looking vines, taciturn tasting room host, somewhat creepy photo of Jean Raftshol (1919-2001, Warren’s mother) on the label; you’d think this story is, to me, nothing but an endless pejorative.

Not so and not by a long shot.  When I stop by Raftshol Vineyards, I do it for the man, not the plan.  I do it because he is a reflection of his product: Thin, acidic, ramshackle and somewhat creepy—but, like the lonely lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula, outdated by modernity yet standing strong against opposing tides to mark the passage of Lake Michigan eliding into Grand Traverse Bay, Warren Raftshol remains as an outpost of originality in a sea of increasingly gentrified business models.

 

 

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