You don’t need a degree in finance to know a gold mine when you see it, but Lee Lutes has one anyway. And by gold mine, I don’t mean cash flow that cascades at the expense of ideology, but a brass ring grab in the heart of wine country where a vintage can be as big a disaster as it can be a godsend—and coming up with the prize.
If there can be a ‘perfect storm’ in nature, perhaps there can be a ‘perfect convergence’ in human nature, which seems to be case when Lutes was approached by Don Coe and Kerm Campbell to become a managing partner in Black Star Farms. Coe had the class, the pockets and sauce savvy—he was once the president of Hiram Walker—while Campbell’s rap sheet included being the CEO The Prince Group and the president of Herman Miller; but as a grape grower, he also had good old Michigan dirt beneath his fingernails. In 1997, they had purchased a sprawling, 120-acre horse farm on Leelanau’s east coast and laid the groundwork for a stellar winery in the center of an appellation that was just beginning to find its stride. Key to success was engaging the right winemaking partner, and in Lee Lutes, all the stars seemed to have aligned.
Lee was a local kid then at Peninsula Cellars; a winemaker who understood the value of hybrids as well as the nuances of blends, but—having lived in Australia and trained in Italy—he also had a deep and abiding love for vinifera, especially red wine grapes.
“My fondest earliest memories are filled with Australian Riesling,” he says; “sitting outside in a vineyard in Yalumba, my folks sipping wine with friends while I marveled at the beauty of the surroundings. That image has stayed with me throughout my life, and possibly, directed it.”
His folks had moved to Sydney, then Adelaide, to pursue teaching opportunities, ultimately moving back to the United States and settling in Traverse City for the same reason. By then, Lee was ten, and spent his teen years in Northern Michigan, waiting tables and banking proceeds to pursue that finance degree at MSU. “I went to work for E.F. Hutton directly out of college, but I never forgot those beautiful Australian afternoons. By the time of 1987 crash, I’d learned enough about brokerage to realize that the guy I was working for was a crook, so, like my parents did, I hauled off and moved back to Australia. I spent the next few months doing a grand walkabout, meeting viticultural types and hanging out in vineyards.”
But love beckoned, and within a year he was back, following his girlfriend (now wife) Terry to New York where she was a student. After a brief stint with importer Neil Rosenthal—quickly concluding that peddling wine on the streets on Manhattan was not a career for a 23-year-old noob from the Midwest—he went to work at Union Square Café, then among the top wine restaurants in the world. Danny Meyer taught him retail lessons that he retains today; meanwhile he was able to pick up some cellar-rat hours at Long Island’s Gristina Vineyards. At the time, Gristina’s winemaker was Larry Perrine—now at Channing Daughters—and from his mentorship, Lee credits having helped train his wine palate.
After a tour of Europe, culminating in five days at VinItaly, he met winemaker Elisabetta Currado, whose father was a Piemontese pioneer, among the first bottle wines with a single vineyard designation. She took on Lee as ‘her jolly’ (his term) which has no ‘pool boy’ connotations; (Terry was there) but what she called her assistant.
Like Australia’s, his memories of the Italian wine country are steeped in sunny nostalgia: “Nobody could replicate that kind experience,” he says. “It was my stroke of luck to end up making wine in Northern Italy, with room and board supplied and a stipend to boot. $300 a month wasn’t a lot, but nobody starves in Italy. I learned about lesser know DOCs like Dolcetto di Ovada, and varietals like Arneis, at which the Currados excelled.”
In 1992, Northern Italy suffered one of the wettest vintages in viticultural history, with Biblical-quality rains at harvest. He and Terry returned to Traverse City, only to find one of the wettest vintages in history. Fortunately, he was hired by Bill Skolnik at Leelanau Cellars and dove into the Michigan wine scene headfirst, blown away by the ability of local grower Warren Raftshol to succeed with European grapes in Leelanau: “Raftshol Red [a field blend done at Leelanau Cellars] was the first wine I can recall that gave people a solid idea of what vinifera could do up here. I was as impressed as everybody else.”
Fast forward to 1998, when it was Don Coe and Kerm Campbell’s turn to be impressed: With Lee’s skill in the cellar—and the feeling was mutual. In them, he found partners with a wine vision directed by quality and stoked with a significant investment. An invaluable part of the Black Star business plan was adopting a co-op mentality, where a number of wine grape growers would have a financial interest in the company and—the theory went—have a bigger stake in growing quality fruit. Says Lee, “The idea was unique for Leelanau, but it was a sound principal: If you can give me fruit good enough to make a twenty dollar bottle of wine instead of a fifteen dollar bottle of wine, everybody benefits. Don and Kerm own 63% of the business; the rest is divided up between growers and myself. No decision is made without the core group’s approval.”
Success of the plan seems most obvious in the fact that although Black Star Farms is by no means the biggest wine producer in the appellation, it is arguably the most diverse and among the most talked about. Here, there is a premium placed on innovation (the short-lived, on-site cheese-making operation, for one) and evolution is constant. It is rare to wander into one the three tasting rooms and not find something new, eclectic and frequently puzzling: Distilled mead is an example.
Coe’s Hiram Walker tenure made him the head cheerleader for an on-premise distillery, and—with Lutes as the distiller—has seen the release of a number of beautifully precise, award-devouring eaux de vie (fruit brandies) from nearly all from the locally-grown standards; cherries, apples, apricots. Distilled mead is a new one; part of the diversified face that Black Star Farms likes to put on its ‘argritainment’ variety show, making customers eager to find out what’s making a premier performance on any given visit.
As for the future, Lee Lutes—with a perfectly straight face—points to a couple of grape cultivars that should have most wine people raising their eyebrows: Marquette and Gamay.
Gamay is the bellwether grape of Beaujolais, but it has struggled to make a statement in most other wine regions. In the Loire Valley, it is often blended with Cabernet Franc, although in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, as a stand-alone, it has reached heights that some consider on par with Cru Beaujolais. In Northern Michigan, Chateau Grand Traverse’s Gamay Noir has been a light, tart, plum-flavored winner for decades, but few other local producers have relied on it. Lee Lutes has five acres planted and plans for more: He loves it for its versatility as well as its fidelity.
“In warm vintages, I have no doubt that we can produce serious Gamay. It’s a prolific grape, tough through the winter, and even in years where it doesn’t entirely ripen it doesn’t produce green or vegetative flavors. And in wet years, its relatively thick skins can withstand a lot of abuse. With Pinot Noir, thin skin and cluster compactness turn it into a gerbils-on-the-vine; mushy and virtually impossible to work with. Gamay is durable—the integrity of the fruit holds together beautifully after rain.”
And then there’s Marquette. Marquette is a fairly new hybrid, introduced by the University of Minnesota in 2006; it’s related to both Frontenac and Pinot Noir and is not only extremely cold hardy and disease resistent, but unlike most red wine hybrids, it has a strong vinifera profile, similar in flavor (blackberry, cherry, black pepper) to Malbec. And it ripens consistently in northern climates, with high sugar and moderate acidity.
“As a blending grape, Marquette will be viticultural gold. To produce reliable red wines every vintage in Northern Michigan it makes no sense to rely entirely on vinifera; the yield for the classic reds in 2014 is abysmal. And if my decades up here have shown me anything about weather patterns, winters like the last one come in cycles, sometimes four years in a row. We need we need to grow a backbone of red grapes that will ripen regardless of the season; Marquette is impervious to most temperatures we can throw at it; supposedly, to minus thirty. Time will tell.
He concludes: “But that is the amazing part of being a winemaker on the frontier of the arctic—we adapt. The negative side, of course, is that every vintage is a question mark. The positive side, the one I love, is that the dynamics are always alive, always a new challenge to tackle.”