Had G. Stanley Howell showed up for our wine chat dressed in full CSA officer regalia, complete with three star collar insignia, cadet grey overcoat and lion’s-head saber, I would have considered it perfectly appropriate. Not only because the retired Professor and Viticulturist Emeritus at Michigan State University is a dead-ringer for Robert E. Lee, but because he embodies all the qualities of gentleness, elegance, humility and insane intelligence that I imagine were manifest in the original Marble Man.
Take, for example, the above-referenced three-star collar (denoting the rank of Confederate Colonel) that Lee wore throughout his Generalship; an iconic show of modesty. Likewise, Dr. Howell scoffs at the praise I heap liberally upon his name, suggesting that the genuine credit for having jump-started Michigan’s wine industry may belong to Nate Stackhouse of Warner Vineyards who, along with his degree from UC Davis, laid the foundation of Howell’s wine-savviness:
“Before I met Nate, I didn’t know jack about winemaking; I was a Southern boy, weaned directly from mother’s milk to sour mash whiskey.”
And like any good research biologist, he is willing to own up to mistakes he’s made through life’s middle-ground of wine, summing up his career like this: “A lot of what I did was self-preservation. For the most part, I couldn’t afford many errors. If I get 999 things correct, nobody remembers. If I get a single thing wrong, nobody forgets.”
Well, Vicksburgs or vineyards, Ol’ Dixie or °Brixie, the most important difference between Lee and Howell is that when it came to their own personal life-defining, legacy-securing campaign, Robert E. Lee lost.
And G. Stanley Howell won.
The South Will Metabolize Again
Stan Howell’s father was a carpenter with an eighth-grade education, and the intense and respectful way that Stan describes the old man’s skill betrays his lifelong wonder at the mechanisms behind art, whether it’s a cabinet or a cabernet, an end table or a table wine. Howell grew up in the deepest part of the Deep South near Mobile, Alabama, graduating from high school in the late 1950s and doing his undergraduate work at Mississippi State University, Starkville. After obtaining his Ph.D. in Horticulture from the University of Minnesota, he joined the faculty at Michigan State University in 1969 and set out to research, among other things, the physiological and cultural factors limiting vine growth. But it wasn’t wine grape vines he was focusing upon back then: He recalls his early work with Welch’s, which has its second largest grape juice plant in Lawton, Michigan. At the time, he was trying to find methods of reducing labor in the field.
Not that there were many wine grape vineyards to worry about, of course. In 1969, Michigan’s wine industry was a bit of an embarrassment, and if you were to say it was in its ‘infancy’, you’d have to reference Rosemary’s Baby—that’s how diabolically awful most of these wines were. 95% of them were classified as ‘dessert’ wines, meaning that they were molar-crumblers made from Concord or Niagara grapes, heavily sweetened and selling for under a dollar a bottle.
This was a time when a ‘sophisticated’ wine for most Detroiters was ‘Cold Duck’—an invention of Harold Borgman of the upscale Ponchartrain Hotel, which followed an old German tradition of blending champagne and leftover wine. Apparently, ‘cold ends’ in German is kalte ende, which is a single consonant away from kalte ente, meaning ‘Cold Duck’.
If that story is apocryphal or true I know not, but I recall my mother describing it as tasting like a blend of Faygo Red Pop, Ocean Spray CranGrape and André Champagne.
Not in dispute is that the sparkling wine used in the Cold Duck that the Ponchartrain served (exclusively for 50 years according to Borgman’s grandson) was made by Bronte Champagne Company, one of the first Michigan wineries to open after Prohibition. And it was Bronte’s winemaker, Angelo Spinazze, who Howell credits for having seeded the idea of an MSU program to evaluate various cold-hardy cultivars that could be used to produce a higher end Michigan wine.
“When I first floated the idea at the school, however, I encountered plenty of administrative roadblocks—any research that promoted the alcohol industry was off limits. In fact, I was told quietly that pursuing such a program was career suicide. Fortunately, later that same year we had a changing of the guard in the Dean’s office, and Dr. Larry Boger came on board as a very broad thinker. He was receptive, and paved the way for our first experiments vineyard where we established a number of cold-resistant cultivars that had seen success in the Finger Lakes region of New York.”
The conundrum that Howell then faced was cultural more than viticultural; ‘prevailing wisdom’ can be as limiting a factor in agronomy as climate. Local folklore suggested that ‘good’ wine was simply wine that grew well, and so the hurdle of convincing growers to extend beyond the Big Three—Concord, Niagara and Delaware grapes (all Vitis labrusca)—was a major one.
The answer, of course was hybrids—grapes engineered genetically for taste, yield and hardiness, and generally created by crossing frost/disease resistent native American species Vitis riparia or Vitis labrusca with tender, but more flavorful European Vitis vinifera. While new red-wine species like Baco Noir and Maréchal Foch could withstand nearly everything that a Michigan January could throw at them, weaning growers from the tried-and-true was an obstacle nearly impossible to overcome.
Until the establishment of Spartan Cellars, that is—an experimental MSU campus winery which involved itself in all aspects of winemaking, from planting and vineyard management to laboratory analyses. Although these wines were never intended for commercial consumption, they were treated as if they were, allowing Michigan growers a real-time experience of what was possible.
“The establishment of Spartan Cellars was crucial,” Howell insists. “It had been an idea long in germination before it finally came to fruition in 1973. It was a required move for the sort of research results we were having. Hard to say if it would work today—then, the Michigan wine industry was small and we were able to hold professional tastings for Michigan wineries, and nearly all would come. I liked it because planting, vinifying and selling our experiments was their area of expertise. This took me out of the loop; they chose what they wanted to grow.”
Among the varieties that showed the most appeal to local farmers were Vignoles and Vidal Blanc, white wine hybrids that provide a remarkable array of sophisticated flavors and are open to many stylistic interpretations. Among Howell’s favorites which fared less well was Chardonel, a hybrid’s hybrid with a parentage of Seyval and Chardonnay.
“Chardonel never took off, which I thought was a shame,” says Howell. “It epitomized the sort of cultivar we were trying to popularize, with superior sugars, the right amount of acidity, high productivity and cold hardiness. Plus, it can be vinified in a multitude of styles—stainless-steel fermentation makes a crisp wine, but it responds equally well to oak and has wonderful green apple notes that make it ideal for sparkling wine. And I recall, when it was under testing in the vineyard, we had a huge hail storm two weeks before harvest and the Chardonel vines did quite well.”
The market nibbled, but it didn’t bite, and in 2014, I can only find a single Michigan winery—Tabor Hill—which produces a stand-alone chardonel.
That what should sell doesn’t always was one of several epiphanies that Stan Howell had as he learned on the job. For example, his initial conviction was that for any European varietal to succeed commercially anywhere, it required a 170 day growing season. And not only that, but required certain climactic parameters that he was certain ruled out varieties that are now doing pretty well here, including late-ripeners like cabernet franc—even cold-weather grapes like riesling. When, after nursing his personal passion for German whites he accompanied Ed O’Keefe (Chateau Grand Traverse) to a trip to Germany in 1973, he returned to plant riesling in Lansing, where it promptly succumbed to winter kill—reaffirming his theory.
Of course he admits now that he’d left two variables from his formula: Old Mission Peninsula and Ed O’Keefe—a man to whom Michigan, quite arguably, owes its modern vinifera culture.
“Ed found—or created—microclimates two hundred miles north of Lansing where riesling could not only survive, but flourish. He is, for good reason, a driving force in Michigan wine: A strong personality combined with classic entrepreneurial drive. We are blessed to have him here and could probably use a few more.”
Indeed, Chateau Grand Traverse’s consistently award-winning rieslings, which continues to wow vignoscenti worldwide, would ultimately form the foundation of a single eureka moment which has defined Michigan viticulture ever since:
“Since it’s now been proven that we can grow vinifera here, we have to grow vinifera here,” Stan Howell maintains, “even if the right locations are somewhat nip and tuck. A winery with ambition must make two kinds of wine—wine that makes their reputation and wine that pays the bills. If your name is Rothschild, it can be the same wine, but if you are anybody else, you’ll probably have to make different wines for each category.”
The brass ring for the state’s reputation-making, he believes, is in proprietary blends—much as it has been for the Rothschilds. Even his prized Chardonel, virtually unexplored as a stand-alone, is a silent partner in a lot of Michigan white wines:
“One of the realities of Michigan’s wine is the hard sell of varietal hybrids. I have come to a few realities: First, most wines in a given style are improved by blending and second, it is smarter and better to create a proprietary blended wine than to try to educate a doubtful public regarding a ‘new’ and previously unknown variety. While I believe this is true for nearly all wines, including vinifera, it is especially true of hybrids and allows a potential customer to evaluate the qualities of the wine in the glass and its cost/unit to determine its value. I suspect that here, quite a lot of Chardonel goes into such blends.”
And so, the refined and gentile Southern gentleman (who has moved through the opposing Northern forces of climate and disease and deployed wine varieties that have altered the field of battle irrevocably and ultimately prevailing in the War Between The Grapes), remains ever gracious in victory. If there’s an Appomattox, it may well be his old research laboratory at MSU, where the terms of the truce between weather and wine are largely his own doing. Proof may be best seen in the statistics given earlier, where in 1969, 95% of Michigan wines were essentially super-sweet dessert: In 2014, 95% are not.
Yet, G. Stanly Howell insists that he’d never have made it as a commercial winemaker:
“A successful grape grower secures the best current knowledge regarding location, site, variety, training and trellis choice, canopy management and crop control, and ruthlessly applies such practices. I would be terrible as a farmer, not for lack of knowing the right things to do, but from my interminable ‘tinkering’ and asking ‘what if?’”
“No, I have been better for Michigan as a ‘vine dreamer’.”