Thumbing Their Noses At Lake Michigan Palates

A random glance at most websites listing Michigan wineries reveals glaring omission: The east side of the state is pretty much not on the map.

And I am not suggesting that this does not make sense, at least traditionally, and at least in the old school ‘Lake Effect’ mindset.  Coined by Fenn Valley founder Bill Welsch, lake effect  summarizes the climactic reasons why Michigan in the dead of winter can’t support vinifera grapes.

Before and after

Before and after

Except along the shore of Lake Michigan.

The world’s third-largest freshwater lake, Lake Michigan’s north-to-south orientation keeps it from freezing over in all but the coldest winters; in fact, it hasn’t happened since disco music was popular and Peter Frampton had hair.  As a result, the prevailing westerly winds that blow across it are always above 32° F, and they keep the shoreline about twenty degrees warmer than the Wisconsin shoreline a hundred miles to the west.

William ‘Wordsmith’ Welsch, Move It On Over…

For the most part, Michigan’s east coast sees a similar but opposite phenomenon, which I will hereby dub ‘The Frostbitten and Idiotically Cold Tundra without Redeeming Value Effect’; the result of westerly winds blowing across Siberia-like midstate Michigan which keep everything vinifera free; these grapes—among them chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, et. al.—would freeze to the ground in a typical Michigan winter.

michigan_hardiness_zonesExcept in The Thumb.

Take another random map glance—this time at the Michigan Hardiness Zones, noting that a certain semi-circle at the tip of the Thumb enjoys the same mean temperature as all those fancy schmancy Left Coast wineries with their own AVAs—Fenn Valley, Lake Michigan Shore and the Leelanau Peninsula.

Therefore, by all agricultural accounts, this part of the state, often overlooked by oenophiles, should be capable of growing anything that the traditional ‘fruit belt’ can grow.  And guess what?  It seems to be.

So what prevents more wannabe winemakers with boundless budgets from setting up shop here?  I mean, other than the fact that Traverse City is exciting, vital and beautiful and Grindstone City is about as dull as listening to Vangelis while knitting an afghan during a chess tournament  …In Grindstone City?

Well, I felt the need to know, so I headed up to the only two known wineries in Michigan’s green, opposable pollex: Dizzy Daisy and Blue Water.

But First, a Bit of Saling

If I said this garage sale had everything but the kitchen sink, I'd be lying...

If I said this garage sale had everything but the kitchen sink, I’d be lying…

Garage saling, that is—mid-Michigan’s number one hobby for those too fat for hiking, too old for biking, too catatonic for swimming and too sick for endless hours of slamming Kessler/Bud Lite boilermakers at the Dew Drop Inn.  Which is to say, just about everyone.

What, you may ask, is the technical difference between an estate sale, a garage sale and a yard sale?  Easy peasy: A garage sale is where you sell all the crap you bought at an estate sale, and a yard sale is what you hold when someone makes you an offer on your garage.  I mock the species, but I can’t resist the high camp experience of wandering among folding card tables surveying the one-man’s-trash-is-another-man’s-treasure selections, and truth be told, nobody has ever been to a garage sale and not walked out with something.

The one I offered my custom to, on the outskirts of Caseville, was a prototypical example of the breed.  What caught my attention was the fully-accoutered ambulance for sale alongside the rusting mechanic’s sets, cow-ear-tagger, broken furniture and thousands of Grisham novels.

name tagsOh, and perhaps even stranger than the ambulance was the gigantic box of gas station attendant name badges—the kind that you sew onto the side of the shirt that doesn’t say ‘Shell’.  The woman running the show told me that she had bought an entire truck load of the tags, and this box-full was all she had left.

That’s what I love about garage sales, other than the fact that you could double your weight and still be the thinnest person there and double your age and still be the youngest person there: The mental images that the merchandise conjures up. First, the particular mindset that would cause someone to pay real money for a truckload of random name tags; then, the spare time available to someone willing to clamber around said truckload to find their name… in the event that the first question a potential Shell station employer asks is, ‘Do you already have your own name tag?’

On To the Wineries…

Whatever.  Just north of Lexington, I noticed a simple sign for Blue Water Winery, a vineyard of which I had never heard even though it is only a couple of hours from my house.

To me, this sort of discovery ranks right up there with finding ‘Chris’ among the name tags.

Connie Currie and Steve Velloff, not in order

Connie Currie and Steve Velloff, not in order

Turns out that a decade ago, a pair of Chicago rat race software executives decided to trade the smog for the lake fog and planted twenty acres of vinifera and French-American interspecific hybrids (read: survives winter) less than a mile from the Lake Huron beach.  So much extraneous energy did the couple bring with them from duggie-fresh Shytown that the winery wasn’t enough: They bought Lexington City Hall too and started a microbrewery, growing their own hops a mere stone’s throw from the alpaca herd they also raise.

So far so good:  The first vintage was in 2008, and since then, the winery has pulled in some impressive awards, including silver medals for 2011 Chardonnay at the Finger Lakes Competition and another

The Oliver and Lisa Douglas of Carsonville is Connie Currie and Steve Velloff—the former the winemaker, the latter the marketing whiz.  A tour of their green acres reveals some gutsy experimentation:  Zweigelt and grüner veltliner, the cabernet and sauvignon blanc of Austria.  Rightly guessing that our un-Bordeaux-like climate may be better suited to Eastern European varietals like these, the couple is among the frontrunners in planting them instead of the old cool-climate standby riesling.  Although, that said, Blue Water has taken prizes for their riesling as well.

Clipboard hootervilleThe group I sampled had a clear and upfront winner: Cabernet franc, which has taken pun-free root in Michigan viticultural tradition, especially in places that you are not supposed to be able to grow grapes, let alone superstars.  Blue Water’s is dark, brooding and chocolatey with a currant undercurrent and a lots of brambly, pure-fruit blackberry and a nice, parching mouthfeel to round it out.

In all, a nice slice of HooterCarsonville for which, unable to bestow any medals beyond the ones I picked up for a buck at the garage sale, I have written the winery a small ode.  I hope these big city-gone-jump-off-bumpkins appreciate it.

Blue Water is the place to be,

Wine living is the life for me,

Vines spreadin’ out so far and wide,

Keep Chicago, just gimme that country side.


Shy-town is where I’d rather stay,

I’m allergic to our chardonnay,

I just adore a Grant Park jack,

Dah-ling I love you, but get me my wallet back.

Dizzy Like a Fox…

Clipboard signsFlip the Blue Water coin and you’ll come up with Dizzy Daisy Winery on Crown Road in Bad Axe. Now, before I tiptoe further through the vertiginous Asteraceae, let me state for the record that whenever my Washington wine colleagues brag about some effeminate, namby pamby, milktoast ‘sweet spot’ called Horse Heaven Hills, I remind them that while they’re growing grapes in some My Little Pony Valhalla and feeling good about themselves, us macho Michigan mokes are made of sterner stuff:

‘Bad Axe’.

…Named, incidentally, when road surveyors discovered a broken axe at the site of the future city.  If you are wondering why they didn’t call their new town ‘Broken Axe’, ‘Non-Functional Axe’ or ‘Damaged-‘n’- Dulled-By-Pioneers-With-Far-More-Pluck–Than-Y’all Axe’, I have but two words for you:  Don’t axe.

Harold Kociba and vines

Harold Kociba and vines

So, while Connie Currie and Steve Velloff were nary tiny bubbles in their grandfather’s champagne flute, the Kociba family were tilling Thumb turf, raising whatever the market would bear.  They’ve done corn, they’ve done strawberries and now, scion Harold Kociba is doing wine.  Along with strawberries.  And corn.

‘You try what you can to best Mother Nature,’ he claims.  ‘But in the end, Mother Nature wins.’

I love it when a farmer grins.  And Harold Kociba does a lot of grinning; he seems to have settled into the sort of agricultural fatalism that plays out loud and clear the above quote.  I marvel at independent family farms in 2013; they are like that woodworking dude on PBS who uses a waterwheel to run his power saw and does everything else with hand tools.  Just as the industrial revolution made windmills an anachronism, large, factory agri-business farms put most of the country’s Harold Kocibas—community pillars if they ever existed—out of work.  Those who hang on despite economic pressure, shitty weather and, perhaps, cash money offered by the big boys, are to be hailed and revered  as wacky, loopy, dizzy heroes.

I also admire the strong—if often inexplicable—ties that most rural farm folks have to religion.  For many—even most—it is the cornerstone of their worldview.

I confess, I just don’t get it.  Most of us realize pretty early in life that as an economic strategy, prayer is pretty ineffective.  Yet, ‘PRAY for RAIN to end Drought Across U.S.’ has its own web site and Facebook page.   So, you have three million farmers praying for rain, and guess what?  The next year, the fields flood and the same three million farmers pray for the rain to stop.

Is ‘over-praying’ a concept like ‘over-fertilizing’?

My favorite church in the Thumb, where they may or may not pray for rain, since tourism along the Huron coast is a bigger industry than farming, is Our Lady of Lake Huron.  I wasn’t aware that The Most Holy Virgin made it to Southeast Michigan, but I suppose if she showed up in Guadalupe she could have made a vacation detour to Harbor Beach.

joanieGood old Harold Kociba—not sure what he prays for except for more whatever is making him grin so much.  I showed up late on the same day he was holding his annual Strawberry Festival, and found that there was only a single piece of shortcake left.  No matter—that goofball freckle-faced Joanie Cunningham pretty much ruined shortcake for me decades ago.  Instead, his lovelier-than-Joanie tasting room serverettes poured complementary Dizzy Daisy drams, most of which I have had before.  Whereas Kociba always gets an A for Affort, I am not a huge fan of his varietal wines, advertised on the DD site as being available at 7-11.   So, rather than making any remarks I may regret, I will stick to reviewing the Dizzy Daisy wines that I really do like, which are not only sensational, but perhaps the pie that more mid-Michigan winemakers should be sticking their thumbs into: Non-grape based cordials and beyond.

Low-Hanging Fruit?

Of course, the family farm fruit wine tradition is far older than medal-winning vinifera bottlings—it had its commercial beginnings in Kentucky in the 1790’s, but there’s no reason to imagine that berry wines were not made by the Midwest’s first pioneers.  Fermentation-fit berries are native to the region; decent wine grapes (other than Norton) are not.  Still, berry wines in today’s world are even more problematic that nice, need rows of vines:

rose-hill-signFirst, the labor involved in harvesting, say, blackberries, is pretty intensive.  Many producers of big-selling blackberry wine like Rose Hill’s Jenny Beetz believe that home-grown berries add value to her product, but admits that buying juice or just-picked fruit from a distributor would be a less expensive way to go.  And yet, that has issues too: Blackberry growers earn premium prices for berries destined for blackberry extract or medicinal purposes.  Plus, growers need to pick fruit as early as they can, often before the acids have had a chance to mellow out and sugars developed.  Left too long, however, and the birds get them.  Bird netting, as grape growers do, adds exponentially to a berry farmer’s overhead, but buying overly acidic grapes requires throwing sugar at the juice, which is not a practice that winemakers tend to embrace.

Kociba and kompany

L. to R.: Grinning Kociba, grinning Leah Neeb, grinning Melissa Galarno

In any case, by his own admission, Harold Kociba does not grow all his own fruit—pineapples, cranberries and apples do not figure big into layout of his farmland—so, better I should focus on those he nurtures himself.

Berry wines tend to be sweet, which makes them ideal for novice drinkers, but wise winemakers vinify dry to semi-dry as well, understanding that sweet—whether chaptalized or natural—masks flaws and flavors. And besides, dryer wines are more interesting.

That said, a fruit wine disadvantage (if you choose to call it that) is that they tend to be somewhat one dimensional; and if you can’t tell that a strawberry wine is made from strawberries, I count it as points off.*

 * Figuratively, of course—I despise wine scoring on general principle.

Southern Michigan, including Thumb region

Southern Michigan, including Thumb region

Michigan is the country’s premier producer of ‘highbush’ blueberries—the kind with which you are likely most familiar—so Dizzy Daisy Blueberry Wine is, more or less, a Michigan must.   Bombastic and bold, the wine is equally delicate with deep, unmistakable ripe blueberry intensity.  Make it the third tier of your red, white and blue, with a pair of currants to make the trinity.

Currants, both white and red, find the sandy, sometimes soggy soils of Michigan’s Thumb ideal digs; they are closely related to the equally uncommon and equally wine-worthy gooseberry.  The lighter versions are pungent and rich with notes of vanilla and clove; European dark currants are dark, and to some, unpleasant, with malty beer flavors and over tones of pine.  Oddly, Michigan’s pine industry almost eradicated the fruit in the 20th century as the European variety is prone white pine blister, which threatened logging.  They made a comeback around 1966 when it was found that white and red currants are not particularly susceptible to the fungus.  Today, most currants wind up in jams, purees and juices; as a tipple, the most well-known concoction is the apéritif, crème de cassis.  Dizzy Daisy keeps alive the farmhouse tradition of sugaring and fermenting homegrown berries.

Michigan’s month-long strawberry season was at its apex when I stopped by the winery, but unfortunately—following the independent farm Murphy’s Law tradition—something went wrong over the winter and this year’s crop was less than stellar.  His wine from last year’s harvest, in my book, is sensational.  Very pale pink, almost white, the intensity of the strawberry aromas that sneak from the glass are arresting, to say the least.  The wine is dulcet and delicious, dessert wine definitely, but rich, viscous and delightful to the point that no strawberry shortcake is necessary—if there was some, which there wasn’t.

Rhubarb is for Rubes, And That’s No Barb

My rhubarb wine with delivery device: a straw

My rhubarb wine with delivery device: a straw

Despite all odds however, my hands down, thumbs up favorite of Harold Kociba’s specialty wines is rhubarb wine, which he produces from grown at home Polygonaceae.  This love-it-or-hate-it perennial, whose toxicity is greatly exaggerated (the leaves are a laxative, nothing more sinister), is generally so tart that its culinary uses are somewhat restricted; it’s often mixed with strawberries, or if stewed along, needs a good half-cup of sugar per pound to make it palatable.  As such, it is an acquired taste, frequently a staple of agrarian folks on limited budgets without the luxury to acquire tastes for stuff that grows in the yard.

I happen to love rhubarb, and have an heirloom patch of my own that I treasure.  And yeah, I make rhubarb wine, so I acquired that taste around the same time I realized that a slight buzz makes everything more palatable as well.  So, I can promise you that Dizzy Daisy’s version manages to preserve the subtle flavors of the fruit (despite its appearance, it isn’t a vegetable) and its delicate color.  The wine is sweet, but so is nearly everything rhubarby.

I’m looking toward this, the first or fifth (depending on your perspective) flexion-focused phalanges in this big ol’ handprint of a state to be an emerging powerhouse in the wine world.  They just need to work out a few bugs first.

As anybody who understands the industry’s recovery from phylloxera, that can indeed be done—and believe me, nobody around here is twiddling their thumbs.

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