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’?

Bingo.

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.

Niedswetzkyana

Niedswetzkyana

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

Send Me Free Wine, But Only Stuff I Like. You’re Welcome.

honey boo booI consider other wine bloggers to be ‘colleagues’ like I consider Honey Boo Boo’s family to be fellow Homo sapiens.

It’s a concession to rude reality, nothing more.

Case in point:  A ‘colleague’ in Denver recently sent out a mass-mailing shake-down to wine producers; the cyber equivalent of standing on a freeway onramp with a hand-drawn sign reading, ‘Will work for hand-outs.  But not all hand-outs; just the hand-outs I specify.’

 Essentially, that’s when you roll up your car window and floor it, right?

Here it goes:

“Greetings…  I’m sure you must be very excited about the bountiful 2014 harvest. We wanted to send out a quick ‘call for samples’ before the holiday season gets into full swing.”

How's the harvest. Abu?

Bountiful harvest, Abu?

(Translation: ‘Of course we have no idea how bountiful your harvest was because this is bulk e-mailing and your harvest was different wherever you happen to be; we just wanted to make sure that we’re on your Christmas list even though you aren’t on ours.’)

“While we always enjoy the most popular reds, please keep us in mind for the lesser talked about wines such as Petite Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, etc.”

Never heard of it.

Never heard of it.

(Translation:  ‘For some reason, even though we are professional wine critics, we seem unaware that Zinfandel is talked about a lot.  Besides being the third most widely planted red wine grape in California, it is considered ‘America’s Heritage Wine.  Oh, and the reason we couldn’t find many articles on Google talking about ‘Petite Syrah’ is probably because that’s not how it’s spelled.’)

“In fairness to you, we rarely review Rhone varieties and Merlot because they are not our favorites, so it is hard to be objective.”

top-wine-varieties-by-wine-folly(Translation:  ‘Even though we just said that we always enjoy the popular reds, we are now telling you that we do not enjoy Merlot, which is the second most popular red wine in the world. And since we’re checking, the fourth and fifth most popular red wines in the world are Syrah and Grenache, classic Rhone varieties.  We cannot explain that inconsistency any more than we can explain how someone can be objective about things they like, but can’t be objective about things they don’t like, which is pretty much the definition of objectivity.’)

“Our ‘Sample Policy’ is simple:  We follow ‘Momma’s Rule,’ If you can’t say something nice…say nothing at all.”

'Can't wait for Part 7!'

‘Can’t wait for Part 7!’

Here at ‘Intoxicology Report’, we also follow Momma’s Rule. Of course, my mother was a shrewish, passive-aggressive drunk who was mad at the world, but at least she taught me to check my website’s hit count, and if shaming shameless colleagues shamelessly wins me more readers than a column entitled ‘Part 6 of  ‘Starting J. Cage Cellars’’, you know the rancorous route I’ll be rambling down.

“So if wineries or PR firms send us wine we do not care for, we will not post a negative review; we will simply not mention the wine on our site.”

Will work for Merlot.  Just kidding.

Will work for Merlot. Just kidding.

(Translation: ‘We know that you know that we know that this is bulk email—and that there are about 8000 wineries in the United States alone.  Suppose nine out of ten of the recipients treat this tin-cup street hustle with the disdain it deserves? That means 800 of you will still send us wine.  Now, eliminating the Merlot and GSM Rhone blend (of course), we might expect to receive two or three wines from each of you, meaning that we will—with the slightest level of journalistic integrity—have to publish reviews of 2400 wines from 800 wineries each year, or roughly seven reviews per day, every day, every vintage.  And that’s just domestic wine! 

Since we know that you know that we know that this ain’t gonna happen, you will have no choice but to conclude that—since we didn’t mention your wine—we didn’t like it.’)

“For the record, we have over 45,000 Twitter followers…”

Short Biggie and Big Shorty

Short Biggie and Big Shorty

(Translation:  ‘For the same record, if you bother to fact-check this stat, you will find that we also follow 45,000 tweeters, meaning that we simply follow everyone who follows us no matter who they are, and that everyone we follow follows us back again no matter who we are, until it is a huge Twitter tweeter cluster-fuck of Twitter twats who neither read, nor care about, what the other one posts.)

So, what’s a poor girl to do but send out his own mass cheapskate extortion-mail?

Ergo:

“Greetings…!  With The Holidays approaching (which I phrase thusly to avoid insulting Jews, militant blacks and Fez-Jockeys who secretly drink), I want you to send me free wine.  In fairness to you, I find it difficult to be objective about wines labeled ‘Sample: Not For Resale’ or which contains less than 15% alcohol by volume. Plus, I have recently been diagnosed with a rare allergy that prevents my system from digesting wine that retails for under $75 per bottle or has received less than 97 points from Wine Enthusiast.

My ‘sample policy’ is simple:  I follow ‘Momma’s Rule’, which means that if you clog up my valuable marathon Netflix-watching time with substandard plonk meant for average people without wine blogs, I will make anonymous accusations to the TTB about your adulterated product and inform Homeland Security that you employ terrorists in your vineyard.

And, to my super-anal, brown-nosing UPS delivery man who actually makes me get up from the couch during True Detective to sign for boxes containing alcohol, and who finds his workload thus lightened this Channukwaanzmas:  Merry fuckin’ whatever, douchenozzle.

Posted in GENERAL | 4 Comments

Seven Drinking Games For AA Members

We all know that half the fun of getting drunk is playing puerile drinking games to get even drunker, and we also all know that just because you’ve proven yourself to be so ineffective as a responsible grown-up that you can’t take so much as a sip of beer without driving your miserable life directly into a concrete bridge abutment, that should be no reason why you shouldn’t still have fun.  Right?

So, as an homage to you folks who wear your consummate weakness and complete lack of maturity as a badge of  honor—people like Billy Joel and Stephen King who brag about the value of Alcoholics Anonymous while forgetting  the value of the ‘Anonymous’ part—I have invented some  guaranteed ice-breakers for your next AA soirée.

Keeping in mind, of course, that should you not follow my game rules to the letter, you will have likely blown whatever number of years is on the stupid chip you carry around like a epinephrine auto-injector for bee stings, and will be again reduced to the status of slobbering, family-destroying, buddy-calling-at-3 AM, weekend-losing, liver-liquidating drunk.

Which may have been the whole point.  But, fret not, AA assures us that relapses are perfectly common and even expected.

ROXANNE

Players sit around a boom box and listen to a recording of The Police singing ‘Message in a Bottle’.  Any time Sting sings the name ‘Roxanne’ during that song, everyone takes a drink.

FUZZY DUCK

Losers

Losers

A group of people gather around the kitchen table.  The first player says “Fuzzy Duck” to the person to his or her left, who then must say “Fuzzy duck” to the next person to the left, and so on.  Play continues until someone says “Does he??”, then everyone must now say,  “Ducky fuzz” to their immediate neighbor, this time going around the circle to the right.  Saying “Does he??” changes the direction of play again.  The first person to mess up has to join the Peace Corps and dig a well in the Bolivian Altiplano.

BEER PONG WITH 40mm STEEL BALL BEARINGS

Fun, fun, fun, with a capital 'ph'.

Fun, fun, fun, with a capital ‘ph’.

Play requires one ping pong ball-sized bearing and 12 glasses of beer. Arrange six glasses of beer on either side of a table as if you were setting up bowling pins. Divide yourselves in to two groups. Each group should sit opposite the other with 6 beers in front of them. As you take your turn, you must throw the ping pong ball into the opposite team’s glasses.  Since ball will invariably smash the glass or tip it over and thus, spill the beer, a huge mess ensues, but nobody falls off the wagon.

KILL SAMBO

Clipboard kidThis game is more fun if the players are all white and willing to dress up like Kid Rock, only wearing a t-shirt that reads, ‘Kill Sambo’.  Players are shuttled to the clubhouse of the Mother Chapter of the all-black Outcast Offo Nation M/C.  Object of the game is to walk up to the bar, call Mista Sonny Day a triflin’ coon-ass spear-chucker, then order a drink.  Whoever survives longest wins.

3-CARD LOW-DRAW POKER

Your friends

Your friends

Each player is dealt 3 cards from a normal deck. A round of betting is followed by the first drawing round in which a player may discard any, all or none of their cards. If a player chooses to draw none, it is considered ‘standing pat’. After the drawing round there is another round of betting. After the 2nd round of betting there is one last drawing round, same rules as the first draw. There is one more round of betting and the cards are revealed. The player with the best low hand wins the pot.

Meanwhile, your friends are at the bar getting shit-faced and screwing hot chicks.

MOKA MAYHEM!

By far the most fun and challenging game of them all!  Players gather around a hand-carved, eighteenth century mahogany table made by the Moka tribe of Papua New Guinea.  If such a table cannot be found, the game is over and the other rules don’t matter.

21 FOR 21

"Shot eleven! Go! Go!! Go!!!"

“Shot eleven! Go! Go!! Go!!!”

Often associated with one’s 21st birthday, this game is as much to proselytize about the dangers of alcoholism as it is to prevent celebratory over-indulgence.  The ‘birthday boy’ (or gal!) is required to drink twenty-one shots in an hour, but instead of alcohol, this particular game variant uses Clorox Bleach.  The player will find it impossible to down all 21 shots of bleach, of course, and other players bet on how many he (or she!) can ingest, ignoring all signs of sodium hypochlorite poisoning including lip-blistering, tongue-skin peeling off, bleeding from the eyes, projectile vomiting and delirium and cheer him (or her!)on.

Death generally occurs at around shot 13, but strong constitutions may endure a bit longer.  In any case, the birthday celebrant is thus saved from a life of addiction to the evil that has darkened the history of every age, blighted many a genius, deprived youth of beauty and vigor, made dishonorable the grey hairs of age, wrought misery within the mansions of the rich and made fiendish the hovels of the poor:  Intoxicating liquor.

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged | 4 Comments

The Intoxicating Intellect of G. Stanley Howell

G. Stanley Howell

G. Stanley Howell

Had G. Stanley Howell showed up for our wine chat dressed in full CSA officer regalia, complete with three star collar insignia, cadet grey overcoat and lion’s-head saber, I would have considered it perfectly appropriate.  Not only because the retired Professor and Viticulturist Emeritus at Michigan State University is a dead-ringer for Robert E. Lee, but because he embodies all the qualities of gentleness, elegance, humility and insane intelligence that I imagine were manifest in the original Marble Man.

Take, for example, the above-referenced three-star collar (denoting the rank of Confederate Colonel) that Lee wore throughout his Generalship; an iconic show of modesty.  Likewise, Dr. Howell scoffs at the praise I heap liberally upon his name, suggesting that the genuine credit for having jump-started Michigan’s wine industry may belong to Nate Stackhouse of Warner Vineyards who, along with his degree from UC Davis, laid the foundation of Howell’s wine-savviness:

Warner Vineyards

Warner Vineyards

“Before I met Nate, I didn’t know jack about winemaking; I was a Southern boy, weaned directly from mother’s milk to sour mash whiskey.”

And like any good research biologist, he is  willing to own up to mistakes he’s made through life’s middle-ground of wine, summing up his career like this: “A lot of what I did was self-preservation. For the most part, I couldn’t afford many errors.  If I get 999 things correct, nobody remembers.  If I get a single thing wrong, nobody forgets.”

Well, Vicksburgs or vineyards, Ol’ Dixie or °Brixie, the most important difference between Lee and Howell is that when it came to their own personal life-defining, legacy-securing campaign,  Robert E. Lee lost.

And G. Stanley Howell won.

The South Will Metabolize Again

mobile postczardStan Howell’s father was a carpenter with an eighth-grade education, and the intense and respectful way that Stan describes the old man’s skill betrays his lifelong wonder at the mechanisms behind art, whether it’s a cabinet or a cabernet, an end table or a table wine.  Howell grew up in the deepest part of the Deep South near Mobile, Alabama, graduating from high school in the late 1950s and doing his undergraduate work at Mississippi State University, Starkville.  After obtaining his Ph.D. in Horticulture from the University of Minnesota, he joined the faculty at Michigan State University in 1969 and set out to research, among other things, the physiological and cultural factors limiting vine growth.  But it wasn’t wine grape vines he was focusing upon back then: He recalls his early work with Welch’s, which has its second largest grape juice plant in Lawton, Michigan.  At the time, he was trying to find methods of reducing labor in the field.

A look back at Michigan wine, circa 1969

A look back at Michigan wine, circa 1969

Not that there were many wine grape vineyards to worry about, of course.  In 1969, Michigan’s wine industry was a bit of an embarrassment, and if you were to say it was in its ‘infancy’, you’d have to reference Rosemary’s Baby—that’s how diabolically awful most of these wines were. 95% of them were classified as ‘dessert’ wines, meaning that they were molar-crumblers made from Concord or Niagara grapes, heavily sweetened and selling for under a dollar a bottle.

This was a time when a ‘sophisticated’ wine for most Detroiters was ‘Cold Duck’—an invention of Harold Borgman of the upscale Ponchartrain Hotel, which followed an old German tradition of blending champagne and leftover wine.  Apparently, ‘cold ends’ in German is kalte ende, which is a single consonant away from kalte ente, meaning ‘Cold Duck’.

If that story is apocryphal or true I know not, but I recall my mother describing it as tasting like a blend of Faygo Red Pop, Ocean Spray CranGrape and André Champagne.

cold duckNot in dispute is that the sparkling wine used in the Cold Duck that the Ponchartrain served (exclusively for 50 years according to Borgman’s grandson) was made by Bronte Champagne Company, one of the first Michigan wineries to open after Prohibition.  And it was Bronte’s winemaker, Angelo Spinazze, who Howell credits for having seeded the idea of an MSU program to evaluate various cold-hardy cultivars that could be used to produce a higher end Michigan wine.

“When I first floated the idea at the school, however, I encountered plenty of administrative roadblocks—any research that promoted the alcohol industry was off limits.  In fact, I was told quietly that pursuing such a program was career suicide.  Fortunately, later that same year we had a changing of the guard in the Dean’s office, and Dr. Larry Boger came on board as a very broad thinker.  He was receptive, and paved the way for our first experiments vineyard where we established a number of cold-resistant cultivars that had seen success in the Finger Lakes region of New York.”

The conundrum that Howell then faced was cultural more than viticultural; ‘prevailing wisdom’ can be as limiting a factor in agronomy as climate.  Local folklore suggested that ‘good’ wine was simply wine that grew well, and so the hurdle of convincing growers to extend beyond the Big Three—Concord, Niagara and Delaware grapes (all Vitis labrusca)—was a major one.

bronte-baco-noir-mi-nvThe answer, of course was hybrids—grapes engineered genetically for taste, yield and hardiness, and generally created by crossing frost/disease resistent native American species Vitis riparia or Vitis labrusca with tender, but more flavorful European Vitis vinifera.  While new red-wine species like Baco Noir and Maréchal Foch could withstand nearly everything that a Michigan January could throw at them, weaning growers from the tried-and-true was an obstacle nearly impossible to overcome.

Until the establishment of Spartan Cellars, that is—an experimental MSU campus winery which involved itself in all aspects of winemaking, from planting and vineyard management to laboratory analyses.  Although these wines were never intended for commercial consumption, they were treated as if they were, allowing Michigan growers a real-time experience of what was possible.

Enology student at Spartan Cellars

Enology student at Spartan Cellars

“The establishment of Spartan Cellars was crucial,” Howell insists. “It had been an idea long in germination before it finally came to fruition in 1973.  It was a required move for the sort of research results we were having. Hard to say if it would work today—then, the Michigan wine industry was small and we were able to hold professional tastings for Michigan wineries, and nearly all would come.  I liked it because planting, vinifying and selling our experiments was their area of expertise.  This took me out of the loop; they chose what they wanted to grow.”

Among the varieties that showed the most appeal to local farmers were Vignoles and Vidal Blanc, white wine hybrids that provide a remarkable array of sophisticated flavors and are open to many stylistic interpretations.  Among Howell’s favorites which fared less well was Chardonel, a hybrid’s hybrid with a parentage of Seyval and Chardonnay.

Chardonel

Chardonel

“Chardonel never took off, which I thought was a shame,” says Howell.  “It epitomized the sort of cultivar we were trying to popularize, with superior sugars, the right amount of acidity, high productivity and cold hardiness.  Plus, it can be vinified in a multitude of styles—stainless-steel fermentation makes a crisp wine, but it responds equally well to oak and has wonderful green apple notes that make it ideal for sparkling wine.  And I recall, when it was under testing in the vineyard, we had a huge hail storm two weeks before harvest and the Chardonel vines did quite well.”

The market nibbled, but it didn’t bite, and in 2014, I can only find a single Michigan winery—Tabor Hill—which produces a stand-alone chardonel.

Ed O'Keefe amid  riesling vines

Ed O’Keefe amid riesling vines

That what should sell doesn’t always was one of several epiphanies that Stan Howell had as he learned on the job.  For example, his initial conviction was that for any European varietal to succeed commercially anywhere, it required a 170 day growing season.  And not only that, but required certain climactic parameters that he was certain ruled out varieties that are now doing pretty well here, including late-ripeners like cabernet franc—even cold-weather grapes like riesling.  When, after nursing his personal passion for German whites he accompanied Ed O’Keefe (Chateau Grand Traverse) to a trip to Germany in 1973, he returned to plant  riesling in Lansing, where it promptly succumbed to winter kill—reaffirming his theory.

Of course he admits now that he’d left two variables from his formula: Old Mission Peninsula and Ed O’Keefe—a man to whom Michigan, quite arguably, owes its modern vinifera culture.

“Ed found—or created—microclimates two hundred miles north of Lansing where riesling could not only survive, but flourish.  He is, for good reason, a driving force in Michigan wine: A strong personality combined with classic entrepreneurial drive.  We are blessed to have him here and could probably use a few more.”

Indeed, Chateau Grand Traverse’s consistently award-winning rieslings, which continues to wow vignoscenti worldwide, would ultimately form the foundation of a single eureka moment which has defined Michigan viticulture ever since:

Chateau Lafite Rothschild“Since it’s now been proven that we can grow vinifera here, we have to grow vinifera here,” Stan Howell maintains, “even if the right locations are somewhat nip and tuck.  A winery with ambition must make two kinds of wine—wine that makes their reputation and wine that pays the bills.  If your name is Rothschild, it can be the same wine, but if you are anybody else, you’ll probably have to make different wines for each category.”

The brass ring for the state’s reputation-making, he believes, is in proprietary blends—much as it has been for the Rothschilds.  Even his prized Chardonel, virtually unexplored as a stand-alone, is a silent partner in a lot of Michigan white wines:

“One of the realities of Michigan’s wine is the hard sell of varietal hybrids.  I have come to a few realities: First, most wines in a given style are improved by blending and second, it is smarter and better to create a proprietary blended wine than to try to educate a doubtful public regarding a ‘new’ and previously unknown variety.  While I believe this is true for nearly all wines, including vinifera, it is especially true of hybrids and allows a potential customer to evaluate the qualities of the wine in the glass and its cost/unit to determine its value.  I suspect that here, quite a lot of Chardonel goes into such blends.”

General weather surrenders to G. Stanley Howell

General weather surrenders to G. Stanley Howell

And so, the refined and gentile Southern gentleman (who has moved through the opposing Northern forces of climate and disease and deployed wine varieties that have altered the field of battle irrevocably and ultimately prevailing in the War Between The Grapes), remains ever gracious in victory. If there’s an Appomattox, it may well be his old research laboratory at MSU, where the terms of the truce between weather and wine are largely his own doing.  Proof may be best seen in the statistics given earlier, where in 1969, 95% of Michigan wines were essentially super-sweet dessert: In 2014, 95% are not.

Yet, G. Stanly Howell insists that he’d never have made it as a commercial winemaker:

“A successful grape grower secures the best current knowledge regarding location, site, variety, training and trellis choice, canopy management and crop control, and ruthlessly applies such practices.  I would be terrible as a farmer, not for lack of knowing the right things to do, but from my interminable ‘tinkering’ and asking ‘what if?’”

“No, I have been better for Michigan as a ‘vine dreamer’.”

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Amy Iezzoni: National Cherry Queen, Entire 21st Century

Pretender to the throne, 2014

Pretender to the throne, 2014

Each year in June, the Board of Governors of the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City picks a National Cherry Queen based on intelligence, poise and speaking ability.

And each year since the ‘80s, they get it wrong.

That’s because Traverse City has one (and only one) Cherry Queen, now and in perpetuum rei memoriam—Amy Iezzoni, professor of plant breeding at MSU’s Department of Horticulture.

Even so, folks discussing the origins of Grand Traverse wine—people who routinely drop names like Bernie Rink and Ed O’Keefe—have never heard of her. Smug vignoscenti who turn up their noses at cherry wine until they turn down their noses down into a snifter of Leelanau cherry wine, then rave about it, can thank but one person (even before the winemaker): Dr. Amy, whose introduction of the sweet-tart balaton to commercial fruit production has raised the cherry wine bar so high that I defy the most snobbish among you to dismiss it as ‘one dimensional’.

Amy: The real deal

Amy: The real deal

“Prior to the development of balaton, the sour cherry industry in the US was a monoculture of a French variety called montmorency,” says Amy. “One of our missions has been to make that industry more diverse, specifically by breeding cultivars with better fruit quality, better disease resistance and more consistent yields than montmorency.  Currently, we run an aggressive  breeding program with about 25 acres of seedlings and 15 test sites around the country.  Balaton was our first introduction.”

cherry picture binsBalaton began as an unpronounceable variety that Amy discovered on a trip to Hungary, where the cherry culture is so rabid that the average hungry Hungarian consumes eleven times more fruit than an American.  Originally, she says, the variety of Hungarian landrace cherries was astonishing, but when the Communists took the reins after World War II and the agricultural industry became collectivized, commercial objectives soon outweighed diversity.  The tree that was ultimately cherry-picked from the lot was called ujfehértói fürtös. Compared to montmorency, this particular mouthful is sweeter, firmer, redder, and as an undeniable bonus, makes an intriguingly complex table wine, due in part to its ability to reach a °Bx 24, roughly on par with local vinifera grapes.

In fact, the only drawback to the drinkable drupe was it’s jawbreaking name.

“We knew that ujfehértói fürtös wouldn’t cut it, so—with the approval of the Hungarians—we named it after Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in Hungary.”

Which, happily, happens to be the only word in the entire Uralic language family that Americans can pronounce.  

As you can imagine, there is only one thing that could make Amy Iezzoni’s decades-long love affair with Prunus cerasus complete: A ménage à trois with a winemaker.

“I Like Sunsets, Long Walks on the Beach, Puppy Breath and Talking About  S-RNase-Based Gametophytic Self-Incompatibility…”

Charlie Edson

Charlie Edson

Enter Charlie Edson, the whiz-kid behind Bel Lago winery and the creator of the best cherry wine on the Leelanau Peninsula.  By default, you know what that means, right?  Since Leelanau grows the best wine cherries in the world, and thus, produces the best cherry wine in the world, it means that in an unassuming tasting room a few miles outside of unassuming Cedar, Michigan, on the western shore of podunk Lake Leelanau, for around fifteen bucks, you can purchase a global superlative.

But first, in order to truly enjoy it, you have to face down the Nelly Negatives: Cherry wine is the Dangerfield of drinks. Mention it to sommeliers and you don’t need to consult Rasmussen to know that the majority of them will  tell you than cherry wine is something that Tommy James (and the Shondels) swigs with total strangers or that Jermaine Stewart guzzles as a substitute for sloppy sex while George Thorogood howls about it in the same breath as hot peppers and ooh-hoo-hooeee.

To their point, of course, when Van Morrison gets loaded along the Cyprus Avenue train tracks, it ain’t on ‘89 Beaucastel.

304206_17000CherryFBv4_LBut those are the dregs of the drupe—decent cherry wine is hardly a low-rent bevvie, and the descriptor most often used is ‘cherry pie in a glass’ for the unusual array of spices that are often a natural component of the wine’s profile.  Edson treats his cherry wine with the same care and think-too-much compulsion as he does with grape wine, but the beautiful thing is that cherries ripen a good three months before the hundred or so grape varieties he grows.  This is just a theory, mind you, but do you know how the first born in a given family tends to have certain advantages in life, due in part to the coddling attention of his or her proud parents?  Maybe the same holds true for the first vinified juice of Charlie’s wine season.

For whatever reason, Bel Lago Cherry Wine is a sensory smorgasbord; vivid ruby in the glass with a perfumed bouquet—cherry jam with clove and cedar scents—while on the palate, it is velvety and pure, showing plum preserves and fruit compote cut with toasted hazelnut, soft tannins and a bracing undertow of acidity.

Cherry Growing is the Pits

Sam Simpson

Sam Simpson

That would be the art end of cherry wine; for the equation’s business end, the man to see is Sam Simpson, whose family has been growing tart cherries in Leelanau since the 1970s.  In the day, Sam’s grandfather John Worth Simpson (1917–2002) had a four hundred acre cherry orchard outside Leland; the industry was flush and prices were high.

Today, the Simpson’s cherry acreage has dwindled to 120; the industry is flushable and prices are about the same as they were in the ‘70s.

“We’re getting out of commodity farming,” he says firmly, but somewhat wistfully, “and a lot of it comes down to the decisions on the CIAB.  The board has too much power and the tart cherry industry up here has suffered accordingly.”

ciabSimpson means the Cherry Industry Administrative Board, ‘an appallingly stupid creation of the USDA’ according to Food Law & Policy professor Baylen Linnekin of George Mason University Law School.  The CIAB web site maintains that the board exists to ‘match the current year’s supply with the historical demand for tart cherry products, helping to insure an appropriate volume of cherries moves to the market in those years of overproduction’.

Leaving such decisions up to bureaucrats instead of farmers doesn’t even sound good on paper, and in the field, in bumper-crop years, it often equates to tons of salable cherries being dumped on the ground.  Prices per pound, says Sam,  may range from 45¢ to a low of 15¢, at which point it becomes cheaper to compost the fruit than to process it.

Adding insult to that injury, the final price is not determined until after the cherries are sold, and Simpson—whose last year as a commodity farmer was 2009, didn’t receive a check for that crop until 2011.

According to the USDA, the regulated industry consists of about 600 tart cherry growers and 40 tart cherry handlers. Meanwhile, about three-quarters of America’s tart cherry output comes from Michigan, so any negative impact from federal regulations hits us here first and hardest.

Thank God for wine, huh?

“We lease our acres now, but reserve three blocks of cherry trees specifically for wine,” says Sam.  “That’s around twenty acres.  Ounce for ounce these days, wine makes more economic sense up here in Leelanau, especially since grapes have raised land prices; wine grapes are the high utility produce, so the market drives this land into wine fruit. Wine is the way to go. ”

good harbor cherryThat is, if you have the know how—and Sam Simpson does.  His grandfather established Good Harbor Winery outside Leland in 1980, which his father Bruce enriched, enlivened and expanded until  his untimely passing in 2009.   Sam and his sister Taylor, under the guidance of their mother Debbie, have kept the winery in the forefront of the wine industry in Leelanau.  In fact,  Good Harbor’s cherry wine was the first inkling I had that the plebian plonk of my childhood—Boone’s Farm Wild Cherry—might have picked itself up by the bootstraps and come of age.

“We’ll do around fourteen thousand gallons in 2014,” Sam declares; behind him, Taylor checks his figures against a computer print-out.  “That’s around 100 tons of fruit; 3800 cases.”

He tells me that cherry wine is evolving, improving, and the experimenting never ends.  Currently, he’s using five different fruit yeasts in different lots and will decide the final blend at bottling time.

If he has any ‘secret’ to the singular scrumptiousness of his cherry wine, he claims it is the balaton cherry—80% of his wine’s fruit content.

So, in the end, it’s all back to Queen Dr. Amy Iezzoni and her hedonistic, Hungarian horticultural hubris.

traverse city post cardThe future?  Cherry breeding is a time-consuming endeavor and note-taking from seedling through a tree’s life-cycle takes decades.  And once the specific cultivars that show the most promise are determined, you still have to convince farmers to plant them.  That said, Dr. Amy is singing the praises of two new varieties called danube and jubilee.  Although they are not grown on any large scale, she suggests that a bushel or three may wind up in Charlie Edson’s cherry wine.

That would explain (to me anyway) why his wines reach such a remarkable depth of complexity, why he holds a royal flush in the poker game of enology and why life with the Edson/Iezzonis is a bottomless bowl of cherries.

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Dressing For Digressing: Puttin’ On The Shitz

Chris' baptism.

Chris Kassel’s baptism.  Vaya con Dios.

Before we go further, it’s ‘fess up time.  I’m a bit of a bully.  And really, I have been a bit of a bully for my entire life.  I’m told that when I was baptized, I was nonverbally intimidating to Father Domenic and wore a sneer of supercilious hostility as I went wee-wee in the font.  As a child, when my parents wouldn’t buy me an air rifle, I falsely accused them of abuse and giggled when they were jailed. Each year in grade school, I peer-pressured foreign exchange students into eating the classroom goldfish and in high school, I tricked all the special ed children into taking LSD.  On a press junket to South Africa, I pushed Nelson Mandela into a locker, called him gay and gave him a wedgie. These days, I chair an anti-bullying class at my kid’s high school where I take photos of all the fat parents and post them to Facebook with nasty comments.  All the while, I defy amateur psychologists by being strong, popular and self-confident; an A-list winner who is unafraid of failure and has a happy home life.

picSo it should come as no surprise that today, as a wine writer bully, I intend to laugh at sommelier Patrick Cappiello, who posed for Bloomberg Business Week in the ‘What I Wear To Work’ section.

Cappiello is the wine director at some pretentious joint in pretentious NoLita, the pretentiously-named Manhattan neighborhood that’s home to such pretentious butt plugs as Iman, Gabriel Byrne, John Mayer and Moby.  Anyway, as seen in the picture, Cappiello is sporting his ‘casual’ somm uniform that (to my best estimate) set him back around $1200, roughly three times what the formal tux that I wore as a sommelier cost.

Which would be fine if the picture didn’t make him look exactly like the kind of self-important lame-ass twat that cries out to us bullies, like a whine in the wilderness… “Mock me.”

Where to start, huh?  How about at the bottom; then, we can work our way down…

Chuck Taylor

Chuck Taylor

Chuck Taylor shoes are a pretty good metaphor for everything that makes urban hipsters a mass-market disgrace.  Even the most politically correct among us understands that the expensive-hightops fad was the brainchild of poor black ghetto kids who found something culturally iconic and pointless to shoot each other over.  Largely built around Nike’s 1985 ad campaign, Air Jordans had all the cache required: They were idiotically overpriced, endorsed by an NBA Negro and made by poor, Yao Ming-colored ghetto kids in Guangdong, China.  Of course, in 1985, Converse owned the market for namesake basketball-player shoes with their ‘Chuck Taylor All-Stars’, a brand they’d been marketing since 1932 and, at over 600 million pairs (that’s 1200 individual shoes, for any poor ghetto dropout who is wondering), are the most successful basketball shoe in history.  The only problem is, Chuck Taylor was white, so black kids never found anything racially cohesive in wearing overpriced shoes named for a player from an era when, had the NBA existed, wouldn’t have allowed persons-of-color to play even if they were  7′ 6″ like Yao Ming.  So, the only ‘cache’ for a hipster like Patrick Cappiello in wearing overpriced Chuck Taylor’s is irony, and the only thing we hate about hipsters more than their stupid shoes is that they love all things ironic—except for that Alanis Morissette song about irony, which they dislike because, ironically, she misuses the word ‘ironic’.

Drag queen

Drag queen

Designer jeans for men are to ‘cool’ what drag queens are to Victoria’s Secret models, and John Varvatos skinny jeans are pretty much a black hole for everything that bullies like me find intolerable—along with every stitch of anything else sold at Urban Outfitters—even clothing that doesn’t damage iPhone 6 Pluses.  See, these pants are meant to telegraph Cappiello’s laid-back, informal approach to hawking hundred dollar bottles of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, but to people whose thighs are manly and normal because they do not subsist on organic kale chips and Fred Water in refillable BPA-free bottles that can be upcycled into T-shirts after several uses, they are manifestly uncomfortable, and hence, a joke.

sturgisAnd ain’t Schott the schitt?  Gather round, chirrun, as Uncle Chris offers you crib sheets for your Coolology 101 final exam:  Leather jackets jumped the shark the same moment that Fonzie did.  But let’s offer Mr. Cappiello, who shares Mr. Fonzarelli’s ancestry, the benefit of the doubt: Done correctly, a suitably-weathered leather coat can still be worn to one’s street-cred credit.   I say ‘weathered’ because the entire reason for the existence of black leather jackets is performance—i.e., to protect bikers from road rash when they fall off their motorcycles drunk.  When, instead of wearing it, you hang your brand-new, $700 dollar leather jacket that’s shinier than Ving Rhames skull (with a faux-flannel lining, no less) from the crook of your titanium-wolf’s-head ring-wearing finger as though you might, at any moment, succumb to an inner call to drop your wine gig and ride your Dyna Superglide to Sturgis, where you will promptly be beaten and robbed, you have committed coolness’s equivalent of the My Lai massacre.

You might as well tattoo ‘Fuckwit’ on your forehead.

Speaking of tattoos, even though Patrick’s ink is not called out specifically on the chart, that’s no reason not to make fun of it.  He claims tats of St. Vincent of Saragossa, the patron saint of winemakers and St. Urban of Langres, the patron saint of wine workers.  For the record, I checked Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints and it turns out that St. Vincent is actually the patron saint of cappuccino machines and St. Urban is the patron saint of righteous white wankers getting offended on behalf of minorities.  Which, if you think about it, is more apropos.

Original_Ian_Curtis_grave_stone_-_2008T-Shirt:  Imagine the most fun and manic band ever, then subtract the fun and divide the manic by bipolar depression and you’ve got Joy Division; the Ingmar Bergman of punk without the Swedish miserablist’s intellectual depth.  Consider that the soul-crushing group disbanded after the lead singer hung himself in his mother’s kitchen and then try to guess why you’d wear a Joy Division t-shirt to work the floor in an upscale restaurant.  Ah—like the band’s name—irony again?

Clipboard stewCapping this grisly ensemble is Patrick Cappiello’s head, his wolven, smirking,  pearly-ashen peepers peering from Warby Parker glasses, a brand that pretty much epitomizes why he got swirleed at summer camp. Retro nerd specs on Elvis Costello, who is essentially cool, may work, but retro nerd specs on a genuine nerd do not—they merely magnify the condition.  In fact, a sommelier putting on geek glasses causes an unstoppable, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction that continues until said somm dissolves entirely into a gloppy crockpot of noob stew.

Note: If this column offended any readers, inadvertently or advertently, be it known that I intend to hold our reader/writer friendship hostage by threatening to write a column about you and the fact that you still wet the bed if you do not laugh out loud right this very minute and instantly ‘like’ and repost this post on the handy tabs given below.

Now, if we have reached an understanding, it’s time for you to bend over and give me your lunch money.

*

http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-10-09/what-i-wear-to-work-sommelier-patrick-cappiello

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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.

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