Michigan by the Storefront: MBTB Does it Again

Two things I’ll say about Cortney Casey that will defy challenge by any rational mortal:  First, she has a smile of such ebullient candor that it lights up an already well-lit tasting room, and second, she knows how to pour wine for a critic.

DSC_0178For the most part, a key component of writing about wine credibly is to gack out the mouthful you’re evaluating into a spittoon, thus preventing that part of your brain that says silly, specious stuff about the subject at hand from kicking in. As a result (and the phenomenon is perhaps subconscious), when confronted  with a pouree who consistently spits out the product the pourer is offering, the quantity presented tends to be minuscule: It seems like common sense.

This puts the wine writer in the awkward position of either demanding more, thus embarrassing the host into thinking we believe him or her to be a niggling misanthropic skinflint (which we do), or forcing us to make notes about a wine based on a volume that can neither express aroma properly nor wet the whistle sufficiently.  And although I have no journalistic qualms about eviscerating a substandard wine with the fury of Scipio sowing the fields of Carthage with salt, then metaphorically mounting the winemaker’s head on a pike and forcing his staff into slavery, in person, I am something of shrinking violet.  Thus, I usually accept what is given and muddle through.

ownersBut Cortney Casey, who along with her husband Shannon has just opened up her third Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room in downtown Auburn Hills, knows how to pour a great manly slather of juice into the tumbler and empty the saliva bucket as often as is necessary.

This, I believe, is a skill that cannot be taught—it must be instinctive.

Downtown Auburn Hills is a gem of a spot that not many people know about yet, which is what makes it ideal for this young couple who have taken the concept of loving Michigan wine and turned it into a cottage industry. Cortney, who was once a newspaper reporter in Shelby Township, and Shannon, who still is a sales director at a title company, began with a blog and a popular podcast called ‘Michigan By The Bottle’ in which they interviewed various homeboy and homegirl vintners and waxed philosophically about their wares.  They are both delightful people, so it’s fair to say that no heads were impaled, nor were any vineyards salted during their tenure as wine critics, but it’s equally fair to say that they made a lot of connections in the industry, so when they opened their first tasting room in Shelby Township, partnering with six topnotch Michigan wineries, they were able to introduce an occasionally skeptical crowd to some of Michigan’s best wines.

It’s a sad truth, but unless you’re from one of Michigan’s four federally recognized wine appellations, or a geek to the cause of regional products,  you probably don’t realize that Michigan’s wine industry has made strides over the past twenty years that far outstrip those of other emerging regions.  People who tried  bargain-bin fortified porch pounders from Paw Paw and LaSalle wineries  back in the day may have been left with the impression that this is all we can do.  Beginning in the mid-1970s, though, a push toward European varietals and innovative blends made with hybrid grapes have mirrored the evolving American palate, and the quality bar has been raised exponentially in every decade since. Dragging the naysayers kicking and screaming into the modern era of Michigan wine is a mission upon which Cortney and Shannon Casey have embarked, and so far, are leading the fray.

They opened their second room in Royal Oak two years ago, and that outlet along the Woodward corridor added a dimension to the bar scene that was both refreshing and unique.  Now, the Auburn Hills spot, with it’s broad picture-window façade facing Auburn Street, just a cork-pop away from the downtown square where the Christmas tree fits, has become an anchor and a draw to this quaint, cool little urban bubble.

tableThe new spot has partnered with 12 wineries, most of them unique to this location, and include among them luminaries Bryan Ulbrich, who’s Cinnamon Girl cider is poured—a shivery slice of apple strudel in the glass.  Hawthorne Vineyards, under the winemakership (or winemakerhood, as you please) of Brian Hosmer, showcases an interesting wine wonderfully suited to the chill climate of Old Mission Peninsula: Auxerrois.

Likewise Grüner Veltliner from Blue Water Winery, a varietal which is reaching heights of splendor in Michigan that is nearly impossible to find outside Austria and New York’s Finger Lakes.  Here, it is almond-scented with lemon marmalade through the mid-palate, rich and crisply dry.

Lemberger is a pet project of Adam Satchwell, formerly of Shady Lane Cellars, and here blended with Cabernet Franc to make ‘Franc ‘n’ Franc’; it’s dusty with chocolate, blackberries, plum and smoke, and to complete the pun, makes perfect franc ‘n’ sense.

Riesling, a perennial Michigan favorite in both for it’s sweet acceptability and cool-climate predilection, is presented in a luscious, medium-dry package by Mackinaw Trail Winery.

Forty wines in all are poured by the glass at the new location, and they are constantly in flux—and not repeated at the other MBTB outlets which also, for the most part, feature other wineries.

I dig it for the chutzpah of the concept, the charm of the quaint décor, the personality of the proprietors and of course, the all-you-can-spit policy for wine scribes.


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