Good Harbor Vineyards and the Dialectics of Cherry Wine

Erroneously credited with inventing Play-Doh

Plato, Third Century, BC: “Nothing more valuable than wine was ever granted mankind by God. Now, wanna argue about it…?”

(Okay, this is Plato paraphrased—he didn’t tack on the argue part.  But I’m sure he would have; the crusty old pedophile pedagogue loved a good dust-up.)

Noah Webster, 1828: “Wine = The fermented juice of GRAPES used as a beverage.”

1. Everything is transient:

Cherries are to Traverse City what slot machines are to Las Vegas—lifeblood.  But when a community’s lifeblood starts sapping its life force, it’s time for a rethink.  According to Good Harbor winemaker Sam Simpson, the cherry industry has had a rough decade.  Battered by weather woes and oppressive GAP certification requirements, the growers remain far down a food chain overlorded by cherry packers and cherry distributors.

Simpson believes that over the next ten years, you won’t see as many Traverse City cherry tree replants.

Sam Simpson

“You get thirty to thirty-five years worth of production from a typical cherry tree,” he says.  “There was a big push to expand in the Seventies and Eighties; those trees are currently running out of steam.  The only farms I see gung-ho these days are big cooperatives—thanks to economies of scale—and very small operations where the owner has a day job and works the orchards on his own time without necessarily accounting for what that’s worth.  For mid-sized companies, it makes sense to plant the land to something more profitable—or sell up.”

He should know.  He’s the scion of three generations of Traverse City cherry farmers; running a Leelanau winery was the dream of his grandfather and the brainchild of his father, the late lamented Bruce Simpson, and now, it’s become Sam’s passion—but so are his cherries.  Also, he’s a MSU finance major. Personally, if I owned a farm in upstate Michigan, that’s who I’d want counting my beans even if they were grapes or cherries—if only to pass along the scary P&Ls when it snows in mid-July.

Debbie and Taylor Simpson

2. Everything is made out of contradictions:

“The market up here is evolving,” says Simpson, who along with his mother Debbie and sister Taylor, are steering Good Harbor toward this Darwinian dynamic—in part by raising the perception bar on cherry wine.

“Before cherries, potatoes were the agricultural ‘thing’ up here.  A lot of the potato fields were re-planted to cherries, and before today’s cherry farmers are priced out of business they’ll either figure out how to market cherry wine or rip out the trees and plant grapes.”

Of course, if they’d fermented the friggin potatoes to begin with, this whole mess might have been avoided.   As it is, the Traverse City area grows 70% of the tart cherries in the USA and the TC Cherry Festival is in its 84th season; it would be a shame if anything upset the cherry cart, especially something as obnoxious as USDA red tape.

For Sam, the answer is simple: Make more cherry wine.

“The more we can produce, the better. If we eliminate having to wholesale fruit at market price, we better control our destiny.  Any time you can take a given product and create value-add like estate bottled wine, you’re ahead of the game.”

Spoken like a true numbers-cruncher.  So, when he switches hats and becomes an agriculturalist again, he blends in Balaton and Morello cherries—darker and denser than pie-perfect Montmorency cherries—and allows for more hang-time (up to three weeks longer) so that the four blocks of orchard he devotes to wine cherries can develop the right brix levels required for producing a product that not only stands up to the vinifera reds of the area, but is a better match for certain roast pork and venison dishes.

Is it far-fetched, this idea of cherry wine becoming accepted by the cocky cognoscenti?

Maybe, but when handled by a deft vintner like Sam Simpson, maybe not.  To my palate, Sam’s cherry wine is a phenomenon: Bone-dry, crisply acidic with a beautifully rounded mouthfeel.  It offers a spice strata that’s nearly as complex as a vin brulé or an English mulled wine, only without the mulling.  Clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, they’re all there.  According to Taylor Simpson, “It’s like a piece of cherry pie in a glass.”

Best, it shows no dismay over its origins; rather, it celebrates being cherry wine.

But is it wine wine?

3. Gradual changes lead to turning points:

The problem is not that cherry wine tastes like cherries: that’s a common enough descriptor for cabernet or merlot, nor that it’s redolent of pie spices, which show up in the nose of most top pinot noirs.  Rather—if we’re honest here—cherry wine has the potential for some major boorish associations.  Tommy James and the Shondels swig it with total strangers; Jermaine Stewart guzzles it as a substitute for sloppy sex; George Thorogood howls about it in the same breath as hot peppers and ooh-hoo-hooeee; and when Van Morrison gets loaded along the Cyprus Avenue train tracks, believe me, it ain’t on ‘89 Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques.

Moi?  When I was sixteen, I used to buy this syrupy 8% crap for a buck ninety-nine (Boone’s Farm Wild Cherry, if memory serves) from Bill’s Party Store on Orchard Lake Road—they sold it to me without blinking an eye, and trust me, when I was sixteen I didn’t even look sixteen much less twenty-one.

So it’s going to take a mighty PR campaign from the likes of the Simpsons to change the notion that cherry wine is anything more than a low-priced, lowbrow dally-in-the-alley plonk, and the fact that they sells it for a mere $7.50 a bottle—it’s worth gobs more—may be hurting the cause more than helping it.

4. Negation of the negation

Hegel's Triad

Unless you are in need of sleep, folks like Engels and his near-anagram Hegel who use phrases like ‘negation of the negation’ are downers.  And in this case, however the negation negates the negatory, good buddy, Sam Simpson will always run up against the final wall of resistance.  According to the FDA, he can’t just call his product ‘wine’ and hope that its very cherry-ness suggests the obvious.  He must by law classify it as a ‘Class 5’—a fruit wine made with something other than grapes, and so state in prominent letters on the label.

That, in short, was the dialectics of cherry wine.  Now, Here’s the resolution:

I’m a wine writer, not a philosopher, but I do profess my undying love Good Harbor cherry wine, so in the search for a denominator common enough to put the ‘is it wine/not wine’ argument to rest once and for all, I have stumbled (one too many Good Harbor Marechal Foch Rosés, no doubt) over  the answer.

That is:

If you heat any alcoholic beverage—no matter if it’s made from grapes or cherries—to 1032 degrees kelvin, the symmetries of ten-dimensional superstring appear, the geometry of time distorts and both substances become so identical that even Noah Webster couldn’t tell them apart. 


Of course, you, being smarter than I, have already guessed the inherent fallacy in such a methodological solution:

Simultaneously, a rip will form in the space-fabric of the Good Harbor tasting room (34 S. Manitou Trail, Lake Leelanau 49653; 231-256-7165), a wormhole will appear between the Fishtown White and the Moonstruck Brut and you and me will wind up exactly where we began—so we’ll have to start over.

Won’t that be fun?

Debbie and Taylor have agreed to have the glasses ready.

* Sam Simpson won’t divulge his full name.  “Sam’s fine,” he says, and I respect that.  But secretly I hope it’s Samson.  Samson Simpson is a name worthy of, well, The Simpsons.

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