Sometimes I think of Michigan winemakers as my children, even those who are old enough to be my parents. That’s because I began writing about Michigan wine when most of the current crop of concerns were barely gleams in some wannabe’s eye, and I followed all but about four Northern Michigan winemakers through birthing pains, watched them take tentative first steps, shadowed them through adolescent angst, tried to be kind, not cruel when they insisted on cotton candy and bubble gum esters in their Riesling.
Now, I take great and entirely undeserved pride in seeing them mature and produce wines I can brag about to people in Sonoma and Burgundy.
Brian Hosmer is one of those kids. When I filed my first wine story back in some other century, he was barely through puberty, still getting his badonkadonk kicked for wearing the wrong color of Starter jacket in his north Flint hood. For those unfamiliar with this bizarre chunk of incorporated dystopia, named the most dangerous city in America by Forbes Magazine in 2013, Flint is not necessarily known as a breeding ground for winemakers. In fact, Hosmer grew up in a teetotaling household, and outside his front door, if it didn’t come in 40 oz. bottles, his friends didn’t want to know about it.
“Malt liquor was the only alcohol I had access to,” he says. “And since I didn’t like it, I didn’t drink.”
He stumbled into enology via the renowned MSU program—rural agriculture seemed to be the polar opposite of the horror stories of urban violence told to him by his police officer uncle and social worker aunt. Still, he admits, when he first signed up for ag classes as a post graduate with a somewhat useless degree in environmental studies, everyone assumed he was trying to grow pot: Now there’s a career move.
And God bless his dear soul, Brian Hosmer looks like someone who would grow pot. He looks like someone who would get mugged over a designer jacket, too. In fact, he looks like that hippie teacher in Beavis & Butthead who goes on about ‘feelings’ and ends every sentence, “M’kay?”
But appearances are deceiving, and Brian is one of the most gifted winemakers in Northern Michigan. He approaches his craft with intellectual reverence, and is living proof that winemakers on the brink of viticultural oblivion can not only be better than their fruit, they frequently have to be.
The day I stopped by Chateau Chantal, where Hosmer has been making wine since 2007, he dragged me down into the crypt to show off seven barrels of Auxerrois from the previous vintage. Each one was burbling away under the influence of various strains of yeast, Hosmer’s technical and aesthetic compulsion. When a harvest of grapes comes into a winery, a number of qualities are considered to gauge fruit quality: Sugar density, acid content, any evidence of fungal infection from the vineyard. Several adjustments can be made at this point, and one of the most important decisions a winemaker makes is the yeast isolate which will be employed to ferment the must. There are thousands available, and each acts upon the juice in ways that differ slightly or dramatically, depending on the final goal. Safe to say that each one produces a wine with unique characteristics.
These are the differences that Hosmer was measuring, largely by experimentation, with his Auxerrois—a varietal which is showing striking promise in Northern Michigan.
“Yeasts are one way that I can add complexity to wine in a way that is controllable,” he says. “The layers settle in over time.”
In fact, each of the Auxerrois barrels we sampled had profiles that were distinct and individual. Some carried the unmistakable scent of fresh grapefruit, others drew forth tropical notes of banana and mango; in still others, the clean, crisp aroma of apple arose. Mouthfeel was different in each of them and some, had I been blind tasting, I would never have identified as Auxerrois. Since all the juice went into cold storage with roughly the same characteristics, this stratification of flavors is primarily due to the yeast.
And this is a fairly recent discovery, too. For most of winemaking history, winemakers didn’t even know what yeast was, let alone how various strains would modify results. But as it happens, these days, there are entire catalogues filled with alpha-numerical, fancy-named yeast types, each promising various repercussions. It’s due to the fact that fermentation is a process by which yeast consumes sugar to produce alcohol, and some strains use different quantities of enzymes or esters along the way.
So while we tasted, we compared notes, as Brian explained the sort of styles he was going for in each.
One of the Hosmer’s all-pro qualities—and one that I totally admire and respect—is his earnest, almost eager solicitation of opinions about his wine, even from lowly wine writers, even if the opinions are less that complimentary. It’s not ‘approval seeking’ he’s after—it’s the opposite: It’s a quest for improvement from a palate that accepts its own limitations. He’s more than willing to acknowledge that you—whether you are a journeyman or a journalist, a junkie or a flunky, a Master Sommelier or one of his Flint homies sucking a forty of Colt 45—can taste things in his wine that elude him. And thus, he can make necessary adjustments, this vintage or next.
That’s the way a science brain works, and indeed, Hosmer learned his mental processes from some of the wisest minds in the state. At MSU, before he dove into the enology program, he was an Resource Development major—whatever that is—where was involved in a philosophical ‘immersion’ program—whatever that means—where he earned the duty of ‘wine procurer’—whatever one of those does. Along with outspoken Post-Modern studies teacher Joe Natoli, he traveled to Europe with students learning various cultural attitudes firsthand, and it was there he began to understand that wine, as a beverage, was fundamentally different than either King Cobra or Vat 69 whiskey. And more to the point, that he liked it. For his Masters degree, he approached G. Stanley Howell with a proposal to do biodynamic research in the wine school, and was given a horticultural workload that he now describes as ‘Ph.D level’.
“But every second was worth it. I got exposure in the research lab testing multiple samples again and again, did work in the vineyards that laid foundation to every bit of working knowledge I have now. At the time, it wasn’t entirely clear that we could successfully grown vinifera in Northern Michigan let alone grow it biodynamically…”
Armed with school cred, he began to work on his street cred with Charlie Edson at Bel Lago Winery, a winemaker with a solid background in research. He found a kindred spirit at once—both men loved to tinker, to putter, to doodle—in short, to dick around with wine. Plenty of synergy went into these labels, some of the best that Leelanau had produced to date, and both men, with the restlessness inherent to the breed, continue to employ the same trial-and-error to their wines today. Case in point: When I visited Hosmer at Chateau Chantal, his full-blown lab was lined with two dozen beakers filled with some purplish experimental fluid (Cabernet franc, I believe) at various stages of dicking-aroundery.
That lab door, by the way, has a name plate that reads ‘Coach Long-Hair’. That’s a nickname given him by Patrick Rigan, a 6’5” former Spartan tight end who Brian hired for cellar work; Patrick’s hierarchy concept, at the time, did not run to ‘Chief Enologist’, but ‘Coach’ was within the realm of graspability. Rigan, by the way, now grows the previously mentioned Auxerrois.
Like Spartan Stadium, the brainwork goes on behind the scenes, but the real beauty is on the playing field: Chateau Chantal is a spectacular destination winery. Perched on 56 acres in Old Mission, it houses a bed and breakfast adjacent to the tasting room, and is such a congenial, devil-may-care joint that guests from the former are encouraged to wander through the latter at any point during the night and do a self-directed wine tasting, even though they’re closed.
And true to their word, while Brian and I are polishing off samples from the Chantal portfolio, in walks several couples who casually walk behind the bar and pour themselves wine. This, to me, is a concept so amazingly cool that I can’t find words. Except, perhaps, ‘I will never worry about last call at any bar in Traverse City again’.
About ten miles southwest of Chateau Chantal, on an equally scenic site where a dramatic view of West Traverse Bay broken only by an electrical utility box; looking in the opposite direction, though, there’s a distant, but unsullied view of the East Arm of the bay. Sitting on the deck on a unseasonably warm afternoon in early April, Brian mentions the oft-quoted adage when it comes to finding work at a winery in a Northern Michigan winery: ‘Half the pay for a view of the bay.’
“If that was true, I’d be working here for nothing.”
A view of his lovely wife Cristin is also a treat—she’s a winemaker as well, and having put in similar time with Edson, earlier this year she moved over to the just-finished Villa Mari with Sean O’Keefe.
Hosmer, meantime, shifts his time and focus between Hawthorne, where he’s been winemaker since 2010, and Chantal.
In my opinion, if ever a young couple needs their own winery, it’s these two. Both have brought to the twin peninsulas a sense of integrity, energy and detail, and both have paid their dues. The old guard is ready to pass the reins—Stan Howell is comfortably into retirement in the suburbs of Lansing and Edson’s place has been for sale for years, just not at a price their pay grade can cover. It’s folks like the Hosmers that we can look at for the new, improved generation of Northern Michigan winemaker: These are the people we don’t want to lose, especially considering that professionally, Northern Michigan has the same open-door policy as Chateau Chantal’s tasting room: Come as you are and go as you please.
Here’s hoping that Coach Long-Hair becomes Coach Long-Time; as far as Michigan appellations have come, it’s time for a new strain of yeast.