But first: More me time!
As summer fades and I reminisce about my illustrious career as a wine journalist, I find that over twenty years, I have racked up nearly a thousand exquisitely written columns.
Impressive, non? I’d pat myself on the back if I wasn’t currently holding a drink called ‘Rudolph’s Nosebleed’ made with 120 proof Cruzan Rum—I really don’t like wine that much—while simultaneously photographing myself with my iPhone.
Over the years, I have managed to endear myself to nearly every vintner and distributor on the planet; I have fans in every rat-infested crayere and cava in Europe; I am frequently quoted by Robert Parker Jr. (a different one, but who cares?) and if firebombing can be considered a sign of affection, plenty of PR firms love me, too. I suppose it has something to do with my unique blend of sarcasm, sexual double-entendre, misspellings, blatant insults, factual butcheries and general disregard for anything that could be even vaguely considered journalistic integrity.
That’s why, earlier this month, when I was again passed over for a chance to sit on the judging panel for the 34th Annual Michigan Wine and Spirits Competition, I was more than a little miffed.
Nonetheless, with a certain soft spot in my vasospasming heart for Michigan wines, I feel that I am man enough to overlook this Amish-worthy shunning and report on the results anyway.
Kellogg Hotel: A Sumptuous 160 Room Hostelry Named for Breakfast Cereal
I have often wondered why the financial backers of East Lansing’s Kellogg Hotel didn’t take the obvious architectural cue from South Dakota’s majestic Corn Palace and build the place entirely of Frosted Flakes, but nobody consulted me prior to breaking ground—another snub. All I can say is, the Corn Palace gets Tanya Tucker while Kellogg Hotel gets Christopher Cook.
Cook is the superintendant of the Wine and Spirits Competition, which is a little like hiring Christopher Winemaker to superintend the James Beard Awards, but the dear soul knows as much about wine as anyone in Michigan, probably because he has imbibed more wine than anyone else in Michigan. His staff of tasters includes sommeliers, authors, wine educators, general wine experts, high-ons who attempt to pass as general wine experts (see, that’s where I thought I would fit in) and Doug Frost, who is both a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier—a little like being President of the United States and King of England simultaneously.
After a hard day of schlepping through wine-sodden trenches, this is what they came up with:
Best of Class Dry White: Chateau Fontaine, Dry White Riesling, 2010: Appreciate that Dan and Lucie Matthies indicate the color of the riesling on the label, as the truly challenged tend to ignore the fact that bottles are clear and might otherwise mistake it for red riesling; either way, this is a softly fragrant, cleanly floral, delicately piney wine with plenty of varietal integrity—which is probably why it placed so high. Peaches, lychee, honeysuckle and a touch of slate round out a well-structured and crisp mouthful.
Best of Class Dry Red: Fenn Valley Vineyards ‘Capriccio’, Red Wine, NV: God bless wine fanatic Bill Welsch who went into winemaking without a lick of experience—and thank the same God that his preoccupation wasn’t brain surgery or commercial DC-9 piloting. One of the original paladins of ‘lake effect’, wherein (along a narrow band of shoreline) Northern Michigan growers can keep red vinifera vines alive, Welsch was at the forefront of Michigan wine production from the early 70’s until his death last year. Capriccio remains a best seller; not a terribly complex wine, but well-made and fulfilling in a soft, fruity way.
Best of Class Sparkling Wine: L. Mawby, Crémant Classic: Since he no longer employs standard Champagne varietals, I am not sure that this Crémant can be called ‘classic’, but Larry Mawby sure the heck can. The wine is an estate grown sparkler constructed entirely from the complex, underrated hybrid vignoles, while Mawby himself—arguably among the best bubble builders in the United States (and inarguably the best that Michigan has ever known)—is himself underrated. Big as a brown bear, unassuming as a koala, he sort of stealth-rambles through the tasting room toward his tiny office which is always in the state that New Orleans was the day after the hurricane, and yet, he manages to produce vintage after vintage of exquisite sparkling wine. Son of a downstate apple farmer, he’s taken his agro-know how to the fermentation tanks with such success that he’s called upon to bubble-up wines from many other wineries throughout the state (who will remain unnamed for obvious reasons).
Best of Class Semi-Dry White (tie): Fenn Valley Vineyards Riesling, 2010; Tabor Hill, Gewurztraminer, 2010: Nobody likes a tie except for boxing promoters; they leave you with a sort of ‘used’ feeling in your wallet as you await the rematch. In any case, through necessity, I’ll go with the flow: In this corner, Fenn Valley Riesling is the Welsch family’s declaration that their whites are as good as the reds; tasting notes include honeydew melon, white peach, wet stone and hints of citrus. And in the other corner, Tabor Hill’s sugar-free, naturally sweet gewürztraminer is exceptionally aromatic—pink grapefruit, sweet mandarins, lychee and lemon, with a palate that takes forward the same overtones. Nobody asked me, but I’ll break the tie anyway… Tabor Hill by a nose.
Best of Class Rosé: Forty-Five North, Rosé of Cabernet Franc, 2010: For my dough, this wine has two things going for it: One, in Michigan, cab franc is turning out to be a signature grape—the depth of fruit, mineral and identifiable terroir can, in good vintages, rival those of Chinon—and second, I am a rosé man (no, this is not an oxymoron) with a genuine passion for pink. Forty-Five North (named after the winery’s latitude—Chinon’s, by the way, is 47°N) is a family-owned operation with winemaker Shawn Walters manning the bottle stations; his prize-winning blush is crisp, dry and redolent with strawberry jam, watermelon, cinnamon and peach blossom—far above the profile of your typical porch-pounder (except in case of emergency)—and for under twenty per bottle, worth every grossnickle.
Best of Class Dessert Wine: Black Star Farms, ‘A Capella’ Ice Wine, 2008: To vintners, ice wine production is the equivalent of self-flagellation to the ascetics of the Middle Ages (‘A Capella’ means, in fact, ‘in the manner of the church’). For monks, the reward of this extreme form of self-torture was a berth alongside the choir invisible; for masochists like Lee Lutes, Black Star’s top star, it’s a bottle of amber ambrosia, among the rarest types of wine in the world. If you’re squeamish, proceed with caution: ice wine is made from frozen grapes harvested by hand, berry by berry, in the middle of an extremely cold winter night while us sane folk are wrapped in down comforters and dreaming about Keira Knightley. Next, in order to extract a single drop of juice per grape, they’re crushed outdoors that same night; wearing a hair shirt in the process is considered optional. Black Star’s riesling-based A Capella is a celestial thing, a thing of areté (there’s your next wine name, Lutes) which for a thousand bucks per case, it should be.
Best of Class Fruit Wine: Garden Bay Winery, Raspberry Wine: Screw everybody else—John and Gloria Lucas, Garden Bay Winery proprietors like me. Of this I’m certain, because it’s hard to dislike somebody who drives all the way from Metro Detroit to the Upper Peninsula, avoiding all but the most down-home taverns, pasty shops, bars, lounges and mom’n’pop liquor stores simply to sit in a well-appointed tasting room on a beautiful Garden Bay golf course-cum-winery and drink free fruit wine (Bert Chandler, winemaker) and eat free homemade fudge (Gloria Lucas, fudgemaker). I gushed over their wines then, and I gush now—these are among the best fruit wines anywhere, ever. Cocky cognoscenti may turn up their noses at the notion of world-class blueberry wine, but once they turn those wee perky noses down into the snifter, they’re sold. The Yoopers will find that, until global warming kicks it up a notch, quality grape wine is not in their crystal ball, but the pioneering spirit inherent in folks like the Lucas’s prove that they’ll make incredible do with what they’ve got.