Every year around this time, I rummage through the big ol’ steamer trunk in my spooky, spidery cellar. Moving aside the mothballs, I dig beneath the silver-buckled, bright green St. Paddy’s Day top hats, the 4th of July Uncle Sam beard, the Easter Bunny ears and my New Year’s Eve diaper/Depends combo skivvies in order to remove and don the appropriate Michigan costume du jour.
Which would be: Genuine souvenir Potawatomie mukluks, Kid Rock t-shirt, Mackinaw Fudgepackers Local 364 blazer, Red Wings helmet and an assortment of stuffed, genetically-altered mutants from the Detroit River, including a carp with fifteen anal fins.
Because I am a proud Michiganderanian, that’s why; wolverinized through the womb; born and bred in the world’s biggest refugee camp, fed nothing but nutrition-free Vernor’s Gingerale and Sanders White Flight Chocolate Sundae Topping while being strapped to a chair with Luduvico Technique specula and forced to watch the only clown ever born who was creepier than John Wayne Gacy’s Pogo: Milky.
Why else? Well, my droogies, because that intriguing institute of intoxicology called The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council has published its usual august August augury: The results of the annual Michigan Wine Competition.
And I—dutiful, sycophantic, Stepford lapdog that I am—will report upon these results like I always do, using all the poetic panegyrics and epic extolleries that my meager Midwest muse may allow to materialize.
In short, I will wave the home flag with company boy gusto.
And then, later on maybe, if I feel up to it, I will release the hounds.
First: Woots For the Beauts!…
Having had a privileged, first-row seat from which to oversee Michigan’s wine evolution, from my first taste of Paw Paw fermented paw paw juice suckled through a glass-bottle nurser to my last sip of L. Mawby méthode champenoise, I have watched an industry’s trajectory of triumph with very few stumbles—and those were quickly absorbed into the glacial till. The players’ changing mindset over the decades, from varietal choice to an understanding of mesoclimate to the basic truth that with every vintage, our winemakers build upon lesson learned, has made the winners—and losers—in the 2013 competition the most impressive line-up in the 36 years they’ve been holding this thing.
Open only to wine and spirits made from Michigan-grown fruit, a little more than half of the state’s wineries (52 of ninety-four) entered product—which may or may not reflect how many wineries here actually import their grapes. In any case, of the 448 entries, 64 were awarded gold medals, and of these, six were deemed ‘Best of Class’.
Brevity being the soul of nitwit shit wit, I will stick to an overview of those, but a complete listing link will be given at the end.
Best of Class, Michigan Wine Competition, 2013:
Sparkling: Black Star Farms ‘BeDazzled’, Old Mission Peninsula, 2012, around $15: BeImpressed, not only with Lee Lutes’ aromatic vintage sparkler, which leads with citrus and bows with crisp green apple, but with Black Star’s ability to juggle a distillery and creamery along with the winery.
Dry White: Chateau Fontaine Pinot Blanc, Leelanau Peninsula, 2012, about $22: As the decade’s ‘it’ grape, it is no surprise that pinot blanc beat out a number of sensational dry rieslings to pin down the coveted award. That said, the version produced by Dan and Lucie Matthies’ wonderful winery shows the variety to the nines—racy and clean, it’s a clear-toned bell; ripe pear and melon with a flower blossom quality that the grape seems develop primarily in northern climates. Kaffir lime acidity and a lingering taste of peach and lychee.
Dry Red: Peninsula Cellars Cabernet Franc, OMP, 2011, around $20 : A superb precedent for a grape which is here to stay in Michigan: Plummy, rich and brooding, filled with dark foresty flavors and somber cocoa brightened with a nice beam of acidity.
Semi-Dry White: Boathouse Vineyards ‘Knot Too Sweet’ Riesling, LP, 2012, about $20: Shawn Walter’s inimitable fingerprints are all over this wine, but not to worry: He washed his hands, just like the sign directs. A bit anachronistic; ‘pun’ names for serious wine is pretty much over and out in my book. But the wine itself has you glancing past the groaner—it’s pure top drawer Michigan riesling: Lacy and delicate, sugary and tart in calculated harmony, juicy with green apple and lime shored up by stone and a sweet apricotty finish.
Semi-Dry Red: Karma Vista Vineyards ‘Devil’s Head Red’, Michigan 2012, around $11:
Karma kicked in pretty quickly for this cool new winery. How new is it? I’m not entirely sure since when I called to ask, the owner claimed to be too busy to answer and told me to call back the next day. Good for her and deadlines be damned! Not sure what’s in it, either; the KV website simply calls it ‘a fiendishly dark red blend’. I’d buy some and try to figure it out, but the nearest shop that carries it is two hours away, so that’s strike three. Don’t mess with success: If you earn bragging rights for a red wine with 3% residual sugar, you must be doing something right.
Dessert: Brys Estate, ‘Dry Ice’ Riesling Ice Wine, OMP, 2011, around $75: Doing everything right is Coenraad Stassen, Brys’s compulsively talented winemaker, bringing OCD to the OMP. This ritzy bauble is not only ‘Best of Class’, but in a class all its own; dripping with passion fruit, apricot, grapefruit and honey, it is pure, golden, dulcet candied fruit on the palate with a counterpoint of citrus that allows the wine to hover and linger in perfect balance.
In all, outstanding ovations and homegrown high-fives to these hardscrabble hyperborean horticulturists, forcing a cynical out-of-state wine culture to sit up and take notice.
Michigan is as Michigan does, and with these wines, we have really begun to outdo ourselves.
Now, about those judges…
Hell Hath No Fury Like a Wino Scorned…
In June, 2013, it was revealed that Governor Rick Snyder’s administration had ignored lower bids from Michigan companies and outsourced the design and printing of a government brochure to Iowa.
The name of the brochure? ‘Pure Michigan’.
And even worse, it turns out that the egg on Snyder’s face isn’t even local; it was imported from Guangdong.
The worst word I heard in the twenty years of Detroit automotive was ‘TINA’—an acronym coined by Peter Bendor of Samuel Outsourcing. It means, ‘There Is No Alternative’, and is supposed to justify the fact that most Michigan car companies are ‘forced’ to purchase portions of what they manufacture from outside sources in order to remain competitive.
‘Tina’ is also a slang word for methamphetamine, that pharmaceutical bathtub-gin cancer that makes crack cocaine look like a boon to mankind. Like outsourcing, of course, meth is addictive, cheap and ultimately, destroys the very people who rely upon it.
I get it, Michigan Grape and Wine Council—at least, I think I do:
How’s this? In order for the results of your annual competition to appear more ‘legit’ in the tunnel-vision eyes of mean-spirited wine world, you need to employ esteemed experts from outside of Michigan.
Esteemed experts who like us as much as we like us, including his eminence Doug Frost of estimable Kansas City, the honorable Katie Cook from Minnesota’s hallowed Twin Cities, venerable Peter Bell and the apotheosable Johannes Reinhardt of Finger Lake’s stately (wrong state, though) Fox Run Vineyard, who fed Obama riesling during his inauguration and Our Most Prized Pedestal-Pushing Patriarch de plume Dan Berger of Santa Rosa, CA…
And so on. Of the twenty-five judging jobs, about half were outsourced.
See, that’s where we part company, Grape Council. There are, in fact, plenty of alternatives. We’re not picking up widgets from Delhi made by trafficked children being paid two cents an hour so we can compete with Chinese automobiles being built by trafficked children. We are ballyhooing our state wines—putting forth a global, grape-stained face insisting that we can produce premium wines that can stand with pride against the window dressers. We are manifesting a wide, inclusive blanket of blustery self-confidence about our homegrown juice.
And yet somehow, we don’t have the same self-confidence in our homegrown wine experts?
Say what you want about Jennifer Granholm’s admin, she did her best to put her money where our mouths are: “As a governor I can’t do anything about international trade policy, but what I can say is that if you’re going to compete for Michigan work, you should be here.”
Which locals should round out the judging panel, then? Not me—I also get that, which is why I joke about it every year in this obligatory column. I have found that repeatedly referring to Governor Snyder—The Grape Council’s boss—as a sniveling snot-snouted snakeoil snabby is probably not a real wise career move in the government-funded Michigan wine industry.
Still, as a wine writer, I choose candid uppitiness over craven suck-uppitiness, and whether the Council likes it or not, I have been a member of the Michigan wine community for most of my adult life, raised awareness of our progress as an industry, and will still be doing so when Governor Rhymes-With-Spider returns to counting beans at Ardesta.
So, not me.
But what about Cortney Casey, whose love affair with Michigan wine is so all consuming that she finally visited her very first out-of-state winery this month. She writes about, gushes over and sells ‘Pure Michigan’ products at Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room in Shelby Township. She may not know more about wine than Dan Berger, but I guarantee you that she knows more about Michigan wine than any other imported hired-gun on the panel.
What about George Heritier, co-founder of Gang Of Pour, among the oldest and best wine blogs in the country. Heritier was the baton-twirling drum major at the Michigan wine parade when at least one of the judges on the current panel was too young to drink near beer.
What about Steve Goldberg, sommelier at Ann Arbor’s The Earle, whose amazingly affordable 1400 bottle wine list just hit the Wall Street Journal as among the nation’s best; he says, ‘It isn’t so much that my prices are cheap but that other restaurants charge too much…’
And speaking of Goldbergs, what about Joel Goldberg, editor of MichWines, an invaluable, non-beholden consumer guide to Michigan wines. Joel’s face is de rigueur at any wine event that features Michigan wines, whereas I promise you, I have never seen Illinois’ Jessica Altieri’s face at a single one she wasn’t judging.
I could go on, but you get my drift. The imported offshore intercessors know their stuff—nobody is arguing that, nor that the Chinese preschoolers turn out some pretty mean thingamajiggies. And I am sure the Iowa printing press produced a respectable ‘Pure Michigan’ brochure, too.
That isn’t the point. Jennifer Granholm’s point is the point. Our product is good enough now that it doesn’t need to grovel for a stamp-of-approval from beyond the pale.
Complete list of winners:
Great work as always, but actually bringing judges from elsewhere is part of the plan. When these experts come and taste wines at the competition, they lend an additional level of validation to the competition AND take home favorable impressions and eyes that are appreciably more open to the merits of Michigan wines.
One of the best cases in point was when Napa winemaker Scott Harvey came as a celebrity judge and left convinced he had to make a Michigan Riesling based on the merits of what he tasted. The following year he contracted with Leelanau’s Shawn Walters to make his Jana Riesling.
There’s no question that Michigan wine experts need to be at the table too – they know the grapes and the character of our wines. I think 50/50 is a great mix that gives us the best of both worlds.
Yes, if you read the piece, you will see that I pointed that out as the likely reason. And if you read further, you find that my feeling is that you ignore a lot of deserving folks in Michigan whose own validity as Michigan wine writers would be increased exponentially if they were judges. If we have genuine self-confidence in our wine, we don’t need Scott Harvey telling us it is good; we are supposed to know that. Good for Shawn. Bad for the Michigan wine experts struggling to be heard in a world where there are a lot of people scrabbling for an ear. And as a matter of fact, that is the whole point of the column.
I read the piece of course. I just wanted to confirm your speculation and dig a little deeper into the whys. The sad reality is that if we stock the judging with Michiganders, no matter how worthy, the reputation of our wines will suffer. What’s more, when our up-and-coming wine judges rub elbows with the Doug Frosts of the world, their reputation and skills will benefit.
Didn’t mean to imply you didn’t read it of course. We just disagree on this one, unless you can explain how Michigan judges make the reputation of our wines suffer. They’re tasted blind, right? I could just as easily suggest that if you stock the judging panel with people who sell wine for a living, and who would directly benefit from awarding high medals to wines whose sales would presumably increase as a result, that might be more eyebrow-raising than their address. But I won’t, because I believe that this is an ethical group with ethical intentions.
I wouldn’t say that Michigan judges make the reputation suffer, but I do feel that the results of a panel that is packed with “homers” seldom carries the weight that a more balanced group does. I think that the current strategy is well-reasoned and appears to work pretty well.
Andy, if we really cared about building the reputation of Michigan wines in the broader marketplace, we would open the competition to all comers, not just those made from Michigan grapes — like they do at both the Finger Lakes and Indianapolis wine competitions.
Until then, inviting a bunch of outside judges functions more as window dressing than reputation-building.