Bryan Ulbrich: Putting His Left Foot Forward

Sitting outdoors on one of those quintessential Traverse City summer afternoons that are chilly and hot simultaneously, Bryan Ulbrich pours a glass of something special.

Bryan Ulbrich

Bryan Ulbrich

At least, he maintains that it will be special; the vines are young and this is the first vintage ever bottled—the grower planted a single acre and he only ended up with 35 cases.

The wine is as much a oddball in Grand Traverse wine country as Bryan Ulbrich is an icon and Left Foot Charley a landmark: Chenin blanc.

Chenin blanc, often called ‘Steen’ in South Africa and ‘Pineau de la Loire’ in the Loire—two regions responsible for the most alluring incarnations of the variety—is a high-acid grape as suitable for a sparkle as it is for dessert wine: Sélection de Grains Nobles from the Loire’s Coteaux du Layon are potent, honeyed versions of the latter.

Chenin grapes

Chenin grapes

South Africa produces twice the amount of chenin blanc that France does; in fact, with more than 20% of all their vineland planted to this varietal, they make more than anyone in the world, although the bulk (no pun) is monumentally forgetable.  Whereas it has a unique flavor profile, showing notes of lime, green apple and especially, an odd overtone of garden shrubbery—what the South Africans call ‘fynbos’—it tends to be somewhat neutral and flat-tasting without a lot of terroir expression.  In cooler vintages, it verges on undrinkably acidic, and not only that, the buds tend to break very early in the season.

So why chenin blanc here in the Great White North and why now?  Ulbrich quickly passes the buck:

“The grower insisted, that’s why.  It was a project he believed in.  The first planting failed, and the plants refused to shut down; they were still green in November.  Next year, we had better luck, and that’s the vintage you’re tasting.”

Bryan Ulbrich has a habit of trusting his growers, which is one of the reasons he’s one of the Grand Traverse winemakers that I trust implicitly in return. Over the many years that I’ve been sampling his stock, I can say without question that he rarely fails on the delivery.

His youthful, alluring chenin blanc was no exception. Wines made from first harvests can be mono-dimensional, based in part on root depth, but the aromatics here were bright and strikingly layered, with peach, green plum, guava and—in nacent form—the herbal crunch of late summer that so distinguishes this grape in a wine glass.  As vines age, they tend to ‘wise up’, delving deeper for nuance flavors through various soil strata, and I have no doubt that this is a rising star in the Ulbrich portfolio.

Antrim County.  Odd looking grape country, huh?

Antrim County. Odd looking grape country, huh?

Same with sauvignon blanc—another cultivar that doesn’t get much airplay across Grand Traverse wine country.  In fact, he’s been using fruit from Antrim County, the northeastern corner of the region covered here. Antrim soils tend to be denser than the twin peninsulas to the left, with more clay; silt abounds, and there has been little erosion since glacial times.  It is, in fact, potato country. A 1928 survey claimed, ‘About 13% of the county is swampy or always wet’—an admotition to plant wine grapes somewhere in the other 67%.

And, despite a geological profile that is perhaps the polar opposite of the gravelly, well-drained the banks of the Garonne in Bordeaux, Ulbrich has found a number of elevated pockets in Antrim with correct sun exposures where the ‘green monster’—excessively grassy, super-acidic sauvignon or it’s counterpart, over-ripe soapiness in the wine—can be fought with success.

Antrim County is part of Bryan Ulbrich’s success story—he sees it as an oasis of growth with plenty of potential.  Land prices are cheaper and the county is huge; it’s where he sees a lot of his future grape harvests originating… grown, as always, by someone else.

bryan small“We accepted early that we would not be ‘landed’ people,” he says, tipping a glass of the selfsame sauvignon blanc, where savory tropical pineapple and pink grapefruit surfaces above the fresh hay scents.  “I’m not claiming to be an artist, but I am certainly not the world’s greatest businessman either.  Owning vineyard acres has not been part of the plan.”

This allows him to utilize the marketing hook ‘Urban Winery’—Left Foot Charley is located in the heart of bustling Traverse City, inside, as it happens, a former mental asylum. I have it on good authority that there is no corrolation between that fact and the relative insanity of his 2004 decision to go into winemaking.

That story began when Ulbrich was convinced to postpone a vacation and rescue a local vineyard that had fallen on hard horticultural habits thanks to a new owner who had about as much business growing wine grapes as The Hillside Strangler has dating my daughter. Apparently, vital things like canopy management had been neglected and powdery mildew was threatening the harvest, and even with his best efforts, Bryan was only able to salvage a small crop of riesling.

That led to a eureka moment which is best elucidated by plagiarizing his website:

‘Throughout Northern Michigan there are numerous small vineyards owned and farmed by individuals who do not have wineries. The grapes were often sent to giant blends. Many of these viticulturists are excellent farmers and deserve to see their work turned into wine.’

Heyday for the cuckoo.

Heyday for the cuckoo.

Turning their work into wine has been the divine mission of Ulbrich ever since.  Setting up shop in the old loony bin—the last Kirkbride Building in Michigan, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978—he partnered with eighteen local growers, each representing a specific terroir, philosophy and varietal repertoire. He produces around fifteen thousand cases of wine annually, which makes him larger than most ‘boutique’ wineries in the area, but he’s held to that mindset by fermenting in 300 gallons lots—from grapes that likewise come from small, fiercely manicured plots of vineland.

For example, take his ‘Tale Feather Vineyard’ pinot gris, 2012; perhaps the nicest manifestation of this intense and interesting variety yet produced in Grand Traverse.

Larry Mawby, a.k.a., The Riddler

Larry Mawby, a.k.a., The Riddler

In Michigan, pinot gris has been an experiment in progress since it was first installed by Leelanau’s Larry Mawby in 1981 after Myron Redford of Oregon’s Amity vineyard sent him cuttings; those vines, now three decades into it, are still producing.  But Larry never intended pinot gris to be a stand-alone variety, and notes that its contribution to his salubrious, celebrious sparkling wines offered a distinct ‘roundess’ of flavor that balances the pinot noir and chardonnay.  Even now, most Michigan growers with acres to pinot gris dabble rather than devote.

“I was impressed that Theresa and Gary decided to plant this somewhat exotic grape, “says Bryan, speaking of his Old Mission growers, the Wilsons.  “Plenty of farmers would have gone another way and planted a less exotic grape that might have had more face recognition, but would not have achieved greatness.”

Tale Feathers Vineyard

Gary and Theresa, Tale Feathers Vineyard

The west slope of ‘Tale Feathers Vineyard’—(which is indeed the correct spelling; I asked) is on an elevated hill overlooking Power Island.  The sandy, loamy, two-acre site winds up being ideal gris ground, with a cool bay breeze to sharpen the acids while judicious leaf manipulation draw in enough sunshine to sweeten the pot.  In the 2012, it shows a big, sweet nose of honey, melon, baked pear and lemon and delivers equal fullness and fruit across the palate, adding mango to the mélange, finishing with a clarity of pinot gris expressiveness.

A 9-iron drive from Tale Feathers Vineyard is Werner and Margrit Keuhnis’s ‘Island View Vineyard’, on the eastern side of the same hill.  The couple is Swiss, and according to Ulbrich, “The vineyard looks Swiss, too, by which I mean, it’s perfect.”

To which a true Käser would reply, ‘Not perfect yet…”

Island View fruit

Island View fruit

This is where Ulbrich sources gris’ blonder sister grape, pinot blanc. Island View (same island; Power) Vineyard covers an acre, and by the time Werner took charge in 2000, it had been through several non-Swiss hands who’d left it in dire need of some TLC.  Werner took note of each vine’s wish list and hand delivered the prescription: The vineyard is dry-farmed and has not seen a grain of synthetic fertilizer since his tenure began.

Keuhnis is  from Bryan’s school of canopy management, which is to say that the leaves must be pruned so that sufficient sunshine is allowed to reach the clusters; without it, sugars are not able to develop to optimum.  The vineyard faces inland, and is blessed with a thick layer of nutrient-rich, water-retaining loam.  The resulting pinot blanc (from vintage 2012) is dry and medium-bodied; it exhibits well-defined pinot blanc aromatics of lightly-toasted almond,  green apple and quince, nice, moderate mid-palate with a bit of peach and lychee. The acid did not appear to be exactly where it should be, and Bryan confirmed that due to warm weather and fermentation that stopped early, the titrable acid in the final wine was a little low compared to residual sugar.

Still, Bryan’s overall fermentation technique is pretty straightforward: He does not fine with agents or use yeast strains that produce a lot of esters. The result in most of his end product, and pinot blanc especially, is a non-manipulated wine that reflect what the vintage, as well as the grape, has to offer without being shoved into a costume.

Riesling vineyard ready to rock.

Riesling vineyard ready to rock.

Riesling is the grape grown most aggressively in Grand Traverse, and it’s the variety which which Ulbrich has the most leeway, both in terms of style and grower.

As it is in Germany, riesling has been considered the lynchpin of the Michigan vitis vinifera industry, owing in part to the similarity in climate, but perhaps as much to the simple, sugary rieslings that were the mainstay wines of a lot of Michiganders with German roots and plebian tastes.

Where the Germans rely on steeply sloped river banks to achieve maximum ripeness, Michigan has hillsides and Grand Traverse Bay.  In both locations, grade and water allow grapes to flourish in a climate where they’d otherwise perish during the first January deep-freeze.  That said, most Michigan rieslings (and indeed, rieslings from anywhere in the United States) have generally paled in comparison to the great German estates of, for example, Rüdesheimer, Johannisberg and Winkel.

It is, of course, a misconception to suppose that German riesling is all are styled like the wines of Rheingau—big, concentrated, long-palate wines that brim with apricot, guava and spiciness. Whereas wines from Lake Michigan Shore, further south, can at least lay claim to a version of a climate that can snag these tasting notes. Grand Traverse cannot.  So, Bryan Ulbrich wisely takes his cue not from nonpareil Schloss Vollrads, Kloster Eberbach, Schloss Johannisberg and Künstler, but from the crisper, elegant and often more perfumed wines of the chillier German wine region, the Mosel.

proseSeventh Hill Farm is in Old Mission’s far north, probably beyond the range of the fat ripening and long hang-time that Rheingau riesling enjoys.  Tom and Linda Scheuerman work the five acre site, formerly a cherry orchard, where a southern face creates a solar array ideal for making grape sugar while it can.  Soils are gravelly and sandy, equaling drainage—one of riesling’s requisite contract riders.  And Bryan’s 2012 riesling exploits such canny care and clever conception to the max: It is beautifully crafted; light and lovely with damp stone and key lime scents on the nose, a precisely focused palate showing a core of minerality sprinkled with crisp citrus, pine, green apple and that unmistakable riesling signet, goût petrol.

Currently, Left Foot Charley has a trio of rieslings on release; beside the aforementioned, Bryan offers a 2013 late harvest version called Missing Spire (named for the architectural feature atop the asylum that disappeared along with the inmates) and comes in at a respectable 3.24 g/L residual sugar.  Also, he has begun to produce a lively riesling from the youngest block of vines from Seventh Hill Farm on Old Mission Peninsula; this one is called ‘Prose’ for reasons I don’t entirely grasp, because it is poetry in a glass.

All of these selections show Bryan’s golden touch with golden wines; a most bearable lightness of being.

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