Michigan’s shape has been compared to a mitten so often that our nickname is ‘The Mitten State’. Colloquial claptrap, my good people. What kind of mitten has an Upper Peninsula? And if you think that the Yoopers don’t count, next time you want a genuine, guilty-pleasure, cholesterol-charged pastie, try a Saladworks.
Plus, the distinguishing feature of a mitten is what? No fingers, right? That would be a glove, right?? Michigan has two distinct phalanges on the left hand side, a pinkie and a ring. And each one happens to be so wine dexterous that it is its own American Viticultural Area; Leelanau Peninsula, and Old Mission Peninsula.
Although separated by less than five miles of Bondi-blue bay water and created the last time the Ice Age dropped in unannounced, in the 1980’s the peninsular pair petitioned for and received individual recognition, largely the work of Larry Mawby and Ed O’Keefe, among the earliest vintners to recognize—even before the hallowed Michigan State Extension gang—that the area could not only produce vinifera grapes, but if correctly chosen and judiciously planted, resulted in world class versions of them. At the time, the focus of MSU’s agricultural hopes was for a state wine industry based on hybrids, which thrive in cooler climates and have proven resistant to mildew, phylloxera and nematodes.
Mildew, Phylloxera and Nematodes Be Damned!
Most vintners on either side of the West Arm (of Grand Traverse Bay ) agree that wine yarns about the LP/OMP double digits begin with Edward O’Keefe, Jr.—a Pennsylvania native who built a summer home in Acme, just east of Traverse City. In 1974, looking for a second career, did what plenty of folks looking for a second career in the Great White North want to do: He opened a winery.
Which is not to say that he went in with stars in his eyes: Instead, the canny Celt consulted stars. First, 17th generation vintner Karl Werner and then, enologist Dr. Helmut Becker who confirmed what O’Keefe had suspected: That there were patches of peninsular property that mirrored Old World climates, and that his own 55 acres of Old Mission could, with modifications, rival some German acreage. That modification took place over the subsequent year and involved moving a million cubic yards of topsoil to form a better slope, then enriching that soil with 900 tons of humus. Rumor suggests that his financial advisors recommended that he invest in a fifty-five acre greenhouse instead.
And then he planted grapes. And by ‘he’, of course I mean Bernd Philippi, who oversaw the 27 acres of riesling that went in. And 17 acres of chardonnay, along with one of merlot—the last planted in error, but evidently still producing.
Although Ed O’Keefe’s first vintage produced an award winning chardonnay, riesling proved to be the long term rock star. It is still the grape that Ed’s son Sean, now Chateau Grand Traverse’s winemaker, believes is the Old Mission’s future as well as its past.
He also calls the wine people to his immediate left ‘Vulcans’, for reasons to be explained later—but for now, suffice to say, he reveals a genetic predilection for the Germanic gem upon which the estate was founded: “Pinot blanc is useful,” he maintains, “and it has a place here on Old Mission. But so far, even the best ones are falling apart after four or five years while we’ve seen our rieslings continue to improve for a decade or more.”
Sean is a big fan of Old Mission gamay noir, too, but he seems understand that it won’t be the premier grape of the peninsula any time soon. “Cabernet franc is getting a lot of press these days. But I think if I could get more people behind gamay noir, they’d be sold on its ability to perform in our northern climate—it produces wines that are versatile and elegant.’
Franc ‘n’ Blanc Are Pretty Swank
O’Keefe finds his Moriarty in another Old Mission winemaker, Brys Estate’s Coenraad Stassen. Despite his unshakable love for riesling, Stassen weighs in on the side of pinot blanc and cabernet franc as the grapes that show the most potential for quality growth in Old Mission Peninsula. “I agree with Sean that pinot blanc is not necessarily a long-lived wine; that’s why I make mine in a fruit-forward style with no oak and low alcohol. There is not enough weight and structure to let it age for a long time. I make mine so that it is market-ready by April.”
He is even more gung-ho on cabernet franc:
“It’s one of my favorite varietals to work with; the intense fruit and spice that develops in our cooler region at Brys, we have almost 8 acres planted. Unlike pinot blanc, cab franc has excellent aging potential and I have had them from Michigan as old as 18 years that are still holding up fine. I think Cabernet Franc has great potential in Michigan, especially on Old Mission Peninsula.
Proof’s in the punt (and the punter): Brys Estate is the current holder of the best Cabernet Franc of the last decade. Brys Estate 2007 Artisan Cabernet Franc.
Moving Right Along…
Meanwhile, on the other side of the drink—literally as well as figuratively—iconic winemaker Larry Mawby had a few years’ head start on these Old Mission upstarts. And the start he up and started in 1975 was, L. Mawby winery, where, unlike OM’s O’Keefe, Mawby took his cue from Burgundy rather than Germany and planted the king and queen of Champagne, pinot noir and chardonnay—grapes which conventional wisdom said could not be grown in Northern Michigan.
BTW, conventional wisdom also said that if God meant man to fly, he’d have wings.
Mawby’s wings sprouted via méthode champenoise, the labor-intensive technique that accounts for nearly all of the world’s top sparkling wines. Mawby was and is the reigning monarch of Michigan mousse, producing many of the award-winning bubblies that other wineries call their own—he just doesn’t tack his tag onto the tun. His mentorship of Grand Rapids native Dr. Joseph O’Donnell, a neurosurgeon bitten by the wine bug, led to Shady Lane Cellars in 1987. Shady Lane’s first plantings were, at Larry’s urging, eleven acres of Champagne varietals, but today—shades of Shady irony—under the winemanship of Adam Satchwell, the kingliest kudos come via riesling.
Sandy loam and proper vine orientation explains rieslings love of Leelanau; at least in the scholarly view of one the most OCD of winemakers in either peninsula—Lee Lutes of Black Star Farms. Although slate soil is the grape’s first love, he maintains that the till deposited throughout Michigan over centuries long gone seems to work just fine.
Says Lutes: “The glaciers left us a remarkable mosaic of soils, each one leaving a unique imprint on the wines they produce. Our toughest topographies can range from bald, barren hillsides without topsoil to rock-hard clay layer three feet thick. But we plant and we commit; Black Star has vineyards flourishing in clay and gravel so hard you can hardly get a shovel in it; we used mechanical augers to plant and the shear pins keep busting…’
But, are there distinct, identifiable and commercially exploitable differences in the soil composition of the twin peninsulas? Most area vintners say no, although Lutes, along with White Pine Wines’ Dave Miller, is petitioning for an inclusive geotechnical soil-boring study throughout wine country which both believe would benefit Michigan winemakers more than of many state-funded analyses that have been performed.
And anyway, Miller adds: ‘Those state funds are drying up. If we can find the resources to see the studies paid for internally—by wine growers and wine producers like us—we can direct funding to projects of genuine benefit to the long-term quality of Michigan wine; too much has been left to trial and error.’
Lutes’ trials—and self-confessed errors—have taken place on both Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas, where he has discovered that, although vineyard soils may not be drastically different between the two, vineyard environment certainly is. “I find, as all northern vintners find, that mesoclimate—the unique conditions in particular grape-growing site—are everything.”
He points to his cabernet franc and merlot growing in a gravel amphitheater—an old mining pt—at the base of Old Mission, which faces southwest: “It’s hotter than blazes in the summer and the grapes ripen perfectly, while just up the road, without the same orientation, these red wine grapes simply will not ripen. Success is a marriage of location, location, location—and clone, clone, clone…”
The great, wide-awake sleeping bear Larry Mawby concurs. “Geologically, Old Mission and Leelanau were created in the same glacial phenomena, and our soils are quite similar; beach sand to gravel to heavy clay. But Leelanau is a larger piece of property and inland, south of Northport and the lake, we see more heat accumulation days than anywhere on Old Mission. Three or four miles from Lake Leelanau, the acid profile of the wine changes considerably.”
Speaking of heat, Mr. Mawby would not want me to exit without mentioning global warming, a topic with which he has stronger opinions than Limbaugh on Obama: “Climate change is real; it is happening now and it will continue to happen, and will have long-term effects on Leelanau and Old Mission. And not necessarily good effects, either; we can expect more extremes, more climactic variability, and for grape growers, these are never positives. A single spectacularly violent storm during the summer can devastate an entire season, and for us, it is in the cards.”
Back To Alnitak; 40 Eridani A, Sixteen Light Years From Robert Parker Jr…
You thought I forgot??
Sean O’Keefe refers to Leelanau winemakers as ‘Vulcans’ because they are orbiting a distant enological star and not because as a people, they attempt—and fail—to live by reason and logic without the interference of emotion. Nor does Sean (ever the gentleman) make direct reference to their pointy ears.
Using my extraterrestrial powers of telepathy, I must conclude that throughout the gentle rivalry between the digits, and more than in almost any other adjacent AVA that I know of, there is a lot of cooperation, much the same as when we from Vulcan helped you glorified rhesus monkeys reconstruct your devastated post-World War III Earth.