Each year in June, the Board of Governors of the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City picks a National Cherry Queen based on intelligence, poise and speaking ability.
And each year since the ‘80s, they get it wrong.
That’s because Traverse City has one (and only one) Cherry Queen, now and in perpetuum rei memoriam—Amy Iezzoni, professor of plant breeding at MSU’s Department of Horticulture.
Even so, folks discussing the origins of Grand Traverse wine—people who routinely drop names like Bernie Rink and Ed O’Keefe—have never heard of her. Smug vignoscenti who turn up their noses at cherry wine until they turn down their noses down into a snifter of Leelanau cherry wine, then rave about it, can thank but one person (even before the winemaker): Dr. Amy, whose introduction of the sweet-tart balaton to commercial fruit production has raised the cherry wine bar so high that I defy the most snobbish among you to dismiss it as ‘one dimensional’.
“Prior to the development of balaton, the sour cherry industry in the US was a monoculture of a French variety called montmorency,” says Amy. “One of our missions has been to make that industry more diverse, specifically by breeding cultivars with better fruit quality, better disease resistance and more consistent yields than montmorency. Currently, we run an aggressive breeding program with about 25 acres of seedlings and 15 test sites around the country. Balaton was our first introduction.”
Balaton began as an unpronounceable variety that Amy discovered on a trip to Hungary, where the cherry culture is so rabid that the average hungry Hungarian consumes eleven times more fruit than an American. Originally, she says, the variety of Hungarian landrace cherries was astonishing, but when the Communists took the reins after World War II and the agricultural industry became collectivized, commercial objectives soon outweighed diversity. The tree that was ultimately cherry-picked from the lot was called ujfehértói fürtös. Compared to montmorency, this particular mouthful is sweeter, firmer, redder, and as an undeniable bonus, makes an intriguingly complex table wine, due in part to its ability to reach a °Bx 24, roughly on par with local vinifera grapes.
In fact, the only drawback to the drinkable drupe was it’s jawbreaking name.
“We knew that ujfehértói fürtös wouldn’t cut it, so—with the approval of the Hungarians—we named it after Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in Hungary.”
Which, happily, happens to be the only word in the entire Uralic language family that Americans can pronounce.
As you can imagine, there is only one thing that could make Amy Iezzoni’s decades-long love affair with Prunus cerasus complete: A ménage à trois with a winemaker.
“I Like Sunsets, Long Walks on the Beach, Puppy Breath and Talking About S-RNase-Based Gametophytic Self-Incompatibility…”
Enter Charlie Edson, the whiz-kid behind Bel Lago winery and the creator of the best cherry wine on the Leelanau Peninsula. By default, you know what that means, right? Since Leelanau grows the best wine cherries in the world, and thus, produces the best cherry wine in the world, it means that in an unassuming tasting room a few miles outside of unassuming Cedar, Michigan, on the western shore of podunk Lake Leelanau, for around fifteen bucks, you can purchase a global superlative.
But first, in order to truly enjoy it, you have to face down the Nelly Negatives: Cherry wine is the Dangerfield of drinks. Mention it to sommeliers and you don’t need to consult Rasmussen to know that the majority of them will tell you than cherry wine is something that Tommy James (and the Shondels) swigs with total strangers or that Jermaine Stewart guzzles as a substitute for sloppy sex while George Thorogood howls about it in the same breath as hot peppers and ooh-hoo-hooeee.
To their point, of course, when Van Morrison gets loaded along the Cyprus Avenue train tracks, it ain’t on ‘89 Beaucastel.
But those are the dregs of the drupe—decent cherry wine is hardly a low-rent bevvie, and the descriptor most often used is ‘cherry pie in a glass’ for the unusual array of spices that are often a natural component of the wine’s profile. Edson treats his cherry wine with the same care and think-too-much compulsion as he does with grape wine, but the beautiful thing is that cherries ripen a good three months before the hundred or so grape varieties he grows. This is just a theory, mind you, but do you know how the first born in a given family tends to have certain advantages in life, due in part to the coddling attention of his or her proud parents? Maybe the same holds true for the first vinified juice of Charlie’s wine season.
For whatever reason, Bel Lago Cherry Wine is a sensory smorgasbord; vivid ruby in the glass with a perfumed bouquet—cherry jam with clove and cedar scents—while on the palate, it is velvety and pure, showing plum preserves and fruit compote cut with toasted hazelnut, soft tannins and a bracing undertow of acidity.
Cherry Growing is the Pits
That would be the art end of cherry wine; for the equation’s business end, the man to see is Sam Simpson, whose family has been growing tart cherries in Leelanau since the 1970s. In the day, Sam’s grandfather John Worth Simpson (1917–2002) had a four hundred acre cherry orchard outside Leland; the industry was flush and prices were high.
Today, the Simpson’s cherry acreage has dwindled to 120; the industry is flushable and prices are about the same as they were in the ‘70s.
“We’re getting out of commodity farming,” he says firmly, but somewhat wistfully, “and a lot of it comes down to the decisions on the CIAB. The board has too much power and the tart cherry industry up here has suffered accordingly.”
Simpson means the Cherry Industry Administrative Board, ‘an appallingly stupid creation of the USDA’ according to Food Law & Policy professor Baylen Linnekin of George Mason University Law School. The CIAB web site maintains that the board exists to ‘match the current year’s supply with the historical demand for tart cherry products, helping to insure an appropriate volume of cherries moves to the market in those years of overproduction’.
Leaving such decisions up to bureaucrats instead of farmers doesn’t even sound good on paper, and in the field, in bumper-crop years, it often equates to tons of salable cherries being dumped on the ground. Prices per pound, says Sam, may range from 45¢ to a low of 15¢, at which point it becomes cheaper to compost the fruit than to process it.
Adding insult to that injury, the final price is not determined until after the cherries are sold, and Simpson—whose last year as a commodity farmer was 2009, didn’t receive a check for that crop until 2011.
According to the USDA, the regulated industry consists of about 600 tart cherry growers and 40 tart cherry handlers. Meanwhile, about three-quarters of America’s tart cherry output comes from Michigan, so any negative impact from federal regulations hits us here first and hardest.
Thank God for wine, huh?
“We lease our acres now, but reserve three blocks of cherry trees specifically for wine,” says Sam. “That’s around twenty acres. Ounce for ounce these days, wine makes more economic sense up here in Leelanau, especially since grapes have raised land prices; wine grapes are the high utility produce, so the market drives this land into wine fruit. Wine is the way to go. ”
That is, if you have the know how—and Sam Simpson does. His grandfather established Good Harbor Winery outside Leland in 1980, which his father Bruce enriched, enlivened and expanded until his untimely passing in 2009. Sam and his sister Taylor, under the guidance of their mother Debbie, have kept the winery in the forefront of the wine industry in Leelanau. In fact, Good Harbor’s cherry wine was the first inkling I had that the plebian plonk of my childhood—Boone’s Farm Wild Cherry—might have picked itself up by the bootstraps and come of age.
“We’ll do around fourteen thousand gallons in 2014,” Sam declares; behind him, Taylor checks his figures against a computer print-out. “That’s around 100 tons of fruit; 3800 cases.”
He tells me that cherry wine is evolving, improving, and the experimenting never ends. Currently, he’s using five different fruit yeasts in different lots and will decide the final blend at bottling time.
If he has any ‘secret’ to the singular scrumptiousness of his cherry wine, he claims it is the balaton cherry—80% of his wine’s fruit content.
So, in the end, it’s all back to Queen Dr. Amy Iezzoni and her hedonistic, Hungarian horticultural hubris.
The future? Cherry breeding is a time-consuming endeavor and note-taking from seedling through a tree’s life-cycle takes decades. And once the specific cultivars that show the most promise are determined, you still have to convince farmers to plant them. That said, Dr. Amy is singing the praises of two new varieties called danube and jubilee. Although they are not grown on any large scale, she suggests that a bushel or three may wind up in Charlie Edson’s cherry wine.
That would explain (to me anyway) why his wines reach such a remarkable depth of complexity, why he holds a royal flush in the poker game of enology and why life with the Edson/Iezzonis is a bottomless bowl of cherries.