Why is This Michigan Red Singing the Blues?

The red wine grape that’s proving a breath of fresh air to windswept  Leelanau Peninsula has a big problem:

Not only have you never heard of it, once you have heard of it, you probably can’t pronounce it, and once you can pronounce it, you feel too silly to order it.

Imagine sidling up to the bar and asking for a  glass of blaufränkisch?  Or even worse, trying its alternate name, lembeger—indelibly associated with that bacteria-laden, evil-smelling cheese from Little Rascal reruns.

Meanwhile, this intriguing, late-ripening varietal smells perfectly splendid—like boysenberries, cherry jam and pumpkin pie spices.  It’s widely planted in Eastern Europe and traces its roots back to the Tenth Century.  In Leelanau, its pedigree is pure Twenty-

Adam Satchwell

First Century, and as far as I can tell, it’s only being produced commercially by two vineyards:  Circa Estate and Shady Lane Cellars.

Over a luscious, unctuous, viscous glass of the same, I discussed the name issue with Adam Satchwell, Shady Lane’s winemaker, and I was impressed with his simple solution:

 ‘Blue Franc’… 

Back in the Seventies, nobody except those with discerning palates or self-respect had any issue ordering ‘Blue Nun’, right?  Blue Franc has a tent in that particular cognomen camp—a cute, catchy name that doesn’t sound like it’s going to smell like Whoopi Goldberg’s toenails when you uncork it.

Unfortunately, it’s illegal.  Turns out that ‘Blue Franc’ was trademarked by Jed Steele, the renowned Lake County winemaker who honed his chops at Kendall-Jackson via production of one million cases per year.  He’s currently producing a yummy, jammy blaufränkisch under his own Shooting Star label and he calls it ‘Blue Franc’.

He’s got it, he’s gonna keep it, and you’ll get blue balls waiting for permission to use it. 

Such an immoveable slab of steele might have proven an insurmountable force except for one happy coincidence:

Jed Steele is Adam Satchwell’s uncle. 

Even so, there was considerable hemming and hawing and presumably, some Thanksgiving-Dinner-silent-treatments before Uncle Jed finally decided to allow his footstep-following nephew to use the precious Blue Franc moniker.  The fact that he finally gave in is testimonial to the fact that blood is thicker than wine, and that lemberger grapes by any other name still smell like Whoopi Goldberg’s boysenberries.

By the way, Uncle Jed:  Lawyers from U.S. Steel just called and from now on, you’re gonna have to call yourself Jed Iron Alloy With A Variable Carbon Content.

Which leaves Circa Estate holding the ‘blaufränkisch’ bag with a single hand…

Luckily, that hand belongs to Margaret Bell, Circa’s dynamic winemaker.  Together with her husband David, they shifted their souls from Chicago to Leelanau several years ago, and, being the last couple in Chicago that actually had souls, not a moment too soon,.  On an abandoned fifty-acre farm, the Bells have hand-carved a designation winery, a Napa North or a Tuscany Way, Way West, with state of the art equipment nestling behind a picture window and a picture-perfect view of the acreage outside the real one.

They’re currently producing five wines: a cab franc (jeez, Uncle Jed, is that one public domain?), a pinot grigio, a chardonnay, a hybrid blend called Improvisation and the 100% blaufränkisch which—ta-da—they’re calling ‘Requisite’  instead of blaufränkisch or Blue Franc or Blue Moon or Vida Blue.

The name works because the wine is indeed requisite for fans of spicy Michigan red wine with tamed acidity, and in fact, so is Shady Lane’s Blue Franc, but I won’t say it’s requisite for fear of lawsuits.

By the way, both go perfectly well with limburger cheese.

And by the other way, Uncle Jed:  those crazy lawyers just called back and Wilford Brimley wants his face back.


Tasting Notes:

Shady Lane Cellars ‘Blue Franc’, Leelanau Peninsula, 2008, about $22:  Evolved and expansive with a provocative cinnamon and blackberry scented nose; the mid-palate is soft and silky with pronounced acidity balanced by creamy tannins.   Characteristic spices range from black pepper to clove with some chocolate and toast in the background.

Circa Estate ‘Requisite’, Leelanau Peninsula, 2008, about $22: Brilliant ruby-red with a seductively perfumed bouquet of mulberry, cherry and pie spice; hints of American oak are restrained in favor of black fruits, especially brambly blackberry and Traverse City cherry.  The wine’s got a future, and is just beginning to take on secondary characteristics of cocoa and coffee.


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