Remember when Miss South Carolina was asked why 20% of U.S. Americans couldn’t find the United States on a world map and she fumbled the football so badly that it wound up on a baseball diamond?
I bring it up because I read another staggering stat saying that 90% of U.S. Americans can’t find South Africa on the map. Seriously—even though, as you note, unlike U.S. America, South Africa tells you precisely where it is on the map in its friggin name.
And even more frightening? Fully 99.6% of Michiganeseagander adults cannot locate Old Mission Peninsula on a map, even though, like South Africa, it’s very name tells you precisely where it is: Poking up like a potent pecker with ‘Old Mission Lighthouse’ perched at the business end.
For crying out loud, people: What’s ‘Duh’ squared??
Anyway, in 2003, when Coenraad Stassen moved to Old Mission from Ladysmith, South Africa through an Ohio State University exchange program, intent on furthering his eight-year-old winemaking career, his first question was not ‘where’, but ‘why?’. At that point, as those of us (whose connection to winedom is both pen and palate) recall, northern Michigan was still something of a tadpole swimming around a fermented frog pond despite years of sincere stabs at creating a sustainable reputation.
The twin AVAs crowning Traverse City, Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula, must remain separate but equal in the eyes (and expressions) of essayists who do not need extraneous enemies in the eno-emporium. Now, whereas in terms of wine quality I wouldn’t elevate one above the other, I can tell you unequivocally that an acre of Old Mission dirt costs twice as much as an acre of Leelanau dirt. That’s mostly because Old Mission has less surface area to work with, and is, to many wealthy retirees, an arctic Arcadia that’s downstate accessible with upscale accessories like championship golf and Caribbean-blue bay views. As a result, on the auction block, retirement homes generally go head-to-head with vineyard spaces and in the subsequent bidding wars, when land prices rise to a point that is beyond what a Michigan winery can possibly recoup, the Golden Parachute Club wins.
And wineries cannot expand.
Is that a bad thing? Not according to Coenraad Stassen, who has, in his own charismatic struggle, managed to raise the bay’s berry-beverage bar to some breathtaking heights. Is he the best winemaker on the Old Mission Peninsula, or the entire Traverse City wine scene? Again, that is not for me to say, because (alas) I have not sampled every wine from every winery in current operation. But, have I ever tasted a more consistently world-class portfolio from any winemaker in Michigan?
Not that I can remember.
And for sure, not that Bill and Sue Marchek can remember, since they are not real big fans of any wine from anywhere; not even Michigan, even though they are from Royal Oak. I brought them along sort of like a miner brings along a canary or a king brings along a food-taster or vineyard managers plant roses at the head of every row—as an early warning indicator in case Coenraad should try to poison me with substandard drink. Oh, and also because they happened to be traveling with my taste bud bud Cliff Rames —a seasoned Manhattan sommelier—and their daughter, ethereally pretty Dayna Marchek, a barista at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in NYC. My intention was to impress the quartet with the new New World wines of Northern Michigan, with which they were not familiar.
Verdict? Old Mission accomplished.
Not only were they utterly charmed by Coenraad’s wines and impressed with his explanation of the ‘lake effect’ that allows a vital-to-vineyards frost delay in the region, Sue Marchek learned how to pronounce three hitherto unpronounceable words: Gewürztraminer, Coenraad and Brўs.
I’ll Walk You Through It, Shall I?
Anyone who is into wine already knows how to pronounce ‘gewürztraminer’, which Sue now simply truncates like most of us do: Gewürz. And now her tongue no longer hürz.
Apparently, saying ‘Coenraad’ is not so simple. Rather than using a more user-friendly coencept like the one used by Conrad Hilton, Joseph Conrad and Conrad II, Duke of Swabia, Mr. Stassen chooses to go all dipthongy Dutch aand Africaan double-vowely and sort of barks out his name with heterosyllabic glottal stops in total defiance of Michigan’s pleasant, neutral accent. Sue never did quite nail this one down, God bless her soul.
And then there is Brўs, which does not actually have a miniature ‘u’ over the ‘y’, but a flatliner long-vowel symbol like the one from grade school reminding us that ‘evil’ does not rhyme with ‘devil’—even though it should. In any case, ‘Brys’ becomes Brўs, which rhymes with ‘dry ice’, which is, in addition, a kick-ass Stassen late harvest riesling that he does not spell ‘Drў Ĭce’—even though he should.
No need to explain why the Brўs family does not want their surname mispronounced, as anyone who has ever been to a Jewish circumcision understands.
As a brief background blink, Walt and Eileen Brўs made some serious scoot in Texas real estate and decided to retire to the life of the landed gentry. Having looked at dozens of properties in Texas and California, they settle on their home state of Michigan. Fair to say, they haven’t looked back.
And after his initial jitters about just how good a wine he could produce in Old Mission Peninsula, neither has Coenraad Stassen, who now calls Michigan home despite the fact that he insists on behaving like a vuvuzela-tooting, koeksister-cramming, flat white (the bastard child of macchiato and latte) drinking, toss-a-springbok-on-the-barbie yarpie.
He dug in his heels and went to work, focusing entirely on estate grown vinifera, and since then has brought home 225 medals in national and international wine competitions. Nothing to sniff at, but you know what? The judges do anyway.
Having grown up on an ostrich, sheep and grape farm in the Uthukela district of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, fans like me are glad that he pursued the third herd as his lifeswork: The world is thereby spared a designer wool and feather boa collection from Loulou de la Coenraad.
At 36, he will celebrate his 20th harvest this year, which gives you an idea of how young he started making wine. At Brўs, he claims, he is, ‘Growing with the vineyard’.
That said—and as has been said—growing with the vineyard does not mean ‘growing the vineyard’, and neither he nor the Brўs bunch (son and daughters are involved) have any wish to move far past the 8500 cases of wine they currently produce annually. Figuring that an acre of OMP land may sell for $45,000, with an additional $15,000 needed for vineyard planting and subsequent management, and three years minimum before the first, often mediocre harvest hits the crusher, at 3 tons per acre making about 400 cases, each bottle will cost wannabe winery wankers more than $20—sometimes a lot more. Unfortunately, in 2013, there is only so much a bottle of Michigan wine can command and the average price of a Brўs wine is around $23. So with the ancient wisdom of The Five Fat Sangomas of KwaZulu-Natal, Stassen aims at quality over quantity, content with what he has to work with and leaving that pricey acre of Old Mission feculence to the Metamucil crowd.
So, for the hotshot sommelier and his gal, and for the newbie Marcheks and even for wee me, Stassen paraded out his portfolio on Saturday to universal applause. Here’s the rundown, written in the stultifying tongue known as critic-speak; a language even more obscure than that strange Khoesaan spoken by South African tribesmen, which uses ‘clicks’ for certain consonants:
* You will notice that the following puff-piece contains a lot of the ‘classic’ varietal descriptors—not merely because I am lazy, but because Coenraad’s eno-ethics has him enamored of the integrity of specific flavors: In other words, his wines taste like how they are supposed to taste, only better.
Brўs Estate Pinot Blanc, OMP, 2012, about $24: This is a grape for which Stassen holds higher hopes than any other white in the Peninsula; he doesn’t make a boatload of it, but what he does make is prominently scented with pure Bartlett pear, ripe cantaloupe and an appealing undercurrent of opulent, lucid fruit-freshness with a note of key lime acidity that carries through the finish.
Brўs Estate Pinot Grigio, OMP, 2012, around $22: Admittedly the wine he spends the least time ‘manipulating’, Coenraad intended to, and did, make a porch pounder for vacationers. ‘Grigio’, of course, outsells meatier, richer, spicier pinot gris at a double digit rate, and Brўs markets this wine to those simple souls more likely to select a slimmer, spritzier, ‘safer’ style of summer sipper.
Brўs Estate Naked Chardonnay, OMP, 2012, around $22: People who prefer purity of product will like turn to a more Chablis-style of chardonnay, meaning one that is not battered by an oaken siege engine. While barrel-fermenting and aging has its upside, it is often at the expense of the natural detail, nuance and vibrancy of the grape. This version is beautifully balanced between fruit sugars and acid, and shows marvelous tropical flavors—papaya and pineapple especially—deepened with alluring aromas of green apple and lime.
Brўs Estate Dry Riesling, OMP, 2012, about $22: Articulate and chiseled, Michigan’s one-time premier grape continues to hold its own among the new kids in town. Nice penetration of peach and ripe apricot throughout, the wine shows off a mineral tone that’s prized in the varietal as well as a slight smokiness cooled by a bright finish.
Brўs Estate Pinot Noir, OMP, 2011, around $30: So, let’s talk 2011, an almost mystical harvest for Stassen and company. No early frost, no rain during bloom; highest per-acre pull ever. Pinot noir, crotchety and ill-tempered if it doesn’t get its tea at precisely the same time every day, shrugged and put out. This wine is arguably the most Burgundian pinot noir ever to emerge from Northern Michigan; black cherry, cola and spice notes on an elegant frame, with cranberry, pomegranate and more cola on the palate. A stellar example of why we need the stars up here to align more often.
Brўs Estate Cab/Merlot, OMP, 2011, around $22: A moderately priced, fully acceptable blend of the classic Bordeaux couple; a broad brushstroke of area terroir with scents of blackberry, blueberry and loam contained within a medium body of French oak.
Brўs Estate Merlot, OMP, 2011, about $40: A scale tipper at the checkout counter, this sensational example of Michigan merlot shows layer upon layer of integrated natural tannin, pure silken plum and a creamy, concentrated mouthfilling lusciousness. Easily, a high-end cult merlot.
Brўs Estate Gewürztraminer, OMP, 2012, around $22: Now that Sue Marchek can say it, she can order it. And intends to: This up-and-coming cool-climate superstar is still finding its sea legs, granted, but gets more candid and coherent every vintage. Viscous, rich, scented with allspice, orange blossom and the elusive but requisite lychee, Stassen has babied the variety through birthing pains, and now has released among the best incarnation of this cultivar to be found north of the Mason Dixon line.
Brўs Estate ‘Dry Ice’ Riesling Ice Wine, OMP, 2011, around $75: Lovely but intense and unabashedly sweet, the scent of linseed pirouettes alongside peach, tangerine, grapefruit and mango. Obsessively hedonistic with outstanding potential to get better with age. Steeply tariffed, yes, but perfection comes with a price tag.