Primitivo: A Gentle Giant

Having lived through the zinfandel vetting process, I can say unequivocally that I like some of the a.k.a.’s better than others, and maybe primitivo best of all.

A bag o' zin for God.

A bag o’ zin for God.

Back in primitive times—that is to say, prior to the advent of genetic fingerprinting—zinfandel was considered an Old Glory grape, as American as tornados, Westboro Baptists and lynch mobs.  We hoarded the bragging rights, even if we didn’t particularly like the wine, snootily swearing that the grape was first domesticated by Spanish missionaries, even if we didn’t particularly like Spanish people or God.

Then in 1975, at the vanguard of the same technology that allows innocent people to be freed from prison after thirty years, a Ph.D candidate named Wade Wolfe used then vogue isozyme markers to show that zinfandel and primitivo di gioia—a grape grown predominately in Puglia, Italy’s ‘heel’—were the same.  Dr. Wolfe, incidentally, is still making marvelous, off-center wines in Washington under the Thurston Wolfe label, including primitivo.

Plavac mali

Plavac mali

The following year, the plot thickened as it became clear that primitivo was a relatively recent arrival to the Puglian countryside, only tracing it’s Italianhood back to the 1870s; further analysis suggested that the grape might have originated in Croatia, where a Dalmatian variety called plavac mali stood out to U.S. plant pathologist Austin Goheen as a likely culprit.

As zinfandel/primitivo unmasked, plavac won the early support of Croatian-born/Napa wine legend Mike Grgich, who thought the rich, early-ripening plavac grape produced a wine that was close enough for Department of Agriculture work.  At the time, he was quoted in Croat wine mag Svijet u èačiš as saying, “Plavac mali, which our ampelographers say is an autochtonous cultivar, is for sure the same cultivar as one abroad very famous as zinfandel.”

Mike Grgich holding a glass of something you can't pronounce.

Mike Grgich holding a glass of something you can’t pronounce.

He then formed a zin-centric group called ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) which secured funding for an extensive series of DNA tests, ultimately, by the turn of the 21st century, concluding that plavac mali was a scion grape—a cross between local Croatian parents crljenak kaštelanski and dobričić.

Indeed, based on more exacting genetic evidence, crljenak kaštelanski turned out to be zinfandel wrapped up in a bunch of diacritical letters and unpronounceable consonants.

Now, I don’t mind sharing the fact that this gives me a duodenum’s worth of agita.  To me, zinfandel being primitivo was as far as these fancy-degreed poindexters—who should be spending public funds finding cures for hiccups and hangovers—needed to take it.  In my mind’s eye, ‘primitivo’ conjures up an image of Raquel Welch in ‘One Million Years B.C.’; a churning melon-breasted urn of burning prehistoric oomph wrapped up in savage, seam-busting sensuality.

‘Crljenak kaštelanski’ is thick-thighed Olga with rolled-up bog pants and a pitchfork full of stank.

Stop ruining everything, Jancis.

Stop ruining everything, Jancis.

And then, along comes Jancis ‘Can’t Leave Well Enough Alone’ Robinson, who in 2012 relied upon even more recent research and declared that zinfandel’s official name should be ‘tribidrag’, which—if such a thing were possible—is even worse.  A tribidrag isn’t even a human being; it’s a furry, galumphing, phantasmagorical and decisively non-sexy beast that brilligs beneath the slithy Tum-Tum tree trove.

How do you say ‘yuck’ in Croatian?

Enter The Flagon

'One Million Boners B.C.' (before color)

‘One Million Boners B.C.’ (before color)

Anyway, for the scope of this scribble, I’m not looking farther than Tormaresca Primitivo 2012 to put my stake in the ground. This wine is lush and elegant, less like Raquel Welch and more like Sofia Loren, who grew up on the Italian coast opposite the town of Bari from whence this wine hails.  And not only from Bari, but specifically from the vineyard at Minervino Murge which—speaking of vaporous Victorian visions—sounds like a character from Dickens.  The estate is owned by the hallowed Antinori clan, part of the considerable investment they made in Puglia in 1998, including corporate offices in Bari and two vineyards totaling 1500 acres.

One of the charms of California zinfandel has been its stylistic versatility; it is vinified as a simple, picnic/barbecue wine (Cline), a brooding, miles-deep old vine wine (Ravenswood); port-like (Rosenblum), and, of course, the ubiquitous white zinfandel which outsells the others many times over, and despite the reputation that precedes it, can be extremely suppable (Turley).

Tormaresca_Primitivo_bottle_shot_hi-resPrimitivo, for the most part, has not yet seen the need for mass marketing, and has been a consistent workhouse in southern Italy, often grown to shore up thinner reds from northern Italy—much as Lodi zin has enriched Napa cabs in lean years.  But it rarely is vinified in the blockbuster, big-tannin, super-ripe style for which California zins often strive—its palate pallet contains less of the wild, bramble fruits of the New World than the clean berry and licorice flavors of the Old Word spiced up with nutmeg, clove and cedar.

The Tormaresca Primitivo I tasted added a different dimension; one that I cannot recall noting previously in this grape’s many faces—a freshness that brought to mind the grapey immediacy of carbonic maceration.  The tannins are softer, rounder and more integrated than in blustery, toasty, compote-flavored zins from Dry Creek and stronger than in wines typically fermented using the whole-grape technique; the flavors are bright red; currant, cherry and raspberry.

Had I blind-tasted this wine, I would have noted (with some confidence) that it was a cru Beaujolais.

At around $13 a bottle, it’s priced more like a bouncy Beaujolais Nouveau, however—most Puglian primitivos are priced to move.  This one great candidate not only for a rose-by-any-other-name zin/primitivo/crljenak kaštelanski/ taste-off, but as a new face for an old favorite.

"Beware the tribidrag my son."

“Beware the tribidrag my son.”

At last check, despite the apparent identicality of the variety, only seven hundred acres of California are planted to ‘primitivo’ compared to nearly fifty thousand to ‘zinfandel’.  This is in part because the TTB recognizes both grapes, but as unique, non-synonymous entities, so producers must decide which name they are going to run with.  The balance is swayed heavily in favor of California’s coddled cub.

See, what primitivo needs is a PR champion to work a nation-wide campaign to bring this grape into prominence; something cute and catchy from an old-school Mad Man.  What about moi?

Two words for you, farmers, wineries, vintners, owners, distributors, wholesalers, retailers and marketing whizbangs; a freebie from Uncle Chris:

White Primitivo.

Posted in BY VARIETAL, ITALY, Zinfandel | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gérard Depardieuchebag

First off, I don’t buy it: The bizarre claim made by French luné-toon Gérard Depardieu about drinking fourteen bottles of wine a day has been greeted with a combination of awe, back-slapping, high-fiving, hero worship and a little bit of bemused head-shaking, but not with the only appropriate reaction:

Utter disregard.

dep putin

“How are you, my little amuse-bouche? Togezzer ve shall kill ze lions, no?”

That Depardieu is psychotic is not in question:  The publicity hawg  superstar of such recent blockbusters as Zaitsev+1 and Sport bez granits and such timeless classics as Get Out Your Handkerchiefs and Je t’aime… moi non plus (none of which received so much as a baby toe’s-up from  Siskell or Ebert) lost his tenuous grip on reality two years ago when he sought—and gained—Russian citizenship.

Showing up in Moscow worked out about as well for him as it did for his compatriot Napoleon, and he has been roundly mocked for his unwavering support of puny, punk, pink-pated, pusillanimous Putin.  Prior to that, he’d moved just across the border to Belgium to avoid paying wealth tax because the French government levies 75% on personal income over a million euros.  But before Depardieu’s tax dodge makes you nod with quick-witted civil disobedient approval, consider that the Flemish tax rate is 50%; had he moved to Andorra, which is just as close to France, he’d have paid under 10%.

Before and after 8000 win calories a day.

Before and after 8600 wine calories per day.

Although it must be said—somewhere among these chic zip code changes he must have moved to London and converted his body to £.

In any case, as someone who knows even less about cinema than I do about wine—but still wear my credential-free critic’s badge proudly—I must say that the charm of this Yukon Gold-schnozzed beached whale-a-rilla totally eludes me.  In every English-language film I’ve seen him in (Green Card, Hamlet, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi) his accent sounded ludicrous and his acting looked painful and forced.  Maybe he does better in the langue maternelle—dunno, I don’t speak it—but from what I’ve seen, he ain’t no Jean-Paul Belmondo.  Now, granted, he’s not the first hallowed, aging, self-obsessed actor to let himself go in terms of physique and psyche, but at least Brando could claim Apocalypse Now on his late-life resume.

Playing a cartoon character in Astérix—France’s answer to Scooby-Doo 2—just doesn’t cut it.

Obelix Gerard DepardieuBut that’s just my IMHO IMDb take, and on a subject where my expertise is probably a french fry or two short of a Happy Meal.  The thrust of this piece, of course is the half-baked claim of a fully-baked flake with a double-baked potato for a nose.

And when it comes to the brobdingnagian consumption of ethanol—alas—I have a shelf-full of Oscars.

Before my ‘Check Liver’ light came on a few years ago, I drank with the sort of abandon usually reserved for abandoned men inside abandoned buildings—a fifth of vodka a day, or its equivalent, was more my norm than my exception. That’s a statistic of which I’m not particularly proud, and in fact, having undergone a non-voluntary blood test in an ER ordered by some cop (not driving related, I promise) a number of years ago, I came out with a score so high that the attending physician re-checked my vitals to make sure I wasn’t dead.  Despite the buzz, I recall the whole occasion with dreadful, crystal clarity, including the bottle of wine I opened within ten minutes of getting out of the hospital.  That’s some pretty shameful, outta-control shit; I know.

In any case, that kind of lifestyle does not tend to lend itself to productivity, longevity or conviviality and I kept it up as long as I could live with myself, and once I grokked that in the best of scenarios I wouldn’t be living with myself for long, I stopped.

Not Pinocchio, but close enough for Equity work.

Not Pinocchio, but close enough for Equity work.

Now, I may not weigh as much as Jerry Depardieu, and neither may my Ford 150 with an extended cab full of abandoned men, but the idea that anyone actually drinks 14 bottles of wine in one day—let alone every day—defies reason.

And his insistence that he remains a functional lush nonetheless is the sort of delusion that pretty much pervades the conversations of most final-stage alcoholics.

Instead of calling him out on it, however, the prevailing attitude I’ve seen so far has been, for the most part, people claiming to be impressed.

Ha!  Let’s look at the science, then.  Figure at a modest 12% alcohol-by-volume, a bottle of wine contains a little over three ounces of pure, undiluted ethanol.  Since even a Bo and Luke still can’t produce moonshine that pure, nobody—not even hardcore career drunks—drinks undiluted booze.  At eighty proof, as most liquor is sold, the amount of ethanol in a bottle of wine equates to four-and-a-half shots.

A fifth of booze contains about seventeen 1½ oz shots; so, if Mr. Potato Nose is drinking fourteen bottles of wine per day, he is downing the equivalent of… wait for it… nearly four bottles of standard-strength liquor a day, every day, and not getting noticeably drunk.  Or pronounceably dead.

And, please note that this does not even take into consideration that at  around 123 calories per glass of wine, that’s over 8600 calories per day, and before Happy Meals.

Sorry, kids; I call bullshit.

But, hey; the art of acting is the not only the art of bullshitting, but (to do it credibly) the art of believing your own bullshit.

Maybe Gérard Depardieu does exactly that.  Now, what’s your excuse?

Clipboard monsterAlthough the callboards at most equity gigs post rules prohibiting the use of alcohol on the set, I suppose if I can sober up, so can Russia’s favorite citizen, Mr. Spudnik.  In fact, I’m recommending him for a role in the next Mystery, Inc. sequel, Scooby Depardieu 3: Curse Of The Potato-Nosed Monster.

I’m thinking that underneath the monster mask we’re gonna find a fat, fuddled, fustian French fibster.

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Inside The Scatterbrain Of Sean O’Keefe

(Part One of a two part interview with Chateau Grand Traverse VP Sean O’Keefe; both parts appear in Heart & Soil: Grand Traverse Wine Country, set for release Dec., 2014)

Sean O'Keefe

Sean O’Keefe

‘Scatterbrain’ is his word, not mine.  Actually, Sean O’Keefe is one of the most singularly focused winemakers in the twin peninsulas.  Most vintners up here like to say Trockenbeerenauslese; Sean learns the entire German language.  Most Michigan riesling producers read books on Rhein grape cultivation; Sean moves to Germany and lives it.  Ask a riesling fanatic to list their favorite producers, no problem—but Sean actually tracks them down at the source and asks them questions.

On the other hand—to Sean’s scatterbrain point—when I finally caught up with him, it was after two failed attempts earlier in the summer, one in which he forgot he had other things going on and another when he simply forgot to show up.  Even this time, he forgot that he only had an hour before the babysitter had to boogie.

Chef Gabe forgets to tip his hat.

Chef Gabe forgets to tip his hat.

No worries, Scatterbrain—I don’t have a problem cooling my heels inside Traverse City’s insta-heirloom Franklin restaurant with its salvaged, century-old back bar from a honky-tonk in Marquette, where Chefs Myles Anton and Gabe Rodriguez have managed a fanciful, phenomenal fusion of Northern Michigan standbys and global culinary sensibility, and attention to detail is so precise that owner Paul stopped by the table to remind us to tip, presumably because we were taking up table space with a wine tasting and not actually ordering dinner.

Somehow, the etiquette cops among you will be relieved to note, Sean and I managed a fusion of our twin scatterbrain-power and global weren’t-born-yesterday sensibility and remembered to tip.

whackamoleThe table space and view overlooking bustling Front Street in downtown Traverse City was fine; but not so fine as a dive into Sean’s private stock of rieslings while playing Whack-A-Mole with Sean’s rapid-fire delivery, scrawling notes so fast that half of what I write is probably wrong anyway.

In any case, from what I can gather, Sean—who grew up in a communal  wine swell bigger than Grand Traverse Bay—did not begin his winemaking career intending to be a winemaker.  Three reasons for that: First, his father Ed O’Keefe (founder of Chateau Grand Traverse and Old Mission wine in general) already had a winemaker in German-born Bernd Croissant; second, the possibility that Ed, dealing with the economy of the late Eighties might decide to sell the winery was very real; and third, he sort of preferred beer anyway.

pfleger bottleBut in the early nineties, as Michigan was beginning to find its stride with riesling, Ed opted to keep and grow the business, and as such, he convinced his number-two son (firstborn Ed Jr. wears the title CGT President) to travel to Pfalz for some formal wine training.  There, Sean apprenticed at Weingut Jakob Pfleger while studying viticulture at the nearby wine school in Neustadt, and from there, to the wine college in Geisenheim.

It was an unexpected awakening for Sean, and, in fact, altered the trajectory of his future.

A New Lese on Life

“German wine had been in the doldrums before reunification,” he posits.  “Pretty much, only those in the industry knew who were making the good wines, so when I went, I was able to cherry pick top estates—Georg Breuer, Johannes Leitz, Helmut Dönhoff to see exactly what they were doing to buck the trend toward bulk-produced, tutti-frutti German wines.”

'We have seen the enemy, and he's a she.'

‘We have seen the enemy, and he’s a she.’

The Seventies and Eighties saw a huge market for these wines, with Blue Nun and Black Tower (which weren’t even made from riesling) dominating the market and selling over two million cases of semi-sweet honeybear drool in the United States every year.

In the meantime, the improvements being made at the Weingut level were largely behind the scenes and employed by winemakers not interested in international mass-marketing.  They were moving away from estery yeasts that produced giant, consumer-pandering aromatics (often at the expense of depth) and had begun to pay requisite attention to the can’t-neglect details needed in chilly Teutonic wineland to produce top-shelf riesling.  In Pfalz—the world’s largest riesling-growing region—this movement was gathering steam just as Sean was arriving, and he saw immediately that the techniques and upgraded mindsets transforming the makers of elite, terroir-driven rieslings could be lessons-learned for Northern Michigan.

“The Germans have lapped everyone else so many times that I wanted to be on the ground floor of this new wave of riesling production.  When I got into the wine business, Northern Michigan had thirty years of experience with riesling.  German traditions go back five centuries.”

Sean describes his winemaking as ‘intuitive’—(“I spent biochemistry class staring out the window”)—and realistic: “Thanks to climate change, Germany is dealing with a whole new set of agricultural parameters.  They no longer have anything that we’d consider a ‘Michigan winter’.  A bad year for them is a good year for us.”

Pondering in ponderous impenetrables at The Franklin

Pondering in ponderous impenetrables at The Franklin

A new generation of climate combined with a new generation of savvy, resulting in revolutionary improvements he saw first-hand while working Pfleger fields and cellars.  When he returned to Old Mission Peninsula. Sean had banked a keen respect for two seemingly opposing approaches (the balance between which was key):  Knowing when to grab the rudder and when to leave nature to take her course.

It turned out that when you followed those precepts, the riesling that came out the business end of the tank was different than a lot of the rieslings Michigan was used to producing—and different from what Michiganders were used to drinking.

“There is a longer time when the fermented wine is left on the lees—first rack’s in January, and this adds a certain savoriness to riesling.  It tends to show more layers and equilibrium and I believe it ages better.”

pfleger bottleAlso, slightly higher pH makes them more susceptible to bacteria, and occasionally, malolactic fermentation kicks in.  To many riesling producers in the United States, malo is viewed as the kiss of death, but the truth is, not everyone insists on a razor-sharp riesling, and some sniffers find the slightly buttery aromas behind the classic green apple, citrus and mineral nose to be an appealing balance.  In Alsace, for example, primo producer Zind-Humbrecht takes a somewhat less intransigent view of malolactic fermentation (during which sharp malic acid is transformed to softer lactic acid), allowing the wine to do what it needs to do.  Evidence is their ‘Calcaire’—a dry malo-riesling possessed of a startling and delightful velvety texture.

Oenococcus oeni

Oenococcus oeni

With Sean, any malo is rare and accidental, but neither does he go to chemical means to prevent it—for the most part, the spontaneous onset of malo (rather than the purposeful introduction of Oenococcus oeni cultures) tends to happen only in particularly warm vintages where fruit comes in at pH values above 3.2, and Old Mission Peninsula doesn’t see too much of that.

The wines for which Sean O’Keefe has earned the respect of such riesling groupies as Stuart Pigott and everywine pro Jancis Robinson originated as experimental batches he launched upon his return from the Pfalz.

‘Whole Cluster’ Riesling was one of these dress rehearsals, and it became such a long-run hit that Sean occasionally regrets locking himself into the name.

Anatomy of a grape

Anatomy of a grape

When employed in white white production, whole cluster pressing is used to minimize the astringency that sometimes leaves a slightly unpleasant bitterness at the end of a wine—this is in part the result of mechanical destemming, which can actually add more woodiness to the wine by the rather aggressive crushing of the stems.  With whole cluster pressing, intact bunches are slowly (key word) pressed to extract grape juice, but not stem juice.  As the theory goes, by pressing whole clusters in measured, but gentle increments, the berries tend to rupture at the grape end opposite the pedicle (cap stem) and release juice from various physiological zones at different times, and thus, can be controlled.  Rarely are the proanthocyanidins in grape stems, seeds and skins detectable in wines which have been whole-cluster pressed.

whole cluster bottleThat’s the laws of physics and the science of biology; organoleptics tell their own story.  Sean’s Whole Cluster Riesling 2012 fulfills both the promise and the premise—it is soft and supple without any pithy edges; the super-perfumes of other upstate wines are traded for deep scents of citrus, stone and rich, almost creamy peach notes.  It is a beautifully structured, many-layered wine and very Prädikatsweiny in an (ironically) dry, but honeyed and caramelized sugar way.

Lot 49 is another of Sean’s brain children; a subset, he says, of Whole Cluster.  From a new, west-facing Old Mission vineyard situated on what geologists refer to as a ‘drumlin’, the vines undergo three separate ‘sweeps’; about a quarter is picked early, when acids are barbaric, most is picked around the third week of October when the Brix has risen to the low twenties.  Then, a third pass over the vineyard is undertaken in November, when a touch of botrytis may be present. The acidic reserve takes on the concentrated syrup of the late harvest and enjoy, along with the middle three quarters, a long, slow fermentation with plenty of yeast lees contact, adding savory complexity to the wine—actually made from a French riesling clone, Entav-Inra #49.

lot 49“Riesling is no fool’s game,” Sean explains about Lot 49; “and my goal is always to unify the layers that develop at various stages of the process.  I use techniques I learned from my German compatriots, included a primary fermentation in  stainless steel, when most of the heat is generated, then a longer, slower hibernation in stücks.  These are German barrels, oak, oval in shape and holding 300 gallons, so that there is not a lot of contact between wine and wood.  This leaves a riesling which has sacrificed a little fruit for structure; it may taste a bit restrained to people used to the juicy-fruit wines you can smell across the room, but a lot of these have their acid bones sticking out—a lot of them come across as margarita mix masquerading as riesling.”

Indeed, Sean avoids all temptation to produce what he refers to as ‘catalogue wines’—wines made from designer yeasts promising specific estery results, flavor-enhancing enzymes, derivatives and fining agents.  He is absolutely in tune with his terroir—which is to say, he is honest about its limitations.  “In Michigan, grapes don’t always ripen uniformly; in 2009, our yields were barely able to skitter over the finish line.  We have narrow parameters and I prefer to work within those, and that means no chaptalizing (adding sugar) and not trying to produce quick wines with a lot of up-front, simplistic appeal on release, but which quickly become vampires in the sunlight and die quick deaths.  My wines are made to age with grace and become more complex—not less complex—in the years after they are bottled.”

It can be a frustrating go, but it’s a struggle that all minimalist winemakers face, especially those in wine country where—as happened in the winter of 2013-2014—the lake effect fails as Lake Michigan freezes and a huge portion of the crop succumbs to winter kill.

Jancis with a glass of something rieslingy.

Jancis with a glass of something rieslingy.

But in the really fine years, the dividends of Sean O’Keefe’s level of dedication and integrity pay off.  Take 2010 for example, when all the je ne sais quoi combined with all the sais quoi and produced a wine so lovely that Jancis Robinson OBE, MW named it her February 10, 2012 Wine Of The Week.

Since I dig her writing chops, I’ll quote them verbatim: “I loved the energy in this wine, the slightly funky but extremely interesting nose and the fact that it tasted bone dry (total acidity is 7.8 g/l, pH 3.25) but had such an impressive array of wild-flower aromas. I gave it 17 points out of 20 for what it is worth and would drink it with great pleasure from now for the next five years.”

The only downside is that only 130 cases were made, so if you want some, you may be hard pressed (wine pun) to find any, not at any price—not even at trendy The Franklin, no matter how much you tip.

Posted in Michigan, Old Mission Peninsula, Riesling | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

To Be Or Tannat To Be: That’s The Question

Tannat is a wine geek’s grape, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.  Like cult films or cult bands, tannat is often dug for its brooding obscurity or transgressive potency more than for any sense of down-home approachableness.



Nonetheless, like Eraserhead or Lydia Lunch, tannat has a savagely loyal fan base. These include Jason Haas of Tablas Creek, who began to grow tannat in Paso Robles before the BATF even recognized it as a varietal; it includes the whole country of Uruguay, where it is considered the ‘signature grape’ (often under the name harriague); and there’s Bending Branch Winery, near Comfort, Texas, where they produce several wines outside of most people’s comfort zones, including picpoul, souzão, vermentino… and tannat.

And of course, there is Madiran.



In the shadow of the Pyrenees Mountains, fifty miles from the sea in the Southwestern France appellation of Madiran lies the European epicenter for tannat, a grape so hermetic, dense and implacable that it is often ‘softened’ with cabernet sauvignon.  Soils here are pebble, clay and limestone, and combined with the aggressive summer climate and ocean breezes—and especially, long, dry, sunny autumn ripening hang-times tempered with Pyrenees-rainshadow Foehn winds—make it an ideal climate for hefty red wines.

Which is, in fact, all that Madiran produces.

As a wine—as the name suggests—these reds, all made with some tannat and some made with all tannat, can be hugely puckery and nearly undrinkably astringent when they are young.  Bacchus or Dionysus or the man who changed water to wine or whoever is in charge of this stuff blessed tannat with a double-whammy of bitter polyphenolic compounds: Extra skin and extra seeds.  Most wine grapes have two or three seeds; tannat has five.  Unusually thick-skinned as well, wines from tannat have traditionally required long cellar aging to tame the most tenacious of these aggressors which in young wines can shock the palate with a sensation akin to sucking down puréed boat oar.

Patrick Ducournau

Patrick Ducournau

In 1990, following a technology innovation by Madiran vigneron Patrick Ducournau, certain winemakers realized that by the judicious, mechanical addition of tiny bubbles of oxygen during élevage—a wine’s pre-bottling ‘adolescence’ during which much of its character is formed—the harsh tannins are level-set much earlier than they would be sitting in a cellar.  Called ‘micro-ox’ in the industry, it is common practice throughout much of the wine world—Southern France especially—but it is not widely discussed, possibly because any artificial manipulation of a wine is viewed as marketing kryptonite.

Other wine producers like the iconic Alain Brumont of Château Montus don’t mention it because they don’t ‘resort to it’, at least according to Robert Parker.  Brumont—whose own remarkable story, rising from a field worker on his father’s estate to dominate the Madiran wine scene—is fodder for another column.  Today’s is how pure Madiran tannat, as ferocious and untamable as Brumont himself, handles itself over a decade or more of micro-ox-free aging.

I met with Vincent Thebaud, Vignobles Brumont’s export manager, and he walked me through a vertical of Château Montus ‘La Tyre’—the estate’s 25-acre vineyard planted on one of the appellation’s twenty-two hillsides.  Says Brumont, “The best terroir for making high-quality tannat wines is high up the slopes.”

la tyre vineyardLa Tyre, which Brumont purchased in 1988, produced its first single-vineyard wine in 2000, and so convinced was Brumont of the power and quality of this un-micro-oxed 100% tannat that a few years later he gathered a bunch of pros at Montus for a blind tasting, putting La Tyre 2002 in the ring with same-vintage champions from Château Cheval Blanc, Penfolds Grange, Ridge Monte Bello, Petrus and Mouton Rothschild.

…It won.

Alain Brumont

Alain Brumont

So remarkable (and true) is that often-reported statement that I—being a cynical sonuvabitch—figured there had to be a disclaimer involved.  And there is.  Performed by 60 independent ‘wine enthusiasts’ and supervised by ‘a famous wine critic’, the Rendezvous des Icônes is held yearly at Brumont, and the 2007 competition (the only one that Madarinophiles seem to mention) is also the only one where La Tyre won.

But, you see, Madiran is frequently a ‘disclaimer’ wine—‘it needs a food accompaniment’, ‘it needs cellar time’; ‘you to ‘understand’ the grape to appreciate the wine’.  For the most part, to me, this is like saying The Grateful Dead is a good band as long as you smoke a lot of dope.  And, the fact is, just because you have to understand a wine to like it does not mean that you will like it once you understand it.  For the most part, I prefer my wine clause-free.

L. to R.: Dan Glisky, Vincent Thebaud, Elie Boudt

L. to R.: Dan Glisky, Vincent Thebaud, Elie Boudt

In any case, the prize-winning 2002 was not among the vertical array presented by Vincent, nor was the original eye-opening vintage 2000.  Nor 2005; in fact, the vintages offered were, with the exception of 2009 (far too young to drink) less-than-stellar, and so my assessment of how disclaimer-laden Madiran tannins metamorphose comes with a disclaimer of its own.

I have included Vincent Thebaud’s comments with my own along with a couple other disclaimers, since we’re on a roll:

* Does Vincent know more about Madiran, tannat and Alain Brumont than I do?  Yes. 

* Do I work for Alain Brumont? No.


Tasting Notes:

Château Montus ‘La Tyre’, 2001:

2001Thebaud: Generous year with an explosion of fruits, very good concentration and great balance. Massive, ripe, with cassis, dark plum, dark cherry and meat flavors, this has big tannins as well, but they’re not out of bounds. Cardamom and exotic spice notes linger on the finish.

Kassel:  Blackberry, sharp acids and a heavy dose of popsicle stick beneath the berries—you can actually trace the tannins creeping underneath your upper lip.  Only the winemaker can judge what this wine will do in another five years, or maybe even he can’t say for sure, but I sense that the fruit here is heading to the exit faster than the chewiness.

Château Montus ‘La Tyre’, 2003:

Thebaud: A heat wave in Europe produced a very ripe harvest and thanks to the natural acidity of the tannat grape, the wines are perfectly balanced. Savory, evolved flavors of dried tobacco leaf, leather and spice; the wine has aged gracefully but is still full of life.

Kassel: A far more integrated wood and fruit equilibrium; the tannins are big, but settled in among a juicy, rustic collection of wild berry flavors, making them accessible.  Nice, clean tobacco notes fills the mid-palate and softer, but still dominate wood at the end.

Château Montus ‘La Tyre’, 2006:

bottlesThebaud: Weather caused less concentration in the grapes, but wine is very fruity and fresh. Lighter, juicy and lovely acidity with plush, elegant flavors of dark plum, kirsch, and Asian spice. The long finish is powered by dark chocolate and cream notes with medium-grained tannins.

Kassel:  Multi-layered, but these present themselves as strata and have not yet blended (if they ever will); sharp cranberry acids, chocolate-covered cherries standing out and a long wooden plank to walk at the end.  An intriguing wine though; would be curious to see where it ends up by the time, say, the next World Cup rolls around.

Château Montus ‘La Tyre’, 2007:

Thebaud: Complicated vintage, colder year, a real vintage for winemakers. Hard work in the vineyards and in the cellar. Quite minerally with a nice acidity and good tannins. Deep black cherry and red and black fruit compote; intense spicy notes and some swirls of smoke.

Kassel: Noting an almost cedar-flavored spice behind a creamy, black currant nose; huge fruit in the mouth, bright cranberry and morello cherry, a pleasant earthy crunchiness and black pepper notes, but as expected, again the tannins are serious and brutally self-confident.

singleChâteau Montus ‘La Tyre’, 2008:

Thebaud: Deep wine with ambition, aging slowly with a measured extraction. Freshness of fruit, but slender and racy for a Madiran.  Promises a great future, though.

Kassel:  Explosive, young and concentrated; the chocolate is huddled beneath a pronounced cherry tartness; a sharp, gunflint style of forwardness lightens the big woody backbone.

Château Montus ‘La Tyre’, 2009:

Thebaud: Great vintage, rich, concentrated, very ripe. Wide range of red fruits, black. Strong notes of black pepper, pulling notes of Mint, Eucalyptus. Precision of the tannins, aromatically extraverted, express has a rare personality, worthy of the greatest.

Kassel: By far the star of the show, with great fruit extraction; wet and sappy aromatics with pomegranate, cherry, tobacco leaf and a wonderful undertone of herbs and licorice.  So young, though, that the lip pucker is instinctive and immediate; I can’t imagine this wine being an enjoyable stand-alone beverage for several years yet.


These wines are not merely Madiran wines, they are totemically, unapologetically, comprehensively Madiran wines; they make no pretense to please the palates of the epicene gentry—they are rustic, bombastic wines for a complex, but solidly countryside mentality.  They take no prisoners, but if they make friends, they remain friends for the long haul.

Which is a good thing, because most of them will be hanging around the basement awhile before they are civil enough to be introduced to the upstairs gang.

Posted in FRANCE | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

When Wine Writers Go Rogue…

Greetings from Bridgewater  Hospital; wish you were here.

Greetings from Bridgewater Hospital; wish you were here.

Among my roster of social media fīda Achates, I number a number of wine writers.  Most wine writers, in fact.  It’s not because I particularly like wine writers; on the contrary, I dislike the bulk of them with the sort of impassioned enmity generally stockpiled among patients at the Bridgewater Hospital For The Criminally Insane.

That said, I manage to engage in playful wine banter with wine writers from time to time, because for the most part, they are innocuous, gentle, simple folks who rarely cross the line from unspeakably dull into palpably offensive, and when that happens, a nudge and a wink is often enough to get them back in line.

My kind of insane wine writer.

My kind of insane wine writer named Ron.

Naturally, there are a handful of you out there who are exceptions to prove the rule—wine writers able to compose legible English sentences while possessing impeccable palates as well as an innate sense of when to shut the f**k up, but why should I further stroke your egos by naming you?  You already know who you are.

No, the subject of today’s meander into malice and aforethought is neither the Johnny-With-Pabulum-In-The-Wine-Tulip style of snorefest commentary nor the narcissism-charged, pedantic tripe pedaled by men and women with plenty of wine sense but none of their own minisculeness along the boundless Infobahn.

Today lesson is considerably more narrow:

Wine columnists who use social media platforms to spread non-wine-related hideousity to an audience who befriended them specifically because of their wine columns.  Or wineries or labels or whatever.  And here I’ll name names.

The Houston Strangler

Last week, I received the Facebook equivalent of an ISIS YouTube beheading by wine columnist Ron Saikowski of the highly-decorated, if inbred clan of Houston Community Newspapers and the Pulitzer Prize-winning People Scene Magazine.

The other kind.

The other kind.

Okay, so perhaps I am gilding the lily by bestowing a bunch of made-up honors upon these local rags, but if your middle name is either Caucosoid or Europid and you have grammatical difficulty writing your own LinkedIn profile, these conservative tabloids may be your best outlet, which is certainly the case for Mr. Saikowski.

After all, Houston Community Newspapers’ National Media Kit promises ‘Controlled circulation targeting affluent single-family homes and guaranteed to reach the ‘right’ audience.’

If you think that last part was a typo and actually meant to say ‘white’ audience, you and me are singing from the same hymnal.

So, I have been reading Saikowski’s twatty tweets and nasty FB ‘status updates’ for nigh on five years, and whereas I recall seeing one or two about wine, the vast, vast, vast majority are virulent anti-Obama tirades.  I mean, his newspaper runs some Tea Party-esque editorials, granted, but this stuff is not only over the top, it is borderline psychotic.



How many Obama-hating comments does it take before one can be considered a serial psycho-poster?  Let’s return to the hallowed cells of Bridgewater, former home of The Boston Strangler, to find a corollary: According to the standard definition of a serial killer, an individual must murderalize at least three other individuals over at least a month before he or she can wear Belial’s sharpest horns.  Considering that Ron posts no less than three anti-POTUS rants per day, all of which either grossly distort facts or are blatant lies, I’d say he qualifies.

When you spew that much steady, uncompromising, unrelenting venom toward a man who will not even be in office in a couple of years, it’s a fair assumption that there is something about Obama beyond his politics that is getting under your… uh, skin.

Care to guess what?

I’ll ‘race’ you to the answer.  Ha ha ha; I should be writing a humor column like that syndicated douchenozzle Tom Purcell, whose ‘funny’ anti-Obama diatribes also appear in Houston Community Newspapers.

The Jyllands-Posten says 'This is a journalistic no-no.'

The Jyllands-Posten says ‘This is a journalistic no-no.’

Peppered judiciously among Ron’s hard-line non-wine no-spine whines are Jesus-drunk declarations against gay equality and—perhaps worse—some really ugly anti-Muslim propaganda. Not just low-hanging fruit about disliking ISIS beheadings, but evil crap designed specifically to infuriate and mock law-abiding followers of Islam, including crude portrayals of Mohammed as a sexual pervert.  If you don’t think Muslims take this sort of insult seriously, just ask Salman Rushdie. Or The Jyllands-Posten, who described a similar image of Mohammad they published in 2005 as ‘Denmark’s worst international relations incident since the Second World War’.

Now, at my age, I accept that not everyone basks beneath sunshine and incense, and that even the most single-minded bigot probably has a decent side buried somewhere beneath the hate.  An appreciation of excellent wine, maybe? The example I used to give was, ‘I’m sure even Charles Manson was a cute baby’ until I finally saw a picture of Charles Manson as a baby and it turns out that he was a spooky little shit right out of the gate.

Charles Manson as a baby.

Charles Manson as a baby.

Ron Saikowski may have been a spooky little shit right out the gate too, and he may be a spooky big shit today between wine flights, and frankly, I couldn’t care less.

However, what shocks me to the core is that in this era of hyper-connection—where a young woman takes a photograph of herself in her own home and a short hack later, a hundred million men (including me) are leering at it—is that somebody would use a wine column as a staging ground to launch toxic hate speech in a conjoined medium and not worry that his editor might see it.

Unless, of course, he already knows that his editor shares his views.

But what about the newspaper’s reported 1.7 million readers?  Are they all against gay rights? A sea of intolerant, radical Christians? Flag-wavers who love America while despising a huge portion of the people who live here? What about the rag’s targeted advertiser on a quest for the ‘right’ audience?  Teapublican Islamophobes to a man, woman and transsexual?

I tend to doubt it.

houston_community_newsAnd what about Houston Community Newspapers’ reported subscribers, 81% of whom are married and 64% with children?  How does blatant racism, vile contempt for a billion peaceful Muslims and gay-bashing fit with their family values? (Or are we back to comparisons with Manson’s family?)  Google Saikowski’s name and you get two immediate links to wine columns and a third to his Facebook page—a neat cyber-biography tied up with an online bow.  Should one of the Houston Community Newspapers’ 900,000 ‘unique’ monthly visitors care to learn more about their new resident wine pro and find, via social media, that he’s actually a serial psycho-poster, doesn’t that reflect back rather poorly on the newspaper’s vetting process?  Isn’t that like sneaking a peek at a hacked nude of Jennifer Lawrence and discovering she has a ton of back hair?  Somehow, regardless of how you witness a person’s bête noire reality, your vision of their day job is forever tainted with a soupçon of nausea.

Pre-rabid Yeller

Young Pre-rabid Yeller

So much for your readers, Ron. But to your fellow wine writers (who you represent simply by calling yourself one) you are scarier than any thicket of back hair, more insidious than a serial buzz-killer.  You are cancer; you are Old Yeller with rabies; you’re a Yank gone rogue, like Sarah Palin, only without the deep intellectual insights.

Wine is an equalizer, not a polarizer; wine is non-denominational, non-political, non-divisive.  Wine people welcome all comers, passports or green cards and regardless of their privately-held beliefs.  Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to drink free; give us your Charlie Mansons, your Salman Rushdies, your Albert DeSalvos, your nude, follically-challenged celebutants…

Keep your xenophobes, though.

So, the conclusion to the story would have been Ron Saikowski finally unfriending me, only first, he felt it necessary to send me a catty personal farewell message to say (among totes of rude stuff) ‘Goodbye, Chris’.  Except that—dingledork to the bitter end—he forgot to block me, so I was able to give him a heads up that this column was coming.

Hello, Ron.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way: Goodbye, Ron.

proglideAnd a word to the rest of you wise:  In 2014, the least of your worries is having naked photos of yourself spread across the planet.  We’ve all got blemishes and cellulite and appendix scars and circles under our eyes; it can’t be helped.  What you need to worry about is that your naked psyche will start making the global rounds.  Because, however much that can be helped, there are a whole lot of Ron Saikowskis out there who shun the Norelco of Tolerance, the Gillette of Acceptance, the ProGlide of Integrity and prefer to let their grodiest back hair fly.

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Why Swiss Cheese Is Holy: Raclette-Making in Sutton’s Bay

The only thing more mid-America wholesome than church-going is cheese-making, so it’s fitting that John and Anne Hoyt—after years of bouncing around temporary Leelanau digs—landed inside the defunct Sutton’s Baby Bible Church.  Although it must be said, I can understand how you could go belly-up producing labor-intensive artisan cheese in a style most Michiganders have never heard of, but how do you flop as a church?

No matter; so far, the score is God – 0, Raclette – 1.

Jesus jokes in church.  Anne and John Hoyt are lucky lightning doesn't strike.

Jesus jokes in church. Anne and John Hoyt are lucky lightning doesn’t strike.

The story begins in the pastoral hills of Valais, Switzerland, home to half of Swiss wine production as well as ground zero for raclette—the semi-soft cheese whose eponymous dish is a culinary mainstay of this small, landlocked country.  Both Valaisian traditions combined to make John and Anne Hoyt; he was an exchange student from Detroit learning French while picking up seasonal work in the vineyards; she was a cowgirl from France doing seasonal work in the alpages of the Swiss mountains.  They met in 1986 at one of the many Swiss junctions where these two culture cultures meet and, finding that he had had more interest in caseiculture than viticulture, John went to Chateauneuf School in Valais to earn his cheese degrees.

After stints at several respected Swiss dairy co-ops, John and Anne traveled to Oregon, where John’s brother had an in at Springfield Creamery (owned by author Ken Kesey’s family) and from there, to Omena, Michigan in the Leelanau Peninsula where John used his European-honed pruning skills at Boskydel, L. Mawby, Leelanau Cellars and  Good Harbor, socking away nickels and dimes and on the lookout for a stainless steel pasteurizing vat so that the couple could pursue their one and true love.

Omena, pre-Hoyt

Omena, pre-Hoyt

“I finally found one in a neighbor’s basement; original purpose unknown,” John says, “but it was a steel-jacketed vat the right size to pasteurize enough milk to make eight wheels of raclette per day—our goal at the time.  We set up shop in an unused room next to Keith Brown’s Omena Harbor bar.  It used to be a gas station bay, so we had to clean the oil off the floors and fire up the boiler in the basement for heat.  That went well enough; I paid Keith a couple hundred dollars a month for use of the stalls and a percentage of sales.”

Hoyt's ready market for the leftovers

Hoyt’s ready market for the leftovers

A workable business plan until Brown sold the bar and the new owner neglected to pay the utility bills.  Cheesemaking, besides being a sterile proposition, requires precise temperature control.  “We were reduced to bringing in propane tanks to run the operation, and that got old pretty quickly.”

Add to that the stress of hauling milk up from Garvin Farms in Cedar in the back of his Ranger, nine cans at a time, and the future of Leelanau Cheese hung in the balance.

Black Star Farms days

Black Star Farms days

It was finally tipped by Lee Lutes, who in 2000 was (and is) the winemaker at Black Star Farms.  The cheeseworks relocated to the Farm, where Anne and John acidified, coagulated and separated curds from whey in full view of a semi-tipsy crowd in the winery tasting room.  They tripled production, upping the ante to 24 wheels per vat every couple days and found retail outlets that essentially bought every pound they didn’t sell through Black Star’s lively souvenir shop.

That lasted for fourteen years—and I recall it being a mandatory stop in Sutton’s Bay for plenty of those years.  Whatever happened I am not a party to—somebody cheesed somebody off, who knows?—maybe it was just time to move on—but the new operation in the repurposed sacellum, where the sprawling ex-prayer room serves as the the place where the magic happens, is perfect.

To Brie or Not to Brie…

"Not much of a cheese shop, really, is it?"

“Not much of a cheese shop, really, is it?”

Had John Cleese wandered into Leelanau Cheese, his conversation with John and Anne Hoyt might have progressed exactly as it did in the classic Monty Python sketch; there’s no caerphilly, perle de Champagne, gorgonzola, camembert or mozzarella—certainly no Venezuelan beaver cheese—and of the thirty-seven other cheeses the customer requests in his frustrating television attempt to cheese-up, he makes no mention of raclette.  Too bad: If he had, he’d have walked out a happy man.  Like Germany and wine, Leelanau Cheese makes only one product and makes it better than anyone else.

Don’t take my word for it, though.  The American Cheese Society awarded John and Anne Best of Show in 2007 and at the Michigan State Fair, they’re seven times champions. Follow-up awards from the Wisconsin-sponsored U.S. Championship Cheese Contest must have been like a California wine winning the Judgment of Paris in 1976.

Raclette wheels

Raclette wheels

So, what is raclette?  Like most people, I thought it was the name of the 1970s melted-cheese party dish like fondue rather than the cheese itself, but it turns out that raclette day was a lazy one for people-who-name-meals.  Raclette is classified as either semi-soft or semi-hard (as riesling—an ideal accompaniment—can be labeled ‘semi-dry’ or ‘semi-sweet’ depending on the marketing strategy) and is characterized by an edible, nut-brown crust that forms after a brine bath and an inoculation of yeast and coryneform bacteria; the cheese then undergoes a period of cellar aging during which it is washed with salt water daily.

In the ideal wheel, the interior is smooth, ivory-colored and gently piquant with flavors of buttery hazelnuts, herbs and resplendent with earthy complexity.  Melted, preferably before a roaring hearth fire and requisite in serving raclette-the-meal, it becomes velvety and runny and traditionally accompanies small Valaisian potatoes and gherkins.

Unwilling to be labeled ‘one-trick-ponies’, the Hoyts produce not one, but two presentations of raclette, neither made from pony milk.  The ‘sharp’ version undergoes prolonged aging in order to ripen; up to ten months in a temperature and humidity controlled environment.

Wannabe cheese cave, Sept., 2014

Wannabe cheese cave, Sept., 2014

On the day I visited, work was underway to construct a massive steel-and-concrete cellar in the rear of the property, which, when completed, will be to cheesemaking what the Large Hadron Collider is to particle physics—both inventions of the Swiss, by the way.  Age-time is always a delicate balance between spoilage and improveage; that’s why it has to be approached with such surgical precision.  Done correctly, a transformation of casein proteins and milk fat into a complex mix of amino acids, amines and fatty acids happens gradually, turning a mild, milky young cheese into a graceful oldster filled with character and depth.  The tang of aldehydes and alpha-keto acids offer a sensory experience that is often called ‘sharp’, although like ‘Reserve’ on a wine label, there is no industry standard for such a designation.  In any case, Leelanau Cellars’ aged raclette offers an array of variations on a theme: Beneath the taffy-colored rind, the pungency is more pronounced, the nuttiness nuttier and the richness redoubled in a slightly drier package; there is a savory weight to it that seems almost meat-like. For the extra two and a half bucks a pound, it is well worth it.

palinWhen asked why he has not branched out into other cheese varieties, through curiosity, if nothing else, John Hoyt gave me the same sort of puzzled stare that Michael Palin did when asked if he carried cheddar, the most popular cheese in the world—a look that said, “Not much call for it around these parts.”  In fact, cheddaring—an add-on process in cheesemaking wherein the curds are kneaded and stacked—is something requiring extra time, extra space and extra practice, none of which the Hoyts are currently able to invest.

“I would like to try my hand at Gruyère,” he admits, naming the other, similar quintessentially Swiss cheese, which is a little like a pinot blanc maker saying he’d like to branch out into pinot gris.

For now, we’ll have to settle for the raclette and the Cheesus puns; the glittery highbrow and the guttery lowbrow that makes Leelanau Cheese Co. such a Pythonesque paradigm.

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Bryan Ulbrich: Putting His Left Foot Forward

Sitting outdoors on one of those quintessential Traverse City summer afternoons that are chilly and hot simultaneously, Bryan Ulbrich pours a glass of something special.

Bryan Ulbrich

Bryan Ulbrich

At least, he maintains that it will be special; the vines are young and this is the first vintage ever bottled—the grower planted a single acre and he only ended up with 35 cases.

The wine is as much a oddball in Grand Traverse wine country as Bryan Ulbrich is an icon and Left Foot Charley a landmark: Chenin blanc.

Chenin blanc, often called ‘Steen’ in South Africa and ‘Pineau de la Loire’ in the Loire—two regions responsible for the most alluring incarnations of the variety—is a high-acid grape as suitable for a sparkle as it is for dessert wine: Sélection de Grains Nobles from the Loire’s Coteaux du Layon are potent, honeyed versions of the latter.

Chenin grapes

Chenin grapes

South Africa produces twice the amount of chenin blanc that France does; in fact, with more than 20% of all their vineland planted to this varietal, they make more than anyone in the world, although the bulk (no pun) is monumentally forgetable.  Whereas it has a unique flavor profile, showing notes of lime, green apple and especially, an odd overtone of garden shrubbery—what the South Africans call ‘fynbos’—it tends to be somewhat neutral and flat-tasting without a lot of terroir expression.  In cooler vintages, it verges on undrinkably acidic, and not only that, the buds tend to break very early in the season.

So why chenin blanc here in the Great White North and why now?  Ulbrich quickly passes the buck:

“The grower insisted, that’s why.  It was a project he believed in.  The first planting failed, and the plants refused to shut down; they were still green in November.  Next year, we had better luck, and that’s the vintage you’re tasting.”

Bryan Ulbrich has a habit of trusting his growers, which is one of the reasons he’s one of the Grand Traverse winemakers that I trust implicitly in return. Over the many years that I’ve been sampling his stock, I can say without question that he rarely fails on the delivery.

His youthful, alluring chenin blanc was no exception. Wines made from first harvests can be mono-dimensional, based in part on root depth, but the aromatics here were bright and strikingly layered, with peach, green plum, guava and—in nacent form—the herbal crunch of late summer that so distinguishes this grape in a wine glass.  As vines age, they tend to ‘wise up’, delving deeper for nuance flavors through various soil strata, and I have no doubt that this is a rising star in the Ulbrich portfolio.

Antrim County.  Odd looking grape country, huh?

Antrim County. Odd looking grape country, huh?

Same with sauvignon blanc—another cultivar that doesn’t get much airplay across Grand Traverse wine country.  In fact, he’s been using fruit from Antrim County, the northeastern corner of the region covered here. Antrim soils tend to be denser than the twin peninsulas to the left, with more clay; silt abounds, and there has been little erosion since glacial times.  It is, in fact, potato country. A 1928 survey claimed, ‘About 13% of the county is swampy or always wet’—an admotition to plant wine grapes somewhere in the other 67%.

And, despite a geological profile that is perhaps the polar opposite of the gravelly, well-drained the banks of the Garonne in Bordeaux, Ulbrich has found a number of elevated pockets in Antrim with correct sun exposures where the ‘green monster’—excessively grassy, super-acidic sauvignon or it’s counterpart, over-ripe soapiness in the wine—can be fought with success.

Antrim County is part of Bryan Ulbrich’s success story—he sees it as an oasis of growth with plenty of potential.  Land prices are cheaper and the county is huge; it’s where he sees a lot of his future grape harvests originating… grown, as always, by someone else.

bryan small“We accepted early that we would not be ‘landed’ people,” he says, tipping a glass of the selfsame sauvignon blanc, where savory tropical pineapple and pink grapefruit surfaces above the fresh hay scents.  “I’m not claiming to be an artist, but I am certainly not the world’s greatest businessman either.  Owning vineyard acres has not been part of the plan.”

This allows him to utilize the marketing hook ‘Urban Winery’—Left Foot Charley is located in the heart of bustling Traverse City, inside, as it happens, a former mental asylum. I have it on good authority that there is no corrolation between that fact and the relative insanity of his 2004 decision to go into winemaking.

That story began when Ulbrich was convinced to postpone a vacation and rescue a local vineyard that had fallen on hard horticultural habits thanks to a new owner who had about as much business growing wine grapes as The Hillside Strangler has dating my daughter. Apparently, vital things like canopy management had been neglected and powdery mildew was threatening the harvest, and even with his best efforts, Bryan was only able to salvage a small crop of riesling.

That led to a eureka moment which is best elucidated by plagiarizing his website:

‘Throughout Northern Michigan there are numerous small vineyards owned and farmed by individuals who do not have wineries. The grapes were often sent to giant blends. Many of these viticulturists are excellent farmers and deserve to see their work turned into wine.’

Heyday for the cuckoo.

Heyday for the cuckoo.

Turning their work into wine has been the divine mission of Ulbrich ever since.  Setting up shop in the old loony bin—the last Kirkbride Building in Michigan, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978—he partnered with eighteen local growers, each representing a specific terroir, philosophy and varietal repertoire. He produces around fifteen thousand cases of wine annually, which makes him larger than most ‘boutique’ wineries in the area, but he’s held to that mindset by fermenting in 300 gallons lots—from grapes that likewise come from small, fiercely manicured plots of vineland.

For example, take his ‘Tale Feather Vineyard’ pinot gris, 2012; perhaps the nicest manifestation of this intense and interesting variety yet produced in Grand Traverse.

Larry Mawby, a.k.a., The Riddler

Larry Mawby, a.k.a., The Riddler

In Michigan, pinot gris has been an experiment in progress since it was first installed by Leelanau’s Larry Mawby in 1981 after Myron Redford of Oregon’s Amity vineyard sent him cuttings; those vines, now three decades into it, are still producing.  But Larry never intended pinot gris to be a stand-alone variety, and notes that its contribution to his salubrious, celebrious sparkling wines offered a distinct ‘roundess’ of flavor that balances the pinot noir and chardonnay.  Even now, most Michigan growers with acres to pinot gris dabble rather than devote.

“I was impressed that Theresa and Gary decided to plant this somewhat exotic grape, “says Bryan, speaking of his Old Mission growers, the Wilsons.  “Plenty of farmers would have gone another way and planted a less exotic grape that might have had more face recognition, but would not have achieved greatness.”

Tale Feathers Vineyard

Gary and Theresa, Tale Feathers Vineyard

The west slope of ‘Tale Feathers Vineyard’—(which is indeed the correct spelling; I asked) is on an elevated hill overlooking Power Island.  The sandy, loamy, two-acre site winds up being ideal gris ground, with a cool bay breeze to sharpen the acids while judicious leaf manipulation draw in enough sunshine to sweeten the pot.  In the 2012, it shows a big, sweet nose of honey, melon, baked pear and lemon and delivers equal fullness and fruit across the palate, adding mango to the mélange, finishing with a clarity of pinot gris expressiveness.

A 9-iron drive from Tale Feathers Vineyard is Werner and Margrit Keuhnis’s ‘Island View Vineyard’, on the eastern side of the same hill.  The couple is Swiss, and according to Ulbrich, “The vineyard looks Swiss, too, by which I mean, it’s perfect.”

To which a true Käser would reply, ‘Not perfect yet…”

Island View fruit

Island View fruit

This is where Ulbrich sources gris’ blonder sister grape, pinot blanc. Island View (same island; Power) Vineyard covers an acre, and by the time Werner took charge in 2000, it had been through several non-Swiss hands who’d left it in dire need of some TLC.  Werner took note of each vine’s wish list and hand delivered the prescription: The vineyard is dry-farmed and has not seen a grain of synthetic fertilizer since his tenure began.

Keuhnis is  from Bryan’s school of canopy management, which is to say that the leaves must be pruned so that sufficient sunshine is allowed to reach the clusters; without it, sugars are not able to develop to optimum.  The vineyard faces inland, and is blessed with a thick layer of nutrient-rich, water-retaining loam.  The resulting pinot blanc (from vintage 2012) is dry and medium-bodied; it exhibits well-defined pinot blanc aromatics of lightly-toasted almond,  green apple and quince, nice, moderate mid-palate with a bit of peach and lychee. The acid did not appear to be exactly where it should be, and Bryan confirmed that due to warm weather and fermentation that stopped early, the titrable acid in the final wine was a little low compared to residual sugar.

Still, Bryan’s overall fermentation technique is pretty straightforward: He does not fine with agents or use yeast strains that produce a lot of esters. The result in most of his end product, and pinot blanc especially, is a non-manipulated wine that reflect what the vintage, as well as the grape, has to offer without being shoved into a costume.

Riesling vineyard ready to rock.

Riesling vineyard ready to rock.

Riesling is the grape grown most aggressively in Grand Traverse, and it’s the variety which which Ulbrich has the most leeway, both in terms of style and grower.

As it is in Germany, riesling has been considered the lynchpin of the Michigan vitis vinifera industry, owing in part to the similarity in climate, but perhaps as much to the simple, sugary rieslings that were the mainstay wines of a lot of Michiganders with German roots and plebian tastes.

Where the Germans rely on steeply sloped river banks to achieve maximum ripeness, Michigan has hillsides and Grand Traverse Bay.  In both locations, grade and water allow grapes to flourish in a climate where they’d otherwise perish during the first January deep-freeze.  That said, most Michigan rieslings (and indeed, rieslings from anywhere in the United States) have generally paled in comparison to the great German estates of, for example, Rüdesheimer, Johannisberg and Winkel.

It is, of course, a misconception to suppose that German riesling is all are styled like the wines of Rheingau—big, concentrated, long-palate wines that brim with apricot, guava and spiciness. Whereas wines from Lake Michigan Shore, further south, can at least lay claim to a version of a climate that can snag these tasting notes. Grand Traverse cannot.  So, Bryan Ulbrich wisely takes his cue not from nonpareil Schloss Vollrads, Kloster Eberbach, Schloss Johannisberg and Künstler, but from the crisper, elegant and often more perfumed wines of the chillier German wine region, the Mosel.

proseSeventh Hill Farm is in Old Mission’s far north, probably beyond the range of the fat ripening and long hang-time that Rheingau riesling enjoys.  Tom and Linda Scheuerman work the five acre site, formerly a cherry orchard, where a southern face creates a solar array ideal for making grape sugar while it can.  Soils are gravelly and sandy, equaling drainage—one of riesling’s requisite contract riders.  And Bryan’s 2012 riesling exploits such canny care and clever conception to the max: It is beautifully crafted; light and lovely with damp stone and key lime scents on the nose, a precisely focused palate showing a core of minerality sprinkled with crisp citrus, pine, green apple and that unmistakable riesling signet, goût petrol.

Currently, Left Foot Charley has a trio of rieslings on release; beside the aforementioned, Bryan offers a 2013 late harvest version called Missing Spire (named for the architectural feature atop the asylum that disappeared along with the inmates) and comes in at a respectable 3.24 g/L residual sugar.  Also, he has begun to produce a lively riesling from the youngest block of vines from Seventh Hill Farm on Old Mission Peninsula; this one is called ‘Prose’ for reasons I don’t entirely grasp, because it is poetry in a glass.

All of these selections show Bryan’s golden touch with golden wines; a most bearable lightness of being.

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