Michigan Wine Month, 2014: The State Of The Ouch

It’s basically May and there’s still snow in the vineyards.  In fact, there’s still snow in the forecast.  The leaden ice sheet that lingers over Grand Traverse Bay is bizarre; this stretch of water, generally South Pacific turquoise at this time of year, is the color of a blunt object.

A Leelanau vintner practises pruning on elk antlers.

A Leelanau vintner practises pruning on elk antlers.

This winter is the pit-bull that won’t let go.  Doomsday scenarists in the Leelanau Peninsula are predicting a primary bud failure of 80% for the upcoming growing season, and even the most simpering optimists believe that 40% of 2014’s wine harvest may have already been lost.  It is largely a varietal phenomenon, with milktoast, namby pamby cultivars like merlot being the worst off, while hybrids and the standby brute, riesling, will likely fare better.

For the others, it is too early to tell—a lot of them have not yet been put to such a Herculean test of mettle.

One thing upon which everyone agrees is that Traverse City wine country is emerging from the worst vine disaster since 1993/1994—a winter so cold that in its wake, the Michigan wine industry essentially had to re-invent itself.  Although, by the way, the twin peninsulas of Leelanau and Old Mission did so with oomph: Note that in 1993, hardly any of the current stock of wineries even existed.

Leelanau in more temperate times.

Leelanau in more temperate times.

If there is a silver lining to this dastardly cloud of horticultural reality, it may be that our Ohioan rivals wound up on the worser end of the weather stick—where they also happen to have wound up in terms of character resilience,  scenery, yumminess of whooty and college football teams.  Without the meteorological marvel known as ‘lake effect’, successive days of sub-zero temperatures can kill not only the buds that form on the canes in the fall, but the vines themselves.  If that happens, there is little to do but start over.  Ironically, both here and south of the border, the season’s prodigious snowfall was a blessing, insulating the vines at ground level and keeping the exposed root stock as much as ten degrees warmer than the ambient air.

Deep-Freeze It and They Will Come

I spent this past weekend in Leelanau dodging a few stubborn drifts and sniffing out the past and the future of Northern Michigan wine country—and most of the plucky attitudes I encountered were painted on a backdrop of the late, unlamented polar vortex.  Remember the old witticism suggesting that ‘the first human to eat an oyster must have had some balls’?  Same props go to the very first pioneer in the frozen biosphere of Leelanau to plant a grape vine.  (Bernie Rink, for the record).  But a new generation of winemakers keeps on coming and they keep on planting, and the focus of my locus on this trip was a vist to those wineries that have opened up in Leelanau in the past four years.

There are now 25 wineries on the 30 square mile peninsula, each producing a portfolio of uniquely Michigan takes on classic and newfangled varieties.  As you might imagine, they are predominantly white wines, and most of them go very well with oysters, thank you very much.

Here’s a rundown, and in no particular order:

Verterra Winery, 103 E. River Street, Leland, MI 49654, (231) 256-2115

Paul Hamelin

Paul Hamelin

I raved about this little Leland gem when they first opened their doors in 2011 and have rostered myself in their fan club ever since.  An amalgamation of local lore and savvy science, the winery launched with fruit grown at Matheson vineyards, just south of Northport, and began hauling down gold medals right out of the gate.  The partnership (including Paul Hamelin, Paul’s enologist son Geoff and Bluebird Tavern owner Skip Telgard) continues to produce outstanding wines.  As the team learns more about climate-appropriate clones, they’ve expanded acreage to include the newly planted Swede Vineyard which at nearly one thousand feet elevation is among the highest sites in the peninsula.

Among a host of superlatives, the winery excels at pinot blanc, producing a deep-bodied, exuberant version that is crunchy with sweet apple and luscious with mango.  Verterra chardonnay is clean and lean, boisterous and filled with sappy pineapple.  An up-and-coming house style making inroads among local palates is rosé of pinot noir.  Far from the punk, porch-pounding pinks of prehistory, dry (or nearly so) blush wines from high-acid pinot noir—which still does not ripen optimally in most vintages up here—is a wonderful, sophisticated and surprisingly multi-dimensional alternative way of handling a less-than-ideal pinot noir harvest.

Boathouse Vineyards, 115 N. St Mary’s Street, Lake Leelanau, (231) 256-7115

Dave Albert

Dave Albert

When a bean-counter buys a vineyard, you either ask him what color the sky is on his planet or you stand back and see what he knows that you don’t.  And then there is Dave Albert, who sold his downstate day job and retired to Northern Michigan wine country for the quality of the beans—both of lifestyle and winestyle—more than bean quantity.  Averaging less than three thousand cases a year, Dave’s direction has been a blend of his business acumen and the vinting skills of One World Winery Consultants, allowing Shawn Walters to work his mojo while he works his.  Which is not to say that Albert is hands-off by any means—along with his wife Jane, he’s willing to tackle any grunt chore that a vineyard throws at him.

Among his more interesting brass-ring goals is to make the best red wine that frosty Leelanau can produce; he became enamored of local cabernet franc, which is a surprisingly kick-ass product.  So far, so good—he’s got six reds on his current release sheet, including a blend which incorporates the extremely weird hybrid regent—a cross between sylvaner, müller-thurgau and chambourcin.

All the ballots are not yet counted on the ultimate success of the operation, but in the meantime, the quaint little boathouse / tasting room on the picturesque Narrows of Lake Leelanau is worth the price of admission.

Brengman Brothers, 9720 S. Center Highway, Traverse City, (231) 946-2764

A Rose by any other name would be Nathanial

A Rose by any other name would be as Nathanial

When brothers get together in a business venture, the results can be scandalous (Kochs), infamous (Frank and Jesse James) cringe-worthy (Jonas Brothers) or ground-breaking (no plane-crash jokes, Orville and Wilbur).  In the case of the Brengman brothers, the results are available by the glass.

Ed and Robert Brengman’s background is restaurant hospitality, so it is no wonder that the winery is as event-focused as it is a showcase for their favorite trio, pinot noir, riesling and gewürz.  Winemaker Nathanial Rose is coming with some solid examples of each, taking cues from Alsace techniques and experimenting with some new-kids-on-the block like chelois—an odd choice for a hybrid variety considering that it is said to be notoriously unfriendly to cold climates.  Next trip, I fully intend to hit him up for a sample from his private reserve.

Blustone Vineyards, 780 N. Sylt Road, Lake Leelanau, (231) 256-0146

Tom Knighton shows off a real bluestone--the kind with an 'e'.

Tom Knighton shows off a real bluestone–the kind with an ‘e’.

When set to open, a well intentioned sign painter thought he’d do Tom Knighton a solid and correct a perceived misspelling in the winery’s name.  Not sure what the painter said when he learned that Knighton intentionally left the ‘e’ out of Blustone—to be ‘different’—although Tom may have learned the hard way that up here, folks don’t always cotton to ‘different’.

In any case, the Blustone tasting room is an architectural marvel; arguably the most visually stunning outpost on the peninsula—essentially a glassed-in pole barn with a panoramic vineyard vista from every window.  And the wines get better with every vintage.  A cream-and-citrus balanced pinot blanc was the best of the lot, oozing pear syrup and bright lime zest.  Pinot Grigio 2012 was nearly on the same plateau of outstanding, filled with ripe peach and lemon curd sheathed in a sharp and shivery shawl of acidity.

Laurentide Winery, 56 S French Road, Lake Leelanau, 231-994-2147

Bill and Susan Braymer, love at vine site.

Bill and Susan Braymer, love at vine site.

Up here in North Country, it’s an old formula: Boy meets girl, girls falls for Leelanau, boy (Bill Braymer) marries girl (Susan Braymer), both chillax in their spankin’ new winery.  Only here is where the plot twists:  Unlike other romance stories I’ve read, this one pivots on sauvignon blanc.  Indeed, sauvignon blanc in Michigan is about as rare as a cocktail reception at the Betty Ford Clinic, but at Laurentide, it’s the flagship grape.  Sauvignon blanc loves cooler weather and well-drained soil, for sure, but it is an early ripener and generally prefers more sunshine than Michigan is willing to ante up.  In any case, the vines require careful canopy management to succeed, and the two vintages (2012, 2013) of sauvignon blanc I tried indicated that the grapes had been tended by a judicious and knowing hand.  Both wines showed the grassy flavor foundation sought after in cool-climate versions; there was no flabbiness from excess heat and the palate displayed a soft, redolent core of grapefruit.  It’s a learning curve, and the younger wine provided substantially effusive aromatics; far more than the 2012: A sign of good things to come.   Even more impressive was Laurentide’s 2012 Pinot Noir, which was full-bodied, floral, gorgeously ripe with black cherry and sweet raspberry, suffused with unexpected depth and persistence.




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