Bonga is bonkers, for sure.
I can say that because I consider myself a pretty serious runner—I do a minimum of five miles a day, at 5 AM, 365 days a year (right, I took yesterday off: God’s gift to shin-splints comes but once in four years). And I know that the sight of me slip-sliding through pre-dawn blizzards must cause a lot of eye-rolling among passing motorists.
Eye-rolling comes from the winemaker at Cascade Winery too, but for different reasons. Roger Bonga thinks I’m a wussy.
The 36-year-old, 35-time triathlon participant (35 triathlons is not a misprint) considers these mind-boggling tests of athletic prowess to be tough, but hardly the pinnacle of insanity. At the outset of our interview, I asked him what was the craziest event he’s ever run. Turns out it’s The Western States Endurance Run, between Squaw Valley, California and Auburn, California: A hundred mile run where the temperature frequently exceeds 100 degrees.
Not sure about you, but I whine about driving a hundred miles in that kind of heat. Although, in fairness, this was a trail run, so Roger didn’t have to deal with any mocking motorists like I do.
A Second Successful Run: Cascade Winery
Somehow, between all that running, biking and swimming, Bonga managed to become an equally bonkers winemaker. The dude produces jalapeño wine for the love of God—so potent that slugging a bottle makes the WS 100 run feel like the fifty yard dash—he wears a gas mask while making it.
Cascade Winery is a 2500 case annual operation run out of an industrial park building on the outskirts of Grand Rapids. Opened nine years ago by Roger’s parents, Bob and Rose Bonga, their mission statement, then as now, (other than to turn a basement hobby into a career-founding business) is to produce purely Michigan wines.
And they’re close.
“The legal standard for using the appellation ‘Michigan’ on the label is that 80% of the grapes have to be from our state,” says Roger. “Here at Cascade, we use a minimum of 90% Michigan, and our merlot, along with all of our whites, are made from 100% Michigan fruit.”
Speaking of Michigan fruit, to kick off his portfolio, his collection of fruit wines is impressive; there’s nine of them, including a luscious, ruby red Michigan cranberry wine—a type of produce that most Michigan locovores didn’t even know we grew. Personally, I happen to be a sucker for fruit wine, and as far as I’m concerned, nobody does it better than Mitten makers. Roger’s pear is peachy and his peach would pair perfectly with pear torte. I’d suggest that his apple wine is the apple of my high, but then you’d just roll your eyes at another stupid joke.
And then there’s the mead. Most folks would sooner put Margaret Mead near their lips than honey mead, but they should give Roger’s Orange Spice and Wild Black Raspberry meads a shot. Both are softly complicated wines, redolent with sweet summer fruit and honey. Currently, he’s trying to find a source for honey made from buckwheat flowers, too (and call it, perhaps, ‘Honey Bunches of Oat’?), but that—like the company’s expansion—is something he and his folks are looking for down the road.
Roger also makes something called Raspberry Chocolate Silk wine that’s to curl up and die over, and by golly, there’s that crazy jalapeño wine—guaranteed to grow hair on your eyelids.
The following notes pertain to but a few of Bonga’s huge roster of traditional grape wines. If there’s a single common denominator that runs through nearly all of them—a quality that genuinely surprised me—it’s the fact that most display sensational aromatics. Something that I assure you, not all Michigan wines do.
Cascade Winery, Traminette, Michigan, 2010, around $14: A cross between Joannes Seyve and gewurtztraminer, traminette is a hardy, cold-weather white that’s both vigorous and productive, but (in my opinion) rarely produces wine of any great distinction. This one is an exception, favoring a dynamic, unmistakable gewurtz profile: Lychee, orange blossom and lime.
Cascade Winery, Riesling, Michigan, 2009, around $11: A fine fusion of delicacy and depth, this lightly sweet wine shows pine and petrol on the nose, citrus flavors and a nice wet Petoskey stone (inside joke) finish.
Cascade Winery, Delaware, Michigan, 2009, around $12: An underrated varietal among snoots, real wine people appreciate that native American delaware can produce rich, cherry-cast gems saturated with wild strawberry and alluring floral overtones, and very little of the characteristic Labrusca ‘foxiness’. This one, from grapes grown in Coloma, Michigan, has everything that classic Missouri delawares have.
Cascade Winery, Cabernet Franc, Michigan, 2008, around $12: I’ve always been at odds with wine critics that insisted that in Michigan ,‘our’ grape is riesling. I’ve yet to taste one that truly blew me out of the tub. Cab franc? Now we’re whistling 21st Century Breakdown. For the price, Bonga’s cab franc is nearly impossible to beat: Bricky in color, juicy with plum, chocolate and liquid licorice, it shows a distinctly Midwest profile; slight bell-pepper acidity that I happen to prefer over some of the overripe California examples.
Cascade Winery, Sangiovese/Merlot, Michigan, NV, around $16: At sixteen bucks, this is Bonga’s priciest pick, and I think it’s his best. Fully ripe, and showing equal allegiance to both varietals, it boasts savory smells of Montmorency cherry, Damson plum, and is packed with red-fruit flavors and a distinct mahogany finish.
Running into Roger was a treat, as was tasting his wares—but a sad wake-up call to me that I’m far better at running my mouth that at running races.
And, in fact, he ultimately excused himself to ‘go to a chili cook-off’, to which I rolled my eyes and figured, ‘Su-u-u-re’. After some of the questions I peppered him with, wherever the heck he actually went, I’m sure he’s still running hard.