Can You Naima Red Wine Grape from Campania?

How about Aglianico?

If, like me, you associate this grape with Greece, then like me, you probably know less about Campania than you think you do.

On the other hand, if you can point to Campania on a map, you know more about Campania than I do, and for that matter, if you can point to Vermont on a map you know more about shit in general than I do.

Now, age for two thousand years.

Now, age for two thousand years.

Turns out that within their respective countries, Vermont is in the upper right and Campania is in the lower left. One contains Bernie Sanders and a lot of drugs and the other contains Pompeii and a lot of Aglianico. In fact, Aglianico is the main red wine grape of the region, where, along with neighboring Basilicata, it was brought to town by immigrating Greeks around the same time that Bernie Sanders was born. It became the principal grape of famed, Cleopatra-approved Falernian wines, praised by Diocletian and which Pliny the Elder claimed was so strong he could light it on fire.

More recently, the late Denis Dubourdieu—professor of oenology at the University of Bordeaux—suggested that Aglianico “…is probably the grape with the longest consumer history of all”.

The mention of Pompeii as a Campanian landmark is not incidental: Aglianico grows best in volcanic soils. In Basilicata, among the most complex and expressions of the grape in the world is found in Aglianico del Vulture, Monte Vulture being an extinct volcano whose several eruptions over the past million years or so have left aggregates idea for the cultivation of Aglianico.

Bruno De Conciliis

Bruno De Conciliis

In Campania, Vesuvius is the dominant stack-blower, but there are plenty of other malignant mountains in the region, including Palinuro, a complex of volcanoes about forty miles off the coast of Cilento.

In 1996, nineteen hundred years after Vesuvius ruined Pompeii’s day, Bruno De Conciliis convinced his father to abandon the Cilento chicken farm and plant Aglianico (along with Fiano, a fascinating, indigenous white wine variety). The estate proved ideally suited for viticulture; the slopes are steep and south facing, and the soil is rich in the scorched-earth minerality that is emblematic of volcano country.

 What Does Any of This Have to Do with John Coltrane?

This: Bruno De Conciliis is a huge fan of the equally volcanic saxophonist, and borrowed the name ‘Naima’—Coltrane’s moody 1959 ballad—for his signature wine. Naima was the middle name of Coltrane’s wife Juanita, and now graces a bold, musky, melodic Aglianico that displays the temper and texture of the original tune.

hqdefaultAs a song, ‘Naima’ is constructed around a sustained bass tone with a beautiful, rich chord progression is touch with slight dissonance. As a wine, the bass pedal is reflected in the tannic bedrock, almost Barolo-like in its profundity. Above that rises berry notes blending with layers of sweet spice and fresh tobacco leaves; and there’s your appropriate dissonance. It’s that interplay of brilliant, acidic fruit and jarring fragrance that often typifies volcanic wines, with their cornucopia of trace elements.

In general, overthinking a ballad or a bottle can lead to some loss of simple hedonistic pleasure. Not so Coltrane’s music, and by extension, Naima Aglianico—they wind up being artwork you can overthink and still not plumb all the innards and the implications.

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Yo Ho Ho, Diplomático

Ever have one of those nifty, treasure-trove moments where you find a cache of cash in some random article of clothing? And isn’t the moment all the more delicious when the discovery happens inside one of your own pockets, not inside the pocket of whoever you happen to be standing next to in the elevator?

I had one of those moments yesterday, only it was even better than that. I found a whole bunch of excellent liquor somebody sent me months ago—a box that somehow got overlooked in the kerfuffle of boxes that make up our post-modern hyper-reality where the paperless society uses more paper than ever.

jack2But, finding booze instead of Benjamins is not only good for the soul, it is good for the environment, because it saves energy. There is no need to jump into the old Diplomático-getter and drive to the liquor store, which is the only sane response to finding money you didn’t know you had. Plus, us Kassels aren’t ‘middle-man’ people.

Let me say that I felt very much like Captain Sparrow on Rumrunner Isle when he discovered a stash of the selfsame substance that sweetened my strike:

Rum.

Not just any rum, mind you. None of the dimestore dreck with bats on the label—you’d have to have bats in your belfry to take that stuff seriously. I’m talking about Diplomático Rum, the Venezuelan powerhouse premium with its own DOC.

abDiplomático has been around since 1959, but the designated status only happened in 2003; it is important because the same sort of territorial combination required to make great wine also come into play for rum, although in a slightly different format. The distillery is built in northwest Venezuela in the foothills of the Andes and about a hundred miles from the coast, where the sugar cane grows. This puts it in proximity to the refining plants on the edge of the Terepaima National Park and allows access to Andean melt-water, among the purest in South America.

Sugar, of course, is the key ingredient in rum: It is to the spirit what grain is to whiskey and grapes are to brandy. Generally distilled from fermented molasses—a byproduct of sugar production—it was originally discovered as a way to use industrial waste. One pound of refined sugar leaves half a pound of molasses behind, and there are only so many shoofly pies a fellow can eat, so the refining industry’s excess brown goo was generally dumped into the ocean—until somebody figured rum out.

In the Caribbean, that happened in the 17th century, where rum appears to have been the brainchild of slaves, who were allowed all the molasses they wanted. It’s likely that the original product was about what you’d expect from distilled garbage, but as a concept, it has been rarefied over the years, and today, the best rums stand on stage easily with world’s top liquors.

Diplomatico cane fields

Diplomatico cane fields

Diplomático—produced since 2003 by Destilerías Unidas S. A.—is a diva on that stage. Dedicated to sustainable agricultural practices and distilled under the supervision of a Maestro Ronero (rum’s answer to a Master Chef) there are several versions at several strata reflecting the different styles of rum that are growing in popularity in today’s market.

As a newly ordained Maestro Crítico, allow me to distill the distillate down to a little verbal essence:

Diplomático Blanco Riserva, $38: A slight creamy tint is the hint that this rum has aged for six years in what I assume are neutral barrels; it shaves off the simple, sugary bite of most white rums and replaces it with a spicy lemon-vanilla curd. The cream color is echoed by a soft, velvety palate offering an array of tropical fruits; especially, pineapple, papaya and mango.

6169-0w0h0_destilerias_unidas_diplomatico_reserva_exclusiva_rum_venezuelaDiplomático Riserva Exclusiva, $45: The color of crystallized amber, the rum sends up an array of delightful and competing aromas with none emerging center stage. There are stone fruits like peach and apricot, there is a citrus tone reminiscent of orange peel, and there is a rich toasted walnut nuttiness slipping into the crevices. Aged for up to twelve years in small casks, the wood has imparted a Oloroso Sherry type of richness to the spirit, but unlike grape-based wine, foundational notes of roasted sugar underscores everything. Long satiny finish with chocolate in the after tone.

Diplomático Single Vintage, 2001, $85: This is what molasses wants to be when it grows up: vivacious vintage rum. Like wine, the category reflects the nuance of the sugarcane harvest in a given year. This one is extremely rich and aggressive, with notes of dried fruit, brown sugar, cinnamon and candied orange zest filling the bouquet, and sweet, mouth-coating viscosity rounding out the mouth. There is nothing restrained here, with maraschino cherry, licorice and a solid punch of vanilla. It sees an initial aging period in Bourbon barrels, but it is finished in Sherry casks. Even so, I noted a Port quality to the after-palate that was remarkable and appealing.

ambassadorDiplomático Ambassador, $200: The peak of the brand and the pick of the litter, with every stop pulled. If Single Vintage is what molasses aspires to in adulthood, this is what molasses wants to be when it is beatified by the Papacy in Rome. Reddish brown and impossibly complex to the nose, the rum peels back layers of fruit and spice that easily rivals any Cognac at the price. Initial notes of caramel and butterscotch, pecan pie and a cornucopia of tropical flavors keep the beat, but it is the sheer and consummate elegance to the texture, and the subtlety with which ‘Ambassador’ is woven together than makes this among the finest spirits of any denomination I can recall having tried, and trust me here, I’ve tried through the prestige gamut.

Inquam, my sincere apologies to the diplomats of Diplomático for having waited so long to discover the treasure buried in my box room, but at least I can assure you that, unlike the Deppmeister, this stuff won’t go up in smoke.

jack

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Leaving Las Lodi: Final Chapter

Lodi_front_coverI must say, last week in Lodi I finally discovered the secret of a successful, personally-gratifying book signing, where dozens of friendly faces were delighted to have me scrawl my illegible signature and indecipherable dedication in the frontspiece of ‘Starstruck in Lodi Again’:

The secret, fellow authors? Give the books away for free.

Of course, that was due to the largesse of Anthony Scotto, patriarch of Scotto Cellars, who purchased enough copies that every single attendee at the Wine Blogger’s Conference could get a free one in their swag bag.  If, in fact, you were one of those who didn’t get your copy, fret not.  Stop by the spanking new Scotto Cellars tasting room in downtown Lodi (on School Street) to get one, or message me with your address and I’ll send you one myself.

Chef Warren Ito

Chef Warren Ito

Meanwhile, on the night of the WBC’s opening ceremony, the extended Scotto family—Anthony, his wife Graciela, wine-wise kids Anthony, Paul, Natalie and Michael, who are the real muscle behind the brand—threw a welcoming shindig for the bloggers inside said tasting room. They brought in celebrated Stockton Chef Warren Ito to cater a four course dinner with a theme they called Mexital; fusion cuisine borrowing elements from both traditional Mexican and Italian cooking.  This makes sense once you understand that Anthony Scotto is of Italian decent and his wife Gracie is of Mexican decent, so the family-run winery is eager to celebrate both branches of the family tree.

The meal was sensational, too, with the proper balance of guido, gringo and guapo; Chef Warren, who blew away the group, somehow managed to do everything without access to a formal kitchen.

masthead-labelThe wines poured were from Scotto Cellars, of course, but the featured wine was a new concept wine, the collaborative work of Scotto PR man Bradley Gray, winemakers Paul Scotto and Napa legend Mitch Cosentino and… wait for it… four bloggers, who slurped and suckled and swirled through three hours of barrel samples from eleven lots of selected Lodi-designated wine.  Afterward, they conferred and compared notes, finally coming up with a blend they all agreed upon.

This has now been released as ‘Masthead’, the first commercial wine ever blended entirely by that lowliest species of journalist, the blogger.

Why yours truly, the lowliest of the lowly among wine bloggers, was not asked to participate? That remains unknown, but the fact that I wasn’t may explain why I have to give away books at wine conferences.

Anyway, other than Pete Best, who wants to be the fifth Beatle?  The four consulting bloggers in the Masthead project did just fine without me, of course. They were Nancy Brazil and Peter Bourget from www.pullthatcork.com, Melanie Ofenloch of Dallas Wine Chick of http://www.dallaswinechick.com and Cindy Rynning of www.Grape-Experiences.com.

Mitch Cosentino

Mitch Cosentino

In fact, in Chef Warren style, they outdid themselves.  The wine is killer; the ultimate, mutually-agreed-upon blend is not a varietal blend at all, but 100% Sangiovese from the Mohr-Fry Ranch, aged partially in Hungarian oak, partially in American oak. They made these decisions without input from the winemakers, but a nod afterward indicated that Mitch Cosentino thought they’d gone down the correct path.  His praise for the single variety choice is a testimonial still more remarkable when you consider that among other accomplishments, Cosentino is one of the founding fathers of America’s most well-known blend, Meritage.

Masthead's Staff Directory

Masthead’s Staff Directory

I agree with him, and with the bloggers.  Both in character and pedigree, the wine is pure Sangiovese; it is rich, fruited with luscious cherry and warm strawberry compote, but—as in a Brunello—wrapped in a package of earthy, leathery sophistication  The palate length, now brief, will almost certainly improve with a little age—there may have been a touch of bottle shock, soon to be settled out of it.

‘Masthead’—a name reflective of the journalistic ju-ju of the quartet who created it—will sell for around $30. 50 cases were made, and I suspect it will be a hit among bloggers and bloggees alike.

DSC_0015It was wonderful to be back in Lodi near harvest time—what a difference a few months made.  The scraggly, diabolical-looking zinfandel vines that I saw mid-winter had enjoyed heavenly repatriation, now thick with green foliage and heavy with grape bunches.  The temperatures, hovering in the low hundreds, were about what I’d expect in Satan’s vineyards, but the good folks of Lodi—the Scottos especially—remain unchanged: The portrait of wine country hospitality.

 

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Red, Interrupted…

…Or, as my buddy Elie says, Tintus Interruptus, which may be a direct translation into one of the several languages he speaks, possibly Latin, but probably not.

The term was coined as we tried to describe a wine at a midway point between rosé and red, a wine in which the free run juice is bled before the grapes are pressed.  In general, this technique is called saignée, and requires a few asterisks before it produces a wine of the sort over which we were confabulating.

Saignée method

Saignée method

Some saignée juice never sees a bottle, or even a yeast cell, and is merely discarded as a useless by-product.  That’s because some wineries use the bleed-off method simply to concentrate the phenolics, color and flavor in the remaining  red wine. Lest this seem less conscionable than it is, a lot of the value in the run-off is found in the quality and ripeness level of the grape, along the length of the maceration, if any, before the juice is re-purposed. You’d think that simply throwing it away would be sacrilege, but when the run is substandard, fermenting it is an afterthought, primarily to increase cash flow for the winery and not to produce a wine of any particular merit.  In Provence, home to some of the world’s premium pinks, grapes are grown and harvested with rosé as the intended end product, and saignée may be treated with the same disdain as chaptelization—adding cane sugar to a wine.

Says François Millo, president of the Provence Wine Council, “Saignée wine is more of an afterthought; very few people in Provence use it. 85% of the wine we produce is rosé, so it’s at the top of our priority list—our grapes are grown for rosé and our harvest is done for rosé.”

François Millo

François Millo

Millo also tends to favor rosé with as little color extraction as possible, so that his top consumer choices from Provence are pale as an onion skin, no darker in the glass than pink lemonade, yet maintain the Provence flavor profile: “We’ve worked hard recently on methods that allow us to extract the maximum flavor while keeping the wine as light in color as possible. Techniques like night harvesting and macerating at lower temperatures have helped.”

Millo’s summation?  “The saignée method is a bad way of making rosé.”

Millo can go engage in a convoluted coital position involving himself: He never tried Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo from Tiberio (around $21).

Cristiana Tiberio

Cristiana Tiberio

It’s trendy to love rosé these days, and God knows I wouldn’t want to be seen on the outside looking in.  When well-made and bone dry, rosé is as delightfully refreshing a summer wine as exists anywhere on earth. But we’re all grownups here, so I can say honestly, without much fear of backtalk, that even the best of it can be somewhat one-dimensional. In other words, even if rosé crosses over into the oxymoronic land where it possesses several dimensions of one-dimensionality, my reams of tasting notes over the years all seem to center around a couple of key rosé descriptors—watermelon and strawberry—no matter what the parent varietal was. In a discipline where we look for unique characteristics in a wine based on what sort of grape (s) are at the foundation, this indicates to me that a degree of sameness is inevitable no matter what approach you take.

cerasuolo_newBut, Tiberio’s Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, made from Montepulciano grapes, bled after a short, cool maceration period prior to fermentation, upsets the grape cart. The name means ‘cherry-like’, and it has it’s own DOC, the newest one in the central Italian region of Abruzzo.  And cherry-like it is, from the brilliant, translucent, electric crimson color to the crisp, clean, tart cherry aroma, all the way through the palate with nary a watermelon or a strawberry to be found.

A Rosé By Any Other Name Would Smell Like Watermelon

The kicker is, talented winemaker Cristiana Tiberio, who produces wine from her family’s  74 acres in the Cugnoli area of Pescarese, a cooler micro-climate than the neighboring coastal areas, doesn’t consider the wine rosé—rosato in Italian—at all. In her vision, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is a red wine in which the fermenting must simply sees less time with the red grape skins, serving to lessen the pigmentation and tannic structure, and to produce a youthful, fruity red wine.

raeIn the end, though, I’m afraid it’s a little like Rae Dawn Chong insisting she’s a Chinese Scotch-Irish Afro-Canadian Cherokee. Try to marry a Kennedy, Rae Dawn: You’ll find out what you are.

Likewise, the bottle of Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo is clearly labeled ‘Rosé’ for the American market, so it’s a matter of legalese if you want to call a case of it six-of-one and half-dozen of the other. For me, it is a sensational, rich and complex saignée, and if you and Millo want to drink wine that looks like onion peels, be my guest.  Give me a frosty glass of rosé the color of fresh Traverse City Morello cherries every time.

Call it what you want in whatever language you choose.  Edray Interruptedhay, by the way, is Pig Latin.

 

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Michigan by the Storefront: MBTB Does it Again

Two things I’ll say about Cortney Casey that will defy challenge by any rational mortal:  First, she has a smile of such ebullient candor that it lights up an already well-lit tasting room, and second, she knows how to pour wine for a critic.

DSC_0178For the most part, a key component of writing about wine credibly is to gack out the mouthful you’re evaluating into a spittoon, thus preventing that part of your brain that says silly, specious stuff about the subject at hand from kicking in. As a result (and the phenomenon is perhaps subconscious), when confronted  with a pouree who consistently spits out the product the pourer is offering, the quantity presented tends to be minuscule: It seems like common sense.

This puts the wine writer in the awkward position of either demanding more, thus embarrassing the host into thinking we believe him or her to be a niggling misanthropic skinflint (which we do), or forcing us to make notes about a wine based on a volume that can neither express aroma properly nor wet the whistle sufficiently.  And although I have no journalistic qualms about eviscerating a substandard wine with the fury of Scipio sowing the fields of Carthage with salt, then metaphorically mounting the winemaker’s head on a pike and forcing his staff into slavery, in person, I am something of shrinking violet.  Thus, I usually accept what is given and muddle through.

ownersBut Cortney Casey, who along with her husband Shannon has just opened up her third Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room in downtown Auburn Hills, knows how to pour a great manly slather of juice into the tumbler and empty the saliva bucket as often as is necessary.

This, I believe, is a skill that cannot be taught—it must be instinctive.

Downtown Auburn Hills is a gem of a spot that not many people know about yet, which is what makes it ideal for this young couple who have taken the concept of loving Michigan wine and turned it into a cottage industry. Cortney, who was once a newspaper reporter in Shelby Township, and Shannon, who still is a sales director at a title company, began with a blog and a popular podcast called ‘Michigan By The Bottle’ in which they interviewed various homeboy and homegirl vintners and waxed philosophically about their wares.  They are both delightful people, so it’s fair to say that no heads were impaled, nor were any vineyards salted during their tenure as wine critics, but it’s equally fair to say that they made a lot of connections in the industry, so when they opened their first tasting room in Shelby Township, partnering with six topnotch Michigan wineries, they were able to introduce an occasionally skeptical crowd to some of Michigan’s best wines.

It’s a sad truth, but unless you’re from one of Michigan’s four federally recognized wine appellations, or a geek to the cause of regional products,  you probably don’t realize that Michigan’s wine industry has made strides over the past twenty years that far outstrip those of other emerging regions.  People who tried  bargain-bin fortified porch pounders from Paw Paw and LaSalle wineries  back in the day may have been left with the impression that this is all we can do.  Beginning in the mid-1970s, though, a push toward European varietals and innovative blends made with hybrid grapes have mirrored the evolving American palate, and the quality bar has been raised exponentially in every decade since. Dragging the naysayers kicking and screaming into the modern era of Michigan wine is a mission upon which Cortney and Shannon Casey have embarked, and so far, are leading the fray.

They opened their second room in Royal Oak two years ago, and that outlet along the Woodward corridor added a dimension to the bar scene that was both refreshing and unique.  Now, the Auburn Hills spot, with it’s broad picture-window façade facing Auburn Street, just a cork-pop away from the downtown square where the Christmas tree fits, has become an anchor and a draw to this quaint, cool little urban bubble.

tableThe new spot has partnered with 12 wineries, most of them unique to this location, and include among them luminaries Bryan Ulbrich, who’s Cinnamon Girl cider is poured—a shivery slice of apple strudel in the glass.  Hawthorne Vineyards, under the winemakership (or winemakerhood, as you please) of Brian Hosmer, showcases an interesting wine wonderfully suited to the chill climate of Old Mission Peninsula: Auxerrois.

Likewise Grüner Veltliner from Blue Water Winery, a varietal which is reaching heights of splendor in Michigan that is nearly impossible to find outside Austria and New York’s Finger Lakes.  Here, it is almond-scented with lemon marmalade through the mid-palate, rich and crisply dry.

Lemberger is a pet project of Adam Satchwell, formerly of Shady Lane Cellars, and here blended with Cabernet Franc to make ‘Franc ‘n’ Franc’; it’s dusty with chocolate, blackberries, plum and smoke, and to complete the pun, makes perfect franc ‘n’ sense.

Riesling, a perennial Michigan favorite in both for it’s sweet acceptability and cool-climate predilection, is presented in a luscious, medium-dry package by Mackinaw Trail Winery.

Forty wines in all are poured by the glass at the new location, and they are constantly in flux—and not repeated at the other MBTB outlets which also, for the most part, feature other wineries.

I dig it for the chutzpah of the concept, the charm of the quaint décor, the personality of the proprietors and of course, the all-you-can-spit policy for wine scribes.

 

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How Fenn is My Valley?

Brian and Gwen Lesperance

Brian and Gwen Lesperance

To answer the titular question, pretty Fenn.  I’m sitting inside Fenn Valley Winery in the city of Fennville, speaking to the most prolific winemaker in the Fenn Valley appellation.

Not only that, but Brian Lesperance—said winemaker—is the grandson-in-law of the guy who invented the Fenn Valley appellation in the first place.

If I said the experience was fenn-tastic, not only would it be an understatement, you’d have to shoot me.

Fennville is an interesting place nonetheless—it’s picture-perfect small-town, Midwestern Americana where everything is orchards and cemeteries and fraternal lodges.  But they’re neat orchards and orderly graveyards and lodges wear a new coat of paint; this Norman Rockwell’s saccharine take on the human condition, where front lawns are always mowed and the liquor store is discreet and people have three stately rows of corn in their backyards, even though they can buy ears of corn ten for a dollar this time of year.  They grow corn because they are wholesome, all-American, salt-of-earth types who fly flags when it isn’t Fourth of July and take down their Christmas lights when it isn’t Christmas.

city_signFennville has been around since 1837 and the Fennville appellation since 1981. If that date strikes you as sort of AVA prehistoric, it should: Not only was Fennville the first federally recognized appellation in Michigan, it was only the third AVA recognized anywhere, preceded by a year by Augusta, Georgia and Napa, California.

And up until a couple years ago, Fenn Valley Winery was the only show in town—owners Bill and Doug Welsch also owned—in metaphor—the appellation they’d seen established.  That followed a number of years of wrangling with other (currently designated) Lake Michigan Shore wineries and the TTB to establish a viticultural region in southwest Michigan.

As Bill’s grandson-in-law Brian puts it, “Back then, everyone was learning as they went along, including the federal government. How precisely to establish a legally defined growing region, and which wineries to include in it, is an amazingly complex thing. When we were finally approved, it followed a full-blown hearing at the Saugatuck Library in Saugatuck, with BTAF representatives flying from Washington D.C. to conduct it.”

Fenn Valley Winery

Fenn Valley Winery

As determined at that meeting, the Fennville AVA now encompasses 75,000 acres bordering Lake Michigan on the west, the Kalamazoo River on the north, a game reserve to the east, and the Black River on the south. It is entirely contained within the Lake Michigan Shore AVA, which was established two years later, so the winery can use either appellation, depending on where the grapes are grown.

Most of these are estate grown, as Brian Lesperance—who is marketing director as well as winemaker—is proud to point out.  “We grow 90 acres to wine grapes and contract out another hundred or so.”

The tally of varietals grown winds up split evenly between vinifera and hybrid grapes—a strategy perfectly suited to the terroir of Fenn Valley, which is dictated by Lake Effect.

If you are not familiar with that term, no shame in it: Neither was I twenty years ago when I first called Bill Welsch and asked him to explain it to me, and as far as I know, he was the first wine grape grower to really base a Mission Statement around the idea.

Lake effect piles on snow, but moderates temperature

Lake effect piles on snow, but moderates temperature

In brief, there’s a narrow slip of land running along the entire eastern shore of Lake Michigan that enjoys a near Mediterranean climate based on the temperature of the prevailing wind rising in winter (and cooling in summer) as it passes, west to east, over the lake. Since the lake doesn’t freeze, winds that may leave Wisconsin at thirty below zero may hit land in Michigan warmed to double digits, a phenomenon cased simply by air passing over water above 32 °F. Close to the shore, Lake Effect may result in hail storms and ferocious winds, but inland a couple miles, and for about eight more miles, there is an amazing ribbon of moderate climate, which, when coupled with suitable soil types, can produce world-class vinifera grapes in most years.

It is in those ‘other’ years—when even Lake Effect can’t keep temperatures from plummeting to negative numbers—that hybrid grapes, with a natural resistance to cold weather, are the Midwest wine industry’s most effective insurance policy.

Hoping to minimize risk, the Welsch family’s initial plantings were 100% hybrid: Marechal Foch, Seyval, Cascade, DeChaunac, Vidal, Baco Noir and Aurora. Some of these vines are still producing, although they are usually used in blends. They planted cold-tolerant Riesling in 1975, and by 1977, Fenn Valley Vineyards was producing 19 different labels.

Doug Welsch

Doug Welsch

Winemaking was then under the direction of Doug Welsch, Bill’s son, who claims that his college-age experimentation with basement wine ‘had gotten out of control’. But, of course, in a good way: Almost from the outset, the targeted demographic—day-trippers from Chicago—had nibbled their bait, and by the time Fennville was declared an appellation, their sprawling tasting room—the largest one in Michigan and among the largest in the country—was hosting nearly 100,000 visitors a year.

It still does a brisk and steady trade, and about 40% of the 50,000 cases Fennville Valley Winery produces is sold on premise.

In the hour I spent with Brian Lesperance on Tuesday, I watched the tasting room crowd swell like a squall over the lake within an hour of opening.  In early August, with a number of great beaches  a short drive away as well as the impossibly pretty, leafy-streeted town on the water which is like Fennville plus cool arty types, this has become a must-stop destination for a lot of vacationers.

The wines for the most part are solid, respectable Michigan wines, with a couple of standouts.  Among these, I have faves in the major wine categories, and I’ll leave you to decide between the rest.

Yeasty, doughy, lemon-line rich méthode champenoise made entirely from Pinot noir is a delightful, crisp and solid entry to the painstaking world of properly produced sparkling wine.  Beside being a remarkable value at $22, it is unique in that it is made on premise, and not jobbed out.  Very few wineries in Michigan are willing to make this investment in time and money.

traminetteTraminette is a remarkable varietal and produces sensational wine in this corner of Michigan—why it isn’t grown in greater quantities in a mystery.  A hybrid of  Joannes Seyve and Gewürztraminer, it maintains the best qualities of both, meaning that it has high yields, withstands cold and disease, and offers the heady sweet fruit of Gewürz without the oily, overly floral tendencies when this grape is grown here.  This one shows peach, lychee and grapefruit is juicy proportions;  at $12 a bottle, Fenn Valley Traminette 2015 is among the most sensuously appealing Michigan wines I’ve had in a while.

Merlot is not the grape that you’d think a Michigan winemaker would single out as his best producer, either in quantity or quality, but Brian swears by it.  And his Reserve Merlot 2013 ($22) is a rich blend of wild berry flavors, black and red, and wrapped in a silken package of tannins.  Long on the palate and a lovely wine with which to showcase Michigan reds, which can sometimes be pyrazine-heavy and thin.

Finally, Vidal Ice Wine; a sweet syrupy decoction of Vidal grapes harvested after they’ve frozen on the vine.  The wine is amber brown and redolent of apricot jam, honey, walnuts and marzipan. $22 for a half-bottle.

Fenn shui compass

Fenn shui compass

Feng Shui is a Chinese philosophical system; it examines harmony, how the placement of things affects energy flows. If it covers high-rise apartment complexes, I assume it covers vineyards.

Out here, two miles from Lake Michigan, basking in Lake Effect, which in August keeps everything a bit more temperate than in the rest of sun-baked mid-Michigan, and awaiting a harvest that should come a weeks later too? What you have going out here in Fennville is some serious Fenn Shui.

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Mari By Any Other Name Still Has a Kick-Ash Tasting Room

That was then...

That was then…

When I first wrote about Villa Mari in 2014, it was just beginning to take shape, emerging from a pretty hillside along Highway 37 and forming itself from the living stones like one of the Nephilim in Genesis 6. Meanwhile, the locals stood back and watched with a combination of awe, respect, puzzlement and cynicism—although granted, some of the latter came from me when I first wrote about Villa Mari.

...and this is now.

…and this is now.

Today, the winery is done, renamed ‘Mari Vineyards’, and it’s a work of imposing splendor—Old Mission’s answer to the Roman Colosseum. Whether or not Old Mission needed an answer to the Roman Colosseum remains to be seen, but it’s there nonetheless; a mountainous shrine to a dream that if not exactly impossible, requires an outlay of major success expectations guaranteed to make a rational winemaker like Sean O’Keefe, who lives on the edge of viticultural disaster, pull out of what remains of his hair.

Sean joined Mari as winemaker shortly after my 2014 write-up, but he’s been a fixture on Old Mission (the skinny promontory to the east of the Lelanau Peninsula) for nearly his entire life. Youngest son of Ed O’Keefe, Chateau Grand Traverse’s pioneering patriarch, the man who first successfully raised vinifera in the northwest outpost of the Great Lakes wine region, Sean was never (as far as I know) his father’s chief vintner—that title has gone to Bernd Croissant nearly from the beginning. But Sean hung around the cellar with a certain obsessive drive, and he had personal projects happening at the winery, and they were usually unique, exciting and high-quality enough to draw my attention away from his old man’s winery story. Sean thinks deeply—almost compulsively—about the nuances contained within every bottle of wine he produces and of every row of vine he manages.

That’s one of the reasons Sean  is among my favorite peninsular personalities. You can find winemakers who can discuss the aesthetics of wine, and you can find winemakers who can discuss the mechanics of wine, but it’s rare to find a winemaker who can discuss the philosophy of wine. And Sean O’Keefe is one of them.

Sean O'Keefe

Sean O’Keefe

That said, I’ve known him for years, and all our wine conversations have generally gravitated toward the two varietals that appear to be fused to his enological DNA: Riesling and Gamay. Sean is convinced that, all things being equal (and in wine making, all things rarely are equal) these are the two vinifera grapes best suited to the terroirs of Northern Michigan.

So it was strange, to say the least, to hear him, in his Mari Vineyard armor, waxing wise about Refosco, Teraldego and Scuppatino—grapes that generally don’t appear in the same sentence as ‘Michigan wine’.  Then again, neither does ‘nellaserra’, a system of greenhouses that Mari Vineyards uses to get a jump on the growing season and extend it into November. In my original version of this story, I was a skosh sarcastic and a scad skeptical of this technique, believing that if you really want to grow Italian varietals, you should stick to a climate when you can do it without smoke and mirrors.

But, having tasted the wines, I’ve come around entirely; every vineyard manager in Northern Michigan has tricks up his/her sleeves, including Sean’s dad, who imported several tons of dirt to make a south facing slope on his property.

It takes a big man to admit when he’s… well, not 100% right.

The Silver Bullet

The Silver Bullet

And anyway, these are canny viticultural techniques, not the magic silver bullet used by other Northern Michigan wineries, which is, quite literally, a silver bullet: The steel-bottomed tankers filled with grape juice from Washington and California that cruise the twin peninsulas every year and sell Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, etc. to winemakers trying to shore up naturally thin wine. And in years like the last two, when the harvest has been severely limited, it is tough to find a winery that absolutely refuses to adulterate Michigan product with West Coast product, and yet, still insist on calling it ‘Michigan’ wine. It’s perfectly legal—the TTB allows you to add up to 25% of wine from a different appellation, or state, or country, or planet, or nebulae and still maintain the sanctity of your own appellation’s name.

And if you think it isn’t done all the friggin’ time, you might be interested in buying a time-share portion of the Mackinac Bridge I’m selling.

Based on that, a wee greenhouse doesn’t sound so squirrely, does it?  And, according to Sean, the overhead involved in building a plastic overhead is huge, so many of the grapes grown this way wind up blended with those grown under the blue empyrean.

curse_of_oak_island_s3_vertical1Speaking of budgets, the bucks behind the behemoth belongs to Marty Lagina, and he earned it by hunting for buried treasure. Not the elusive kind on his History Channel adventure series ‘The Curse of Oak Island’, which has made him a household names in those households fond of watching rich people spend a lot of money to get even richer and failing, but the kind that nestles inside Antrim shale. Terra Energy, the company he founded in the ‘90’s, perfected a method of extracting biogenic gas from the thick layer of sedimentary rock that forms much of Northern Michigan’s basement. In 2011, the company sold to CMS Energy for a number that starts with a five and ends with a whole lot of zeros; the precise figure is not discussed. Lagina threw some of it to the wind, investing in Heritage Sustainable Energy, leasing 120,000 acres and creating utility-scale wind energy projects throughout the State of Michigan.

Lagina’s rake-hell switch from drilling to spinning, from non-renewable to renewable energy sources, is reflected in the recycled schematics of Mari Vineyards tasting room, where the prominent feature is the thirty=foot bar made of polished Michigan ash.  Like the phylloxera louse did to the world’s vinifera crop, so the Emerald Ash Borer has done to tens of millions of ash trees across the United States.  But unlike the louse, the borer has left a few aesthetics in their wake, and the bar reflects the beautiful, snaking, sensuous—albeit deadly—pattern that borer larvae makes through the wood.

The Laginas

The Laginas

The stone that makes the mantel, the outside wall and the fireplace surround is likewise hewn from Michigan quarries, and the accouterments, from the framed church keys to the tables made from slices of maple stump, are all local.

As, most assuredly, is the wine. Says Sean, “We produce 100% estate-grown wine, most of it red. The greenhouse tunnels push temperatures up ten to twelve degrees in the spring and late fall, and that’s what you have to do in a ‘borderline’ wine region if you want to create big, ripe reds consistently without importing grape juice. The terroir is not always good up here, and I understand the philosophy of other wineries, where keeping the doors open and the lights on is paramount, but personally, I feel that if I have to bring in grapes from other states, I’ve failed.”

In fact, he shares a guilty secret: “I wasn’t entirely sorry that the last two vintages were so bad. It gave me two years to study, a couple of harvests to read up on the methodology used by other regions who are producing the kind of wine that the Lagina’s want.”

Wine caves

Wine caves

A lot of it is still theory, because 2016 will be the first year Sean will make appreciable quantities of wine a Mari—upwards of 9000 cases, ten times what the winery currently produces. Among the all-natural tricks he’s picked up, especially for high-pyrazine grapes like Cabernet Franc, which in cool years develop a striking, generally unpleasant green-pepper taste, is to dry the grapes before crushing them. Where additional hang time is impossible due to climate, and red grapes are picked at between 15 and 20°Bx, a time of drying—on racks, or straw; the medium is not important—can often temper the harshest pyrazines.

Likewise, he intends to produce heavily in good harvests, and store wine in huge casks with thicker walls to prevent premature aging and the over-oaked quality that wine kept in smaller barrels over many years develops. Also, he will load up on méthode champenoise sparkling wine which can age on the lees for a decade and improve, ultimately selling for $50 a bottle.

Old Mission Peninsula

Old Mission Peninsula

Caves ‘n’ casks are the cornerstone of the Mari business model, and currently under construction are a network of underground caverns, the first such innovative/millennia-old facilities in Northern Michigan.  As a tribute to sustainability, these caves, along with the building, are being built for the long haul—centuries, according to Lagina.

Like the multi-million dollar estate, some of these revolutionary ideas are still on the drawing board, but the vines sure aren’t: Team Lagina has been growing grapes on Old Mission Peninsula since 1999, and a lot of that produce was sold to Ed O’Keefe at Chateau Grand Traverse.  The rest was vinified (Sean was the consultant) into a portfolio of wines that is at once exclusive, unusual, pricey and sensational.

Taking them as an oeuvre, it’s clear that Sean, steered by Marty Legina and his son Alex, are on to something…

And Here’s What It Is:

seanSitting beneath a set of chain mail that over the tasting room fireplace—one of many folksy if inexplicable tchotchkes that ring the place—Sean poured through the current portfolio—all the while burbling with excitement over the first major, real-time harvest coming up in a couple months.

Mari Vineyards Cabernet Franc, 2011, $26:  This was a cool year with relative high yields, and the resulting wine’s color does not appear stable. It’s pinkish pale and slightly herbaceous.  But the fruit is apparent, and it’s fresh and elegant, touched with notes of Traverse City cherries, which is what many of these vineyards used to be.

Mari Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012, $25: Simple but solid; red fruits and pepper underscore an example of what non-greenhouse Cab does in Northern Michigan; it’s slightly, oaky and quick on the finish, but bright and sharp and juicy in the meantime.

Mari Vineyards ‘Scriptorium Bestiary’, 2011, $24:  Fitting that Sean should name this wine something unpronounceable considering it is a blend of three unpronouncable grapes: Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and Lagrein. It makes for a well-structured wine with a precise balance of grape tannin, woodsy, almost dried berry flavors and shivery acidity.

Ultima-Thule-20102Mari Vineyards ‘Row 7’, 2011, $50:  The titular row—actually three rows—is an amalgam of all the red varieties initially planted in 1999, and shows a beautiful frame of intense bouquet of cassis and blackberry, with a whiff of iodine. The wine is supple on the palate, nicely textured and resolves into a long, oaky, dark cherry finish.

Mari Vineyards ‘Ultima Thule’, 2011, $55:  This is what the hoopla is all about: Hoop wine. A blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Nebbiolo, 20% Merlot and 15% Syrah, the grapes were grown entirely in the nellaserra, and takes full advantage of the extra ripeness the technique permits. A voluptuous nose filled with violets, wood smoke and creamy boysenberry leads into an expansive, velvety palate layered in chocolate-covered cherry, vanilla, tobacco and caramel. This is the sort of product that should convince the most aggressive cynic that Northern Michigan has no chip on her shoulders when it comes to Italian varietals—unless they’re made of oak.

sean-okeefe-vpImpressed as I was with these reds, I would not deign to leave Sean O’Keefe’s company without asking about Riesling, and true to form, he poured a 2015, still unlabeled bottle from the Jameison Vineyard, a south-facing, heavier clay lieu-dit. This resulted in a wine with less of the huge perfumes that show up in sandier blocks, but was filled with the sort of ripe peach and delicate, honeyed apricot aromas associated with the great wines of the Rheingau.

Sean in the Oculus

Sean in the Oculus

O’Keefe, who generally puts in a great showing at the annual Riesling Rendezvous, has spent many years and countless horticultural routines and vinicultural disciplines to elicit the maximum from this potent varietal: He sweeps vineyards several times per harvest, hand picking ripe bunches, he whole-cluster ferments, he allows the wine to sit on the lees.  His Rieslings are generally luscious, rich and spectacularly aromatic, and this one was certainly a pick of the litter.

Meanwhile, the televised hunt goes on for the phantom prize on Oak Island, but Marty Lagina may be overlooking the pot-of-gold he has already discovered right here in Old Mission.

Not the beautiful view of the East Bay from the wide-angle tasting room, not the mysterious ‘Oculus’ room in the Mari caverns, not the plots of sensational terroir made temperate beneath the nellaserra network—not even the mighty Mari manse on Highway 37.

I’m talking about the real treasure here: Sean O’Keefe.

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