For a place that bills itself as the City of Riesling, Traverse City spends a lot of time sleeping with the enemy. For example, browse the tree-lined heart of the shopping district and look for chocolate covered grapes at Riesling Republic; try to find riesling-flavored balsamic vinegar at Fustini’s or riesling fudge at Murdick’s. Guess what? You’ll strike out. Go on a quest for riesling popcorn, dried riesling, riesling sorbet, riesling milkshakes? Zero. Nor is there is a sportswear shop called Riesling Hill Boutique or a Riesling Cone ice cream parlor. In the window of the camera shop, that silly smiley-face icon—which everybody knows is, by birth, bile-yellow—has not been transformed into a gentle seafoam riesling green, but into blood-colored—and dare I say Commie-approved—red.
Sorry whoever thought of the poetic nickname ‘City of Riesling’ for Traverse City; the merchants, whistle-stopping politicians and founding fathers aren’t buying into it. To them, TC will always be Metropolis of Montmorency, Port Prunus Cerasus, Cherryville U.S.A., and as a result, riesling is the Bonny Prince Charlie of fruit: An ignominious pretender.
None of which matters to Mr. Riesling himself, although clearly, it should. To Stuart Pigott, revered as the world’s foremost expert on riesling—the grape that puts the fine wine in the Rhine, the pizzazz in the Alsazz and the thumbs up in Finger Lakes—life is just a bowl of cherries.
On Saturday evening, I fetched Pigott from the TC landing strip—which is not, lest you doubt the sincerity of my opening lament, called Riesling Capital Airport—and deposited him with his sponsor Amanda Danielson of The Franklin. Pigott was in town to host a screening of his film ‘WATCH YOUR BACK: The Riesling Movie’ and star in a Horizon Book signing of his new book. ‘Best White Wine On Earth’—which, surprisingly, in his studied opinion, is not made from la méthode saignée juice from local cherries.
Anyway, Pigott is hardly an unknown author—he has written a slew of wine books—and is a columnist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which he claims is Germany’s equivalent of The New York Times. Even so, I fear that your average happy-go-lucky, Traverse-City-vacationing, up-from-Grand-Rapids yuckster likely reads neither one, and I can say from experience that there is no sadder circumstance on earth for a writer than sitting in a bookstore hoping someone wants an autograph.
Strike that. I just thought of a circumstance on earth sadder than that for a writer, but I’ll save it for later.
Long before any book signings or movie screenings, I had the opportunity to interview Stuart Pigott and to tap into his vast riesling knowledge by employing méthode saignée to his brain pan. And also to tease him about his sports coat—mostly because, based on his fluency in German I assumed he was German, and when I was looking for him in the airport I singled him out by employing a generally foolproof method of identifying a Berlin journalist amid a maelstrom of Midwesterners: An Aryan fashion statement. Indeed, the loudest, red plaid jacket in the crowd turned out to be worn by Stuart Pigott and I was forthwith shocked to discover that Pigott is, in fact, British.
Even so, that shock was no match for Amanda’s expression when I cracked wise-ass about his hemorrhage-colored tartan during the interview—I don’t imagine her jaw would have dropped quicker if I had announced that I was actually a drug journalist in town to score some riesling-flavored heroin.
In any case, the social awkwardness faded like a snort of unleaded premium in a Trockenbeerenauslese, and Stuart Pigott proceeded to school me mightily in why he believes that riesling is a superior wine grape to say, scuppernong or muscadine.
For starters, he insists, unadorned and unbastardized by corporate mad men, riesling simply produces a better-tasting wine—a wine simultaneously refreshing in its simplicity and (when done correctly) nearly unplumbable in its profoundness. Having already telegraphed disdain for couture, Pigott rails against the recent fashionability of certain varietals, especially sauvignon blanc and moscato, which he sees being industrialized to mass-produce uninteresting, homogenous ‘identikit’ wines. Chardonnay, of course, is the poster child for trendy tipples, and is specially reserved—no pun, winos—for a proper prescription of Pigott pique. He has invented the subcategory ‘Bullshit Chardonnay’ to describe wines that mask the grape’s inherent blandness by the addition of concentrated juice from other, more gooder-smelling grapes.
As The Pope of Riesling (Pigott’s other sobriquet) points out, not only is riesling the most pleasantly perfumed of grapes, the most adroit of grapes and the most food-friendly of grapes, it remains the most affordable in terms of a price/quality balance. Although you can bust a billfold for the really aristocratic stuff, the amount of remarkable riesling available for under twenty dollars puts it into a whole different value grid than, perhaps, the rarified swank of lone-variety Burgundies or those expensive and exclusive 100% syrah Rhônes.
Another fact that impresses Pigott is the relatively recent American excitement over his pet cultivar. Riesling, he says (quoting Nielsen data), has been the fasting growing varietal in the United States for five years running.
“The status of wine overall in America fascinates,” he maintains. “It isn’t one of iconic items that most Americans identify with themselves, their nationality, although the growth of wine’s U.S. popularity is so exponential that you are now the biggest wine consumer in the world.”
Describing America’s headlong foray into riesling, Pope Pigott I coins a gung-ho marketing hook—‘The United States of Riesling’—to identify a prime production belt that arcs from Finger Lakes in New York through Northern Michigan and to the Pacific Rim, especially Washington’s Columbia Valley.
“The production of sensational riesling has tracked the appreciation of wine overall, and America now boasts rieslings that are serious competition to those from the grape’s European homeland.”
Pigott, a.k.a, The Ambassador of Auslese, met Sean O’Keefe—perhaps the area’s most vocal riesling supporter—at Riesling Rendezvous 2000 in Seattle and was moderately impressed, if not blown out of the tub, by what the twin peninsulas of Leelanau and Old Mission were bottling. And it was O’Keefe, along with Amanda Danielson, who organized this past riesling-centered weekend in Traverse City, hauling The Rajah of Riesling in from the Big Apple (where Pigott now resides) and setting him up in the adorable Bijou on the Bay theater to screen his documentary, which is, let’s be honest, not exactly Cannes material, but certainly a fun and educational opportunity to watch Paul ‘Mr. Terroir’ Grieco say ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ like a giddy tenth-grader in wine venues across the USA.
No matter the movie; the intro saved the day: Pigott is entertaining as a public speaker and his witty stage banter was worth the price of admission, and it can be fairly reported that he drops the f-bomb only when necessary, and thence, with all the erudition and charm of a genteel English gentleman.
In any event, it was the other event, the afterglow in a broad tent overlooking the broad bay where one hundred rieslings from around the globe were presented, that was the bacchanalian clambake we’d all been drooling for. And, let it be said via moi—not always the biggest champion of Michigan rieslings when contrasted on a world stage, finding them frequently too elementary and too immediate—that the samples I tried on Sunday evening proved to me that the state is most assuredly in contemporary contention. The universal exception, as always, were wines from the classic estates of the Rhine, Nahe and the Mosel, whose spectacular selections remain undisputed evidence of the ultimate supremacy of German riesling. Sweet or dry, the examples here exhibited a profundity that I can only describe in metaphor: It’s like the bottom of the tasting glass dropped out to reveal a hidden kingdom of peregrine flavors, some obvious and some subtle, and you are left with a sudden, shimmering revelation that you’ve confronted an actual landscape rather than a facsimile.
As it happens, although 100 wines were offered, sanity restricted me to fewer, and the following brief descriptions are a handful of those that stood out.
And please don’t say it: Yes, they were cherry-picked.
Chateau Ste. Michelle ‘Eroica’, Columbia Valley, 2012: The first five vintages of this wine made the Wine Spectator Top 100 list, and it remains a benchmark for West Coast riesling. Bright and peachy, the nascent alpha-numerical terpenes that give riesling a peculiar—and I think, delightful—je ne sais quoi overtone of latex—are there, along with a well-rounded stab of acidity.
Black Star Farms ‘Tribute’, OMP, 2011: The titular ‘tribute’ is to the 56-acre Montague Estate Vineyard on the Old Mission Peninsula, and the wine shows a soft profile; a precise, detailed and clearly focused blend of grapefruit, lime zest, apricot and clean stone.
Strub Niersteiner Paterberg Spätlese, Rheinhessen, 2013: A mouth coating explosion of peach jam and lemony tea, the wine slides effortlessly to a crisp and juicy finish.
Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Kabinett, Mosel, 2009: Arguably the most famous vineyard in the Mosel, this five-year-old beauty is just starting to release the intensified aromas of age, including kerosene and honey-rich apricot cream. The sophistication and scope of this relatively inexpensive riesling is a tough act to follow.
O’Mission, OMP, 2013: An example of a light, friendly riesling meant to be drunk virtually the same day as it is bottled. An orange sherbet nose and a sweet, Juicy Fruit body, the wine is shored up by Old Mission acidity but doesn’t reach any heights of iconography—nor does it wanna.
Pacific Rim, Yakima, 2013: A Pigott favorite, the wine displays moderate spice—especially mint and tarragon—and a wallop of stone fruit.
Chateau Grand Traverse Lot 49, Molly Devine, 2013: One of the few Michigan rieslings that aspires to, and achieves, consistent heights of intensity. This is not a CVS riesling, and as such, must be approached with the understanding that some of the most sought-after riesling aromatics (specifically, the 32-letter terpene abbreviated as TDN) take time to develop. When consumed young, these specifically-crafted wines may show as somewhat uninteresting; CGT winemaker Sean O’Keefe has sufficient balls to produce such an interpretation, and as expected, although chomping at the bit to express itself, the 2013 only hints at its potential.
Smith-Madrone, Spring Mountain, 2013: I consider this the top California riesling, but that is hardly a huge leap—most California vineyards are too low in elevation and too warm for the grape to make any enological noise. Even so, the 2013 is not yet showing well on the nose, but has a beautiful green apple and vanilla cream profile with a lovely, rich mouthfeel.
Loosen ‘Red Slate’, Mosel, 2012: Another German superlative; the elusive descriptor ‘minerality’ is like Potter Stewart’s famous quote about pornography: ‘I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it’. Or in this case, taste it. The slate soils of Erden and Ürzig in the Middle Mosel impart a dense, muscular, mouthwatering sense of stones and clean soil to the wine, dominating, but not masking an herbal headiness and a creamy spiciness.
Konstantin Frank, Finger Lakes, 2012: My top pick for American rieslings at the tasting, this wine is German in all but appellation, drawing in the unique smokiness, salinity and scents of rainwashed slate of Das Vaterland. The Godfather of New York riesling, Frank first realized that it was the rootstock, not the climate, that accounted for the failure of riesling in Finger Lakes, and his family has been producing award-winners since 1962.
Shady Lane Cellars, 2012: Adam Satchwell nails it with his floral, semi-dry riesling which dances with minerality while providing a rich, creamy wine which makes a concerted effort to restrain the stone fruit profile in favor of more exotic aromatics. Satchwell is somewhat unique as a California winemaker who came here, tried to avoid the riesling bug, and then was bitten via a series of ah-ha moments.
I saved Satchwell’s riesling for last, because in his own tasting notes, the Archbishop of Auslese himself states (emphatically) that this is the best wine that Adam has ever made. And congratulates him! Which is great press for Shady Lane, except for the part when Pigott maintains ‘surprise’ in the quality of the bevvie. Now, hang on a sec—surprise?? Isn’t he in town to help celebrate Traverse City’s newfound position as City of Riesling? Isn’t he sitting at a card table in Horizon signing books, winning friends and influencing drinkers? Why surprise? Is he surprised at my surprise at his surprise?
Anyway, that brings us around full circle to the saddest circumstance on Planet Riesling—or any other planet in the contiguous solar system—for a writer, and it is not trying to sell books to tourists. No, my dearest droogies, it is the snub suffered by your humble narrator in trying to give—not sell, pawn or haggle a trade for—a copy of his own small sortie into scrolldom (‘A Rite Of Paso’, 2013) to Mr. Riesling, the Pope of Potables, the Prince of Piesporter, the Gerent of Johannisberger—Stuart Pigott.
Three times, mind you, I handed him a copy of my book and never once did the gesture of bonhomie amongst those of us who find ourselves as lonely fellows upon this haunted wayside of scribal wilderness wind up with him actually putting a copy inside his goddamn valise, or whatever it is that British German New Yorkers call that silly man-purse.
Thrice! I don’t know what they call three-in-a-row in the City of Riesling, but I know what we call it in the Motor City: A hat trick.
And that, my sympathetic sycophants, is the saddest circumstance a writer could face: It was the literary equivalent of standing on Cass and Selden in a hot little zebra-print mini with a man-purse filled with riesling-flavored crack, unable to give it away.
Ouch, but at least I get it: I have no sobriquet! No pseudonym, no nom du plume, no cutesy nickname that would truly elevate me to the status of Potentate of Plonk; no titular tag to suggest a future beyond airport errand boy!
Since then, I have petitioned for the crown ‘Pope of Cherries’ and have been told that I am under consideration for ‘Pope of the Pits’.
Wow so many good ones but “from la méthode saignée juice from local cherries.” Got me.
As always Chris you find ways to cut through the pretense and posturing so often associated with the wacky world of wine. And of course, thanks for the very kind words.