Somm Or Scam? You Tell Me…

trio verticalThe buzz-phrase ‘bucket list’ gets a lot of press these days; in post-modern America, it means a roster of those things you’ve always dreamed of doing, but have somehow not gotten around to doing.

The phrase is a truncated version of ‘Things I’d Like to Do Before I Kick the Bucket.’ 

Typical bucket list items might include climbing Mount Everest barefoot, translating the Koran into Elvish, singing ‘Hello, Dolly’ to the Dalai Lama, memorizing pi to the twenty thousandth digit and becoming a Master Sommelier.

I bring this up not only because all of items on the list require an inordinate amount of time and/or money without offering much of a return-on-investment beyond bragging rights and potentially, frostbite, but because the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam (held in July of this year) produced some interesting results, if few Master Sommeliers.

Of seventy candidates tested, some of whom had tried before, guess how many passed?


And for the privilege of failing, the other sixty-nine candidates paid a combined total of $70, 725 merely in exam fees: To reach the level where they would be ‘invited’ to participate, they were required pass three other sommelier levels, for which they paid a total of $1,845 each.  This does not even take into consideration the endless hours of wine sampling and associated costs necessary to reach the awesome heights of sensory skill needed to delude yourself into thinking that you could actually succeed the first—or third time in.

'Blind Tasting'? Breakfast of Champions...

‘Blind Tasting’? Breakfast of Champions…

‘But, hang on,’ you say.  ‘Doesn’t someone with a Master Sommelier ‘degree’ subsequently make a boatload of cash from endorsements, rich people tips and face-recognition once they appear on the Wheaties box?’

Maybe, but I tend to doubt it; you’d have to show me the stats.  If you pass the bar exam, for example, which has a national pass rate of 69%, you can be relatively confident of securing a six figure salary within a few years if you want to; those statistics are readily available, because there are more hungry law schools than hungry wine schools.  Now, you cannot practice law without a law degree, but can a Master Sommelier  haul down lawyerish scoot because they are Master Sommeliers?  Or, among those that manage it, is it more likely because they have the sort of personalities that were able to pass the test:  In other words, a compulsion for detail, a congenial people-focused attitude and innate ability to up-sell a product they believe in?  And thus win those jobs based more on individual merit than on a couple of consonants they paid to have tacked onto their names?

There are indeed lucrative careers in the wine industry, but how many are held by Master Sommeliers? I do not know.  But not many, considering that there are only a couple hundred Master Sommeliers alive on the entire planet.

It’s a remarkable and obviously near-impossible achievement, no question about it.  I am not purposely belittling it, nor am I anti-sommelier by any means—especially considering that I spent ten years I will never get back working as one.  And, since you’ll ask, I am certified; nothing more.   I never made it past ‘First Class’ in Boy Scouts either.

somm posterBut at its cold heart and avaricious soul, is the quest for Master Sommelier street cred less an honor and more a scam designed to lure in folks with money or sponsorship who have no real chance of passing the test?  Especially since the film Somm has inspired a number of folks to add it to their bucket  list?  I have a few MS friends who I love and respect, so I will do no more than touch the side of my nose at this point.

But I will tell you that if you decide to climb Everest, with or without boots, your chance of success are about 1 in 6; considerably higher than your likelihood of becoming an MS—although your chance of dying is a bit higher at 1 in 28.

ms_logoCost?  About $35 k to climb the world’s tallest mountain.

At this point, I’ll leave it to the Court of Master Sommeliers to suggest a realistic tally for the sum total expenses required to finally wear ‘MS’ after your name.  Or not.

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged , | 12 Comments

Dueling Digits: Michigan AVA Vs. Michigan AVA?

This kind, obviously.

This kind, obviously.

Michigan’s shape has been compared to a mitten so often that our nickname is ‘The Mitten State’.  Colloquial claptrap, my good people.   What kind of mitten has an Upper Peninsula?  And if you think that the Yoopers don’t count, next time you want a genuine, guilty-pleasure, cholesterol-charged pastie, try a Saladworks.

Plus, the distinguishing feature of a mitten is what?  No fingers, right? That would be a glove, right??  Michigan has two distinct phalanges on the left hand side, a pinkie and a ring.  And each one happens to be so wine dexterous that it is its own American Viticultural Area; Leelanau Peninsula, and Old Mission Peninsula.

ice ageAlthough separated by less than five miles of Bondi-blue bay water and created the last time the Ice Age dropped in unannounced, in the 1980’s the peninsular pair petitioned for and received individual recognition, largely the work of Larry Mawby and Ed O’Keefe, among the earliest vintners to recognize—even before the hallowed Michigan State Extension gang—that the area could not only produce vinifera grapes, but if correctly chosen and judiciously planted, resulted in world class versions of them.  At the time, the focus of MSU’s agricultural hopes was for a state wine industry based on hybrids, which thrive in cooler climates and have proven resistant to mildew, phylloxera and nematodes.

Mildew, Phylloxera and Nematodes Be Damned!

Ed O'Keefe

Ed O’Keefe

Most vintners on either side of the West Arm (of Grand Traverse Bay ) agree that wine yarns about the LP/OMP double digits begin with Edward O’Keefe, Jr.—a Pennsylvania native who built a summer home in Acme, just east of Traverse City.  In 1974, looking for a second career, did what plenty of folks looking for a second career in the Great White North want to do: He opened a winery.

Which is not to say that he went in with stars in his eyes:  Instead, the canny Celt consulted stars.  First, 17th generation vintner Karl Werner and then, enologist Dr. Helmut Becker who confirmed what O’Keefe had suspected: That there were patches of peninsular property that mirrored Old World climates, and that his own 55 acres of Old Mission could, with modifications, rival some German acreage.  That modification took place over the subsequent year and involved moving a million cubic yards of topsoil to form a better slope, then enriching that soil with 900 tons of humus.  Rumor suggests that his financial advisors recommended that he invest in a fifty-five acre greenhouse instead.

And then he planted grapes.  And by ‘he’, of course I mean Bernd Philippi, who oversaw the 27 acres of riesling that went in.  And 17 acres of chardonnay, along with one of merlot—the last planted in error,  but evidently still producing.

Although Ed O’Keefe’s first vintage produced an award winning chardonnay, riesling proved to be the long term rock star.  It is still the grape that Ed’s son Sean, now Chateau Grand Traverse’s winemaker, believes is the Old Mission’s future as well as its past.

Old Mission vineyards

Old Mission vineyards

He also calls the wine people to his immediate left ‘Vulcans’, for reasons to be explained later—but for now, suffice to say, he reveals a genetic predilection for the Germanic gem upon which the estate was founded:   “Pinot blanc is useful,” he maintains, “and it has a place here on Old Mission.  But so far, even the best ones are falling apart after four or five years while we’ve seen our rieslings continue to improve for a decade or more.”

Sean is a big fan of Old Mission gamay noir, too, but he seems understand that it won’t be the premier grape of the peninsula any time soon.  “Cabernet franc is getting a lot of press these days.  But I think if I could get more people behind gamay noir, they’d be sold on its ability to perform in our northern climate—it produces wines that are versatile and elegant.’

Franc ‘n’ Blanc Are Pretty Swank

Coeraad Stassen

Coeraad Stassen

O’Keefe finds his Moriarty in another Old Mission winemaker, Brys Estate’s Coenraad Stassen.  Despite his unshakable love for riesling, Stassen weighs in on the side of  pinot blanc and cabernet franc as the grapes that show the most potential for quality growth in Old Mission Peninsula.   “I agree with Sean that pinot blanc is not necessarily a long-lived wine; that’s why I make mine in a fruit-forward style with no oak and low alcohol.  There is not enough weight and structure to let it age for a long time. I make mine so that it is market-ready by April.”

He is even more gung-ho on cabernet franc:

“It’s one of my favorite varietals to work with; the intense fruit and spice that develops in our cooler region at Brys, we have almost 8 acres planted.  Unlike pinot blanc, cab franc has excellent aging potential and I have had them from Michigan as old as 18 years that are still holding up fine.  I think Cabernet Franc has great potential in Michigan, especially on Old Mission Peninsula.

Proof’s in the punt (and the punter):  Brys Estate is the current holder of the best Cabernet Franc of the last decade. Brys Estate 2007 Artisan Cabernet Franc.

Moving Right Along…

Larry Mawby

Larry Mawby

Meanwhile, on the other side of the drink—literally as well as figuratively—iconic winemaker Larry Mawby had a few years’ head start on these Old Mission upstarts. And the start he up and started in 1975 was, L. Mawby winery, where, unlike OM’s O’Keefe, Mawby took his cue from Burgundy rather than Germany and planted the king and queen of Champagne, pinot noir and chardonnay—grapes which conventional wisdom said could not be grown in Northern Michigan.

BTW, conventional wisdom also said that if God meant man to fly, he’d have wings.

Mawby’s wings sprouted via méthode champenoise, the labor-intensive technique that accounts for nearly all of the world’s top sparkling wines.  Mawby was and is the reigning monarch of Michigan mousse, producing many of the award-winning bubblies that other wineries call their own—he just doesn’t tack his tag onto the tun.  His mentorship of Grand Rapids native Dr. Joseph O’Donnell, a neurosurgeon bitten by the wine bug, led to Shady Lane Cellars in 1987.  Shady Lane’s first plantings were, at Larry’s urging, eleven acres of Champagne varietals, but today—shades of Shady irony—under the winemanship of Adam Satchwell, the kingliest kudos come via riesling.

Lee Lutes

Lee Lutes

Sandy loam and proper vine orientation explains rieslings love of Leelanau; at least in the scholarly view of one the most OCD of winemakers in either peninsula—Lee Lutes of Black Star Farms.  Although slate soil is the grape’s first love, he maintains that the till deposited throughout Michigan over centuries long gone seems to work just fine.

Says Lutes: “The glaciers left us a remarkable mosaic of soils, each one leaving  a unique imprint on the wines they produce.   Our toughest topographies can range from bald, barren hillsides without topsoil to rock-hard clay layer three feet thick.  But we plant and we  commit; Black Star has vineyards flourishing in clay and gravel so hard you can hardly get a shovel in it; we used mechanical augers to plant and the shear pins keep busting…’

whie pines signBut, are there distinct, identifiable and commercially exploitable differences in the soil composition of the twin peninsulas?  Most area vintners say no, although Lutes, along with White Pine Wines’ Dave Miller, is petitioning for an inclusive geotechnical soil-boring study throughout wine country which both believe would benefit Michigan winemakers more than of many state-funded analyses that have been performed.

And anyway, Miller adds:  ‘Those state funds are drying up. If we can find the resources to see the studies paid for internally—by wine growers and wine producers like us—we can direct  funding to projects of genuine benefit to the long-term quality of Michigan wine; too much has been left to  trial and error.’

Lutes’ trials—and self-confessed errors—have taken place on both Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas, where he has discovered that, although vineyard soils may not be drastically different between the two, vineyard environment certainly is.  “I find, as all northern vintners find, that mesoclimate—the unique conditions in particular grape-growing site—are everything.”

He points to his cabernet franc and merlot growing in a gravel amphitheater—an old mining pt—at the base of Old Mission, which faces southwest: “It’s hotter than blazes in the summer and the grapes ripen perfectly, while just up the road, without the same orientation, these red wine grapes simply will not ripen.  Success is a marriage of location, location, location—and clone, clone, clone…”

The great, wide-awake sleeping bear Larry Mawby concurs.  “Geologically, Old Mission and Leelanau were created in the same glacial phenomena, and our soils are quite similar; beach sand to gravel to heavy clay.  But Leelanau is a larger piece of property and inland, south of Northport and the lake, we see more heat accumulation days than anywhere on Old Mission.  Three or four miles from Lake Leelanau, the acid profile of the wine changes considerably.”

lim obamaSpeaking of heat, Mr. Mawby would not want me to exit without mentioning global warming, a topic with which he has stronger opinions than Limbaugh on Obama:  “Climate change is real; it is happening now and it will continue to happen, and will have long-term effects on Leelanau and Old Mission.  And not necessarily good effects, either; we can expect more extremes, more climactic variability, and for grape growers, these are never positives.  A single spectacularly  violent storm during the summer can devastate an entire season, and for us, it is in the cards.”

Back To Alnitak; 40 Eridani A, Sixteen Light Years From Robert Parker Jr…

You thought I forgot??

Spock_vulcan-saluteSean O’Keefe refers to Leelanau winemakers as ‘Vulcans’ because they are orbiting a distant enological star and not because as a people, they attempt—and fail—to live by reason and logic without the interference of emotion.  Nor does Sean (ever the gentleman) make direct reference to their pointy ears.

Using my extraterrestrial powers of telepathy, I must conclude that throughout the gentle rivalry between the digits, and more than in almost any other adjacent AVA that I know of, there is a lot of cooperation, much the same as when we from Vulcan helped you glorified rhesus monkeys reconstruct your devastated post-World War III Earth.

Posted in Michigan, MIDWEST | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Quartet of Cool Cavas To Combat Climactic Calefaction

Finally!  A story involving Formosa that is totally unrelated to a bunch of Chinese casino millionaires scooping up bellwether French estates and paying such premiums for futures that you and me can no longer afford the wines.

If this keeps up, Chinese moms will soon be saying to their kids, ‘Finish your Gevrey-Chambertin; little children are going to bed sober in Burgundy…’

In fact, this story doesn’t involve Chinese people at all.  Or casinos.  Or the French.  Or Formosa, now that I think about it.

It has to do with Vallformosa.

And it has to do with cava—that loveable, laughable, lyrical libación from Catalonia.  Spanish spume; Barcelona bubbly; espumoso de España.

Cava in Sant Sadurní d'Anoia

Cava in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia

Cava is Castilian for ‘cave’, and is somewhat dated is in defining the wine as only a small portion is thus stored today.  But, it was a second choice anyway:  Until the European Union stepped in, cava was called ‘Spanish Champagne’, a nod to champenoise traditional, the method still required in its production.  But one of the mandates of joining the Union was adherence to Protected Geographical Status (PGS) laws, and one of them states that anything called ‘Champagne’ must come from Champagne.  Today, the wine bears a clumsier, cluster cognomen—‘vino Espumoso de Calidad Producido en una Región Determinada’ or VECPRD—which translates to, ‘Good bubbly, but not exactly Champagne’.

Other than means of production, cava has only the sparkle in common with its French cousin.  Made primarily from macabeo, parellada and xarel·lo grapes, the vast majority of them grown in the Penedès in Catalonia, cava is generally simpler, nuttier and more direct than Champagne, which prizes nuance and depth; this is in part due to the flavor profiles of the allowable grapes, but more so from the warmer climate—which further ripens them—than in the cool climate of Champagne.  Not with exceptions, of course, cava is a drink for the for  pasture than the parlor.

Central to the Spanish sparkling wine industry, and home to the largest cava corporations (Codorníu and Freixenet) , is the village of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia.   Otherwise unremarkable, Sant Sadurní has a population of under thirteen thousand—roughly the half the size of Savage City, Minnesota.

building vallformVallformosa is a family-owned winery, currently under the management of the fifth generation of the Domènechs.  It was established in 1865, a decade before the phylloxera plague killed off most of the red grape vineyards of Penedès, leading to a widespread experiment with growing white grapes.   Today, Vallformosa produces wines in several prominent Spanish D.O.s, including Penedès, Cava, Catalonia and Rioja.

Incidentally, the name ‘Vallformosa’ means ‘Beautiful Valley’, and has the same root adjective as ‘Ilha Formosa’—the original name that the Portuguese gave to Taiwan.

Among a set of Vallformosa sparkling wines I recently sampled, a few were some puntos pullers, including Brut Pinot Noir and high-end ‘Gala’.

Keep the following tasting notes under your hat, though.  We wouldn’t want Vallformosa’s vineyards to be snapped up by a bunch of ferocious Formosans, would we?

Tasting Notes:

ericVallformosa ‘Eric de Vallformosa’ Brut Nature Reserva D.O., Alto Penedès, Spain, around $15:  Bright, vibrant golden color with a fresh nose of apricot, citrus and leesy yeast; slightly smoky with a floral, stone fruit and mineral driven palate.

Vallformosa ‘Carla de Vallformosa’ Brut Reserva D.O., Alto Penedès, Spain, about $22:  A silver medal winner in the 2008 Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the macabeo, xarel-lo and parellada blend shows white pepper, apple and peach on the nose and palate.  Crisp, focused, with small, elegant effervescence, nice acidity, good crown, and a persistent finish.

GALAVallformosa Pinot Noir Brut Cava D.O., Alto Penedès, Spain, around $25:  Cherry red with ruby tones; aromas of Creamsicle, strawberry, orange marmalade with fine, persistent bubbles.  Rosé cava can be a cynical beast, but this one presents round, sensual flavors of summer berries and citrus.  Racy, crisp and refined with a fruit-filled finish.

Vallformosa ‘Gala de Vallformosa’, Brut Gran Reserva, D.O., Alto Penedès, Spain, about $45:  Pricey for a cava, but in terms of pure finesse and harmony, worth it.  Resplendent with fresh pear scents, ripe figs, almonds and orange.  From a swirled glassful, aromas of apricot arise along with honey and baked bread.  Lithe, creamy, with spice notes and lovely length.

Posted in Penedès, SPAIN | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Is Wine Bullshit? Or Would That Be Alex ‘Kiss’ Mayyasi’s Skill Sets?

Or Robert T. Gonzalez’s?  Or maybe David Derbyshire’s?

In the past three days, by crook, hook or pure untrammeled coinkydink, I have been forwarded links to three separate articles pointing out the already-understood and well-documented limitations of wine competitions, wine tastings and wine appreciation in general.  Two of the three articles use the big-boy potty-mouth word ‘shit’ in their scareheads; the third uses ‘junk science’.

Pretty Megs all in a row

Pretty Megs all in a row

Before I tear these wine-challenged loony-tunes any new orifices from which the very ‘s’ word emanates, let’s discuss the use of such (as my buddy Meg Houston Maker calls them) ‘purposefully provocative headlines’.  I am sure Mr. Gonzalez giggled like a schoolgirl when he flexed his newfangled internet swear-word freedom.  Mayyasi, too: He wears a literary curse-smirk akin to the grin he wore when he snuck his first beer from Dad’s cellar stash.  It’s a grin best described as ‘shit eating’.

hey everyone look at meDudes, here’s the thing: Street talk has a specific place in responsible blogging.  I get that, and I am certainly not immune to its value in occasional carefully-considered circumstances and contexts.  Tacking it onto a headline is taking a mega-risk; it’s like wearing a t-shirt that says ‘Hey, everybody, look at me!’  Careful what you wish for, because once everyone is, in fact, glancing in your direction, you better hope you intend to bring something to the party other than poorly-researched bullshit.

Epic fail, boys.

Robert T. Gonzalez, io9, ‘Wine Tasting Is Bullshit’, May 8, 2013:

Lede:  ‘The human palate is arguably the weakest of the five traditional senses. This begs an important question regarding wine tasting: is it bullshit, or is it complete and utter bullshit?’



Well, I am not sure if Gonzalez has entry-level training in wine appreciation, but if he has, he slept during the first ten minutes.  Because that’s when we assure you that the biggest part of wine tasting is not in the mouth where the palate is located, but in the nose, where hundreds of olfactory receptors that bind to a particular molecular feature are located.

Claim:  ‘Wine critics know wine reviews are bullshit’

Gonzo proceeds to quote a single wine critic (term used loosely considering that blogger Joe Powers’ entire claim to wine education is a few Sommelier Guild hours at the University of Texas) and who evidently confesses that what he himself writes is (Urban Dictionary definition of ‘bullshit’):

‘A blatant lie, a fragrant untruth, an obvious fallacy’.

Speak for yourself, Toledo Joe.  While you were learning how to hold a champagne flute in Austin, some of us were taking a course called Journalistic Ethics which prevents us from printing things as fact that we know are bullshit.

Claim: ‘In 1996, research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology concluded that wine experts cannot reliably identify more than three or four of a wine’s flavor components. Most wine critics routinely report tasting six or more.’

Gonzo then proceeds to quote a ‘real review’ that is so far over the top that he must have had to search far and wide to find one this asinine simply to make his point, as though it were typical of wine blurbs, not exceptionally idiotic wine blurbs.

But, to the point, he fails to indicate where the excerpt came from so that we could fact-check him. Nor does he use quotation marks around the quote.  In Journalistic Ethics class, the prof called this ‘plagiarism’.

Neither does he cite sources for his claim that ‘most wine critics routinely report tasting six or more flavor components.  I don’t claim that, and for the record, in a random sampling of ten Robert Parker Jr. reviews, the grandfather of gustatory gushology averaged four flavor component descriptors per wine.  Jancis Robinson, three to four; both, right on the money according to the nearly two-decades-old JEP study.

Verdict: Bullshit is as bullshit does.

Alex Mayyasi, priceonomics, ‘Is Wine Bullshit’, June 25, 2013:

Lede: ‘A Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux sells for a minimum of around $500 a bottle, while humble brands like Charles Shaw and Franzia sell for as little as $2. But as far as “wine economists” are concerned, the level of correlation between the price of a bottle of wine and its quality is low or nonexistent. In a number of damning studies, they suggest that wine is not just poorly priced, but that the different tastes we describe in wine may all be in our heads.’



‘Wine economists’?  Seriously, Alex?  Let’s name names, wanna?  If you can find me one who really believes that a Two Buck Chuck, vintage February is the sensory equivalent of a 2005 Lafite Rothschild, I will personally send you five hundred and two dollars so that you can pick up one of each and do your own blindfold test.  If you still stand by your statement, keep the change, but turn in whatever credential you feel gives you the space to talk about wine with any brand of authority.

And as for ‘the different tastes’ we describe in wine as being ‘all in our heads’, last time I checked, that is precisely where our gustatory perceptions and ability to form articulate opinions about them are located.

Claim: ‘People in the wine industry admit certain shortcomings; that large-scale tastings dull critics ability to identify and enjoy wines, that scales ignore the subjective aspect of taste, or that 75% of the price is cache.

Why is that when somebody wants to critique the ability of wine critics to critique wine, they always bring up wine competitions and ‘large-scale tastings’?  And rating scales?  Personally, I have a congenital opposition to numerically rating wines and have never done it once in twenty years of wine writing.  And I have judged enough competitions and sat through large-scale tastings to proclaim loudly that they are, for the most part, bullshit.  But in that case, your headline reads ‘Are Large-Scale Wine Tastings Bullshit?’  Not ‘wine’.

But, I can assure you without fear of argument that 75% of price is not cache, and I challenge you to let me know who in the industry led you to believe otherwise:  It certainly wasn’t a vineyard owner.  For reference, an acre of prime, planted grapeland in Napa goes for around $300,000; even with moderate pulls of 4 tons per acre, that’s around 240 cases, 2880 bottles, or about a hundred dollars per bottle before farming and labor.  Obviously, the price of a bottle of wine involves far more cash than cache.

Claim:  ‘The best wine tasters in the world, formally speaking, are Master Sommeliers.’

I’m sure the Institute of Masters of Wine would argue that, so I leave it to them.  But…

Steven Poe, MS

Steven Poe, MS

Related claim:  ‘What makes Master Sommelier Steven Poe an expert is how he brings his formal knowledge of wine production to what he tastes. For example, Poe would be familiar with the flavor outcomes of malolactic fermentation In a blind tasting, he might notice one of the flavors associated with the process—a buttery texture, for example.  This could help Poe narrow down a wine’s region and vintage.’

Trust me on this, Alex:  You couldn’t have picked a worse example.  You don’t need to be a Master Sommelier to recognize the buttery quality that malolactic brings to the wine table, nor do you need to be a Master of Wine to know that secondary fermentation is practiced to some extent in every wine region in the world and in every vintage that God sends, and it would be a very peculiar tool for Mr. Poe to use to try to narrow those down.

Verdict:  At least Alex Mayyasi titles his strange column in the form of a question, which allows for an answer.  And here it is:


David Derbyshire, the guardian, ‘Wine-Tasting: It’s Junk Science’, June 22, 2013

Lede: ‘Experiments have shown that people can’t tell plonk from grand cru.’



‘People’ is pretty all-inclusive, David.  Are you sure you don’t want to rethink that statement?  While you are considering it, let’s do a quick reference check of what ‘junk science’ actually means.  According to Oxford English Dictionary:

Junk Science: Untested or unproven theories when presented as scientific fact, especially in a court of law.

Fortunately, the definition did not say Court of Master Sommeliers, because their entire purpose is to test and prove that a given people candidate can not only tell plonk from Grand Cru, but isolate which particular Grand Cru he/she is tasting.

Claim: ‘One US winemaker claims that even experts can’t judge wine accurately’.

Derbyshire is speaking about Robert Hodgson, a retired oceanographer who operates the Fieldbrook Winery in Mendocino.  Hodgson has, since 2005, run experiments at the California State Fair where he ‘tricks’ a panel of tasters by serving the same wines over and over and analyzes the results.  His findings have apparently shown that even trained, professionals are terrible at judging wine.  And thus, scribes like Derbyshire, along with Mayyasi and Gonzalez—both of whom also reference the Hodgson experiment—gloat and giggle and berate us poor, benighted sad sacks who dare to trust our own palates and think that we can tell a crude Boone’s Farm from a Cru Beaujolais when obviously, we can’t.

Here’s a final thought for them, however:  Access Fieldbrook’s website and note that Mr. Hodgson’s introductory statement is, ‘Fieldbrook Winery is recognized for producing medal winning wines in both national and international wine competitions for over 30 years,’ then proceeds to proudly list over ninety awards and medals his wines have taken at various competitions, including the California State Fair.

cornholioMessers. Derbyshit, Gonzoloid and Mayasshole:  Yes, everyone in the wine industry knows—and no one more so than Robert Hodgson—that that the most useful purpose of wine competitions is to provide marketing fodder to distributors, tasting rooms and retail shops which they then use to sell wine; nobody claims any high and mighty flawlessness and guaranteed consistency about them.  Sorry to break it to you, but the same goes for all competitions for all products everywhere.

Derbyshire goes on to quote Richard E. Quandt, a Princeton economics professor whose paper ‘On Wine Bullshit: Some New Software?’ quakes before  an ‘unholy union’ of ‘bullshit and bullshit artists’ who are impelled to write about wine.

That would be me.

Verdict:  Shut up, boys.  Shut up, shut up, shut up.  The lot of y’all can bend over a big Bordeaux barrique and take an oaken bung up your Great Cornholios.

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Coenraad and Brўs: Unpronounceably Delicious

Clipboard mapsRemember when Miss South Carolina was asked why 20% of U.S. Americans couldn’t find the United States on a world map and she fumbled the football so badly that it wound up on a baseball diamond?

I bring it up because I read another staggering stat saying that 90% of U.S. Americans can’t find South Africa on the map.  Seriously—even though, as you note, unlike U.S. America, South Africa tells you precisely where it is on the map in its friggin name.

And even more frightening?  Fully 99.6% of Michiganeseagander adults cannot locate Old Mission Peninsula on a map, even though, like South Africa, it’s very name tells you precisely where it is:  Poking up like a potent pecker with ‘Old Mission Lighthouse’ perched at the business end.

For crying out loud, people: What’s ‘Duh’ squared??

early yearsAnyway, in 2003, when Coenraad Stassen moved to Old Mission from Ladysmith, South Africa through an Ohio State University exchange program, intent on furthering his eight-year-old winemaking career, his first question was not ‘where’, but ‘why?’.  At that point, as those of us (whose connection to winedom is both pen and palate) recall, northern Michigan was still something of a tadpole swimming around a fermented frog pond despite years of sincere stabs at creating a sustainable reputation.

Questions?  Call my man Dan Matthies

Questions? Call my man Dan Matthies

The twin AVAs crowning Traverse City, Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula, must remain separate but equal in the eyes (and expressions) of essayists who do not need extraneous enemies in the eno-emporium.  Now, whereas in terms of wine quality I wouldn’t elevate one above the other, I can tell you unequivocally that an acre of Old Mission dirt costs twice as much as an acre of Leelanau dirt.  That’s mostly because Old Mission has less surface area to work with, and is, to many wealthy retirees, an arctic Arcadia that’s downstate accessible with upscale accessories like championship golf and Caribbean-blue bay views.  As a result, on the auction block, retirement homes generally go head-to-head with vineyard spaces and in the subsequent bidding wars, when land prices rise to a point that is beyond what a Michigan winery can possibly recoup, the Golden Parachute Club wins.

And wineries cannot  expand.

Before, during and after

Before, during and after

Is that a bad thing?  Not according to Coenraad Stassen, who has, in his own charismatic struggle, managed to raise the bay’s berry-beverage bar to some breathtaking heights.  Is he the best winemaker on the Old Mission Peninsula, or the entire Traverse City wine scene?  Again, that is not for me to say, because (alas) I have not sampled every wine from every winery in current operation.  But, have I ever tasted a more consistently world-class portfolio from any winemaker in Michigan?

Not that I can remember.

And for sure, not that Bill and Sue Marchek can remember, since they are not real big fans of any wine from anywhere; not even Michigan, even though they are from Royal Oak.  I brought them along sort of like a miner brings along a canary or a king brings along a food-taster or vineyard managers plant roses at the head of every row—as an early warning indicator in case Coenraad should try to poison me with substandard drink.  Oh, and also because they happened to be traveling with my taste bud bud Cliff Rames —a seasoned Manhattan sommelier—and their daughter, ethereally pretty Dayna Marchek, a barista at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in NYC.  My intention was to impress the quartet with the new New World wines of Northern Michigan, with which they were not familiar.

Dayna and Cliff

Dayna and Cliff

Verdict?  Old Mission accomplished.

Not only were they utterly charmed by Coenraad’s wines and impressed with his explanation of the ‘lake effect’ that allows a vital-to-vineyards frost delay in the region, Sue Marchek learned how to pronounce three hitherto unpronounceable words:  Gewürztraminer, Coenraad and Brўs.

I’ll Walk You Through It, Shall I?

Anyone who is into wine already knows how to pronounce ‘gewürztraminer’, which Sue now simply truncates like most of us do: Gewürz. And now her tongue no longer hürz.

Apparently, saying ‘Coenraad’ is not so simple.  Rather than using a more user-friendly coencept like the one used by Conrad Hilton, Joseph Conrad and Conrad II, Duke of Swabia, Mr. Stassen chooses to go all dipthongy Dutch aand Africaan double-vowely and sort of barks out his name with heterosyllabic glottal stops in total defiance of Michigan’s pleasant, neutral accent.  Sue never did quite nail this one down, God bless her soul.

dry iceAnd then there is Brўs, which does not actually have a miniature ‘u’ over the ‘y’, but a flatliner long-vowel symbol like the one from grade school reminding us that ‘evil’ does not rhyme with ‘devil’—even though it should.  In any case,  ‘Brys’ becomes Brўs, which rhymes with ‘dry ice’, which is, in addition, a kick-ass Stassen late harvest riesling that he does not spell ‘Drў Ĭce’—even though he should.

No need to explain why the Brўs family does not want their surname mispronounced, as anyone who has ever been to a Jewish circumcision understands.

As a brief background blink, Walt and Eileen Brўs made some serious scoot in Texas real estate and decided to retire to the life of the landed gentry.  Having looked at dozens of properties in Texas and California, they settle on their home state of Michigan.  Fair to say, they haven’t looked back.

Springbok on Barbie

Springbok on the Barbie

And after his initial jitters about just how good a wine he could produce in Old Mission Peninsula, neither has Coenraad Stassen, who now calls Michigan home despite the fact that he insists on behaving like a vuvuzela-tooting, koeksister-cramming, flat white (the bastard child of macchiato and latte) drinking, toss-a-springbok-on-the-barbie yarpie.

He dug in his heels and went to work, focusing entirely on estate grown vinifera,  and since then has brought home 225 medals in national and international wine competitions.  Nothing to sniff at, but you know what?  The judges do anyway.

Having grown up on an ostrich, sheep and grape farm in the Uthukela district of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, fans like me are glad that he pursued the third herd as his lifeswork: The world is thereby spared a designer wool and feather boa collection from Loulou de la Coenraad.

At 36, he will celebrate his 20th harvest this year, which gives you an idea of how young he started making wine.  At Brўs, he claims, he is, ‘Growing with the vineyard’.

The Five Fat Sangomas from KwaZulu-Natal

The Five Fat Sangomas of KwaZulu-Natal

That said—and as has been said—growing with the vineyard does not mean ‘growing the vineyard’, and neither he nor the Brўs bunch (son and daughters are involved) have any wish to move far past the 8500 cases of wine they currently produce annually.   Figuring that an acre of OMP land may sell for $45,000, with an additional $15,000 needed for vineyard planting and subsequent management, and three years minimum before the first, often mediocre harvest hits the crusher, at 3 tons per acre making about 400 cases, each bottle will cost wannabe winery wankers more than $20—sometimes a lot more.   Unfortunately, in 2013, there is only so much a bottle of Michigan wine can command and the average price of a Brўs wine is around $23.   So with the ancient wisdom of The Five Fat Sangomas of KwaZulu-Natal, Stassen aims at quality over quantity, content with what he has to work with and leaving that pricey acre of Old Mission feculence to the Metamucil crowd.

So, for the hotshot sommelier and his gal, and for the newbie Marcheks and even for wee me, Stassen paraded out his portfolio on Saturday to universal applause.  Here’s the rundown, written in the stultifying tongue known as critic-speak; a language even more obscure than that strange Khoesaan spoken by South African tribesmen, which uses ‘clicks’ for certain consonants:

brys logoTasting Notes*:

* You will notice that the following puff-piece contains a lot of the ‘classic’ varietal descriptors—not merely because I am lazy, but because Coenraad’s eno-ethics has him enamored of the integrity of specific flavors: In other words, his wines taste like how they are supposed to taste, only better.

Brўs Estate Pinot Blanc, OMP, 2012, about $24:  This is a grape for which Stassen holds higher hopes than any other white in the Peninsula; he doesn’t make a boatload of it, but what he does make is prominently scented with pure Bartlett pear, ripe cantaloupe and an appealing undercurrent of opulent, lucid fruit-freshness with a note of key lime acidity that carries through the finish.

pinot-grigio-brys-estateBrўs Estate Pinot Grigio, OMP, 2012, around $22:  Admittedly the wine he spends the least time ‘manipulating’, Coenraad intended to, and did, make a porch pounder for vacationers.  ‘Grigio’, of course, outsells meatier, richer, spicier pinot gris at a double digit rate, and Brўs markets this wine to those simple souls more likely to select a slimmer, spritzier, ‘safer’ style of summer sipper.

Brўs Estate Naked Chardonnay, OMP, 2012, around $22:  People who prefer purity of product will like turn to a more Chablis-style of chardonnay, meaning one that is not battered by an oaken siege engine.  While barrel-fermenting and aging has its upside, it is often at the expense of the natural detail, nuance and vibrancy of the grape.  This version is beautifully balanced between fruit sugars and acid, and shows marvelous tropical flavors—papaya and pineapple especially—deepened with alluring aromas of green apple and lime.

Brys Estate

Brys Estate

Brўs Estate Dry Riesling, OMP, 2012, about $22:  Articulate and chiseled, Michigan’s one-time premier grape continues to hold its own among the new kids in town.  Nice penetration of peach and ripe apricot throughout, the wine shows off a mineral tone that’s prized in the varietal as well as a slight smokiness cooled by a bright finish.

Brўs Estate Pinot Noir, OMP, 2011, around $30:  So, let’s talk 2011, an almost mystical harvest for Stassen and company.  No early frost, no rain during bloom; highest per-acre pull ever.  Pinot noir, crotchety and ill-tempered if it doesn’t get its tea at precisely the same time every day, shrugged and put out.  This wine is arguably the most Burgundian pinot noir ever to emerge from Northern Michigan; black cherry, cola and spice notes on an elegant frame, with cranberry, pomegranate and more cola on the palate.  A stellar example of why we need the stars up here to align more often.

Brўs Estate Cab/Merlot, OMP, 2011, around $22:  A moderately priced, fully acceptable blend of the classic Bordeaux couple; a broad brushstroke of area terroir with scents of blackberry, blueberry and loam contained within a medium body of French oak.

Merlot on the hoof

Merlot on the hoof

Brўs Estate Merlot, OMP, 2011, about $40:  A scale tipper at the checkout counter, this sensational example of Michigan merlot shows layer upon layer of integrated natural  tannin, pure silken plum and a creamy, concentrated mouthfilling lusciousness.  Easily, a high-end cult merlot.

Brўs Estate Gewürztraminer, OMP, 2012, around $22:  Now that Sue Marchek can say it, she can order it.  And intends to: This up-and-coming cool-climate superstar is still finding its sea legs, granted, but gets more candid and coherent every vintage.  Viscous, rich, scented with allspice, orange blossom and the elusive but requisite lychee, Stassen has babied the variety through birthing pains, and now has released among the best incarnation of this cultivar to be found north of the Mason Dixon line.

Brўs Estate ‘Dry Ice’ Riesling Ice Wine, OMP, 2011, around $75:  Lovely but intense and unabashedly sweet, the scent of linseed pirouettes alongside peach, tangerine, grapefruit and mango.  Obsessively hedonistic with outstanding potential to get better with age.  Steeply tariffed, yes, but perfection comes with a price tag.

Posted in Michigan, MIDWEST, Old Mission Peninsula | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thumbing Their Noses At Lake Michigan Palates

A random glance at most websites listing Michigan wineries reveals glaring omission: The east side of the state is pretty much not on the map.

And I am not suggesting that this does not make sense, at least traditionally, and at least in the old school ‘Lake Effect’ mindset.  Coined by Fenn Valley founder Bill Welsch, lake effect  summarizes the climactic reasons why Michigan in the dead of winter can’t support vinifera grapes.

Before and after

Before and after

Except along the shore of Lake Michigan.

The world’s third-largest freshwater lake, Lake Michigan’s north-to-south orientation keeps it from freezing over in all but the coldest winters; in fact, it hasn’t happened since disco music was popular and Peter Frampton had hair.  As a result, the prevailing westerly winds that blow across it are always above 32° F, and they keep the shoreline about twenty degrees warmer than the Wisconsin shoreline a hundred miles to the west.

William ‘Wordsmith’ Welsch, Move It On Over…

For the most part, Michigan’s east coast sees a similar but opposite phenomenon, which I will hereby dub ‘The Frostbitten and Idiotically Cold Tundra without Redeeming Value Effect’; the result of westerly winds blowing across Siberia-like midstate Michigan which keep everything vinifera free; these grapes—among them chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, et. al.—would freeze to the ground in a typical Michigan winter.

michigan_hardiness_zonesExcept in The Thumb.

Take another random map glance—this time at the Michigan Hardiness Zones, noting that a certain semi-circle at the tip of the Thumb enjoys the same mean temperature as all those fancy schmancy Left Coast wineries with their own AVAs—Fenn Valley, Lake Michigan Shore and the Leelanau Peninsula.

Therefore, by all agricultural accounts, this part of the state, often overlooked by oenophiles, should be capable of growing anything that the traditional ‘fruit belt’ can grow.  And guess what?  It seems to be.

So what prevents more wannabe winemakers with boundless budgets from setting up shop here?  I mean, other than the fact that Traverse City is exciting, vital and beautiful and Grindstone City is about as dull as listening to Vangelis while knitting an afghan during a chess tournament  …In Grindstone City?

Well, I felt the need to know, so I headed up to the only two known wineries in Michigan’s green, opposable pollex: Dizzy Daisy and Blue Water.

But First, a Bit of Saling

If I said this garage sale had everything but the kitchen sink, I'd be lying...

If I said this garage sale had everything but the kitchen sink, I’d be lying…

Garage saling, that is—mid-Michigan’s number one hobby for those too fat for hiking, too old for biking, too catatonic for swimming and too sick for endless hours of slamming Kessler/Bud Lite boilermakers at the Dew Drop Inn.  Which is to say, just about everyone.

What, you may ask, is the technical difference between an estate sale, a garage sale and a yard sale?  Easy peasy: A garage sale is where you sell all the crap you bought at an estate sale, and a yard sale is what you hold when someone makes you an offer on your garage.  I mock the species, but I can’t resist the high camp experience of wandering among folding card tables surveying the one-man’s-trash-is-another-man’s-treasure selections, and truth be told, nobody has ever been to a garage sale and not walked out with something.

The one I offered my custom to, on the outskirts of Caseville, was a prototypical example of the breed.  What caught my attention was the fully-accoutered ambulance for sale alongside the rusting mechanic’s sets, cow-ear-tagger, broken furniture and thousands of Grisham novels.

name tagsOh, and perhaps even stranger than the ambulance was the gigantic box of gas station attendant name badges—the kind that you sew onto the side of the shirt that doesn’t say ‘Shell’.  The woman running the show told me that she had bought an entire truck load of the tags, and this box-full was all she had left.

That’s what I love about garage sales, other than the fact that you could double your weight and still be the thinnest person there and double your age and still be the youngest person there: The mental images that the merchandise conjures up. First, the particular mindset that would cause someone to pay real money for a truckload of random name tags; then, the spare time available to someone willing to clamber around said truckload to find their name… in the event that the first question a potential Shell station employer asks is, ‘Do you already have your own name tag?’

On To the Wineries…

Whatever.  Just north of Lexington, I noticed a simple sign for Blue Water Winery, a vineyard of which I had never heard even though it is only a couple of hours from my house.

To me, this sort of discovery ranks right up there with finding ‘Chris’ among the name tags.

Connie Currie and Steve Velloff, not in order

Connie Currie and Steve Velloff, not in order

Turns out that a decade ago, a pair of Chicago rat race software executives decided to trade the smog for the lake fog and planted twenty acres of vinifera and French-American interspecific hybrids (read: survives winter) less than a mile from the Lake Huron beach.  So much extraneous energy did the couple bring with them from duggie-fresh Shytown that the winery wasn’t enough: They bought Lexington City Hall too and started a microbrewery, growing their own hops a mere stone’s throw from the alpaca herd they also raise.

So far so good:  The first vintage was in 2008, and since then, the winery has pulled in some impressive awards, including silver medals for 2011 Chardonnay at the Finger Lakes Competition and another

The Oliver and Lisa Douglas of Carsonville is Connie Currie and Steve Velloff—the former the winemaker, the latter the marketing whiz.  A tour of their green acres reveals some gutsy experimentation:  Zweigelt and grüner veltliner, the cabernet and sauvignon blanc of Austria.  Rightly guessing that our un-Bordeaux-like climate may be better suited to Eastern European varietals like these, the couple is among the frontrunners in planting them instead of the old cool-climate standby riesling.  Although, that said, Blue Water has taken prizes for their riesling as well.

Clipboard hootervilleThe group I sampled had a clear and upfront winner: Cabernet franc, which has taken pun-free root in Michigan viticultural tradition, especially in places that you are not supposed to be able to grow grapes, let alone superstars.  Blue Water’s is dark, brooding and chocolatey with a currant undercurrent and a lots of brambly, pure-fruit blackberry and a nice, parching mouthfeel to round it out.

In all, a nice slice of HooterCarsonville for which, unable to bestow any medals beyond the ones I picked up for a buck at the garage sale, I have written the winery a small ode.  I hope these big city-gone-jump-off-bumpkins appreciate it.

Blue Water is the place to be,

Wine living is the life for me,

Vines spreadin’ out so far and wide,

Keep Chicago, just gimme that country side.


Shy-town is where I’d rather stay,

I’m allergic to our chardonnay,

I just adore a Grant Park jack,

Dah-ling I love you, but get me my wallet back.

Dizzy Like a Fox…

Clipboard signsFlip the Blue Water coin and you’ll come up with Dizzy Daisy Winery on Crown Road in Bad Axe. Now, before I tiptoe further through the vertiginous Asteraceae, let me state for the record that whenever my Washington wine colleagues brag about some effeminate, namby pamby, milktoast ‘sweet spot’ called Horse Heaven Hills, I remind them that while they’re growing grapes in some My Little Pony Valhalla and feeling good about themselves, us macho Michigan mokes are made of sterner stuff:

‘Bad Axe’.

…Named, incidentally, when road surveyors discovered a broken axe at the site of the future city.  If you are wondering why they didn’t call their new town ‘Broken Axe’, ‘Non-Functional Axe’ or ‘Damaged-‘n’- Dulled-By-Pioneers-With-Far-More-Pluck–Than-Y’all Axe’, I have but two words for you:  Don’t axe.

Harold Kociba and vines

Harold Kociba and vines

So, while Connie Currie and Steve Velloff were nary tiny bubbles in their grandfather’s champagne flute, the Kociba family were tilling Thumb turf, raising whatever the market would bear.  They’ve done corn, they’ve done strawberries and now, scion Harold Kociba is doing wine.  Along with strawberries.  And corn.

‘You try what you can to best Mother Nature,’ he claims.  ‘But in the end, Mother Nature wins.’

I love it when a farmer grins.  And Harold Kociba does a lot of grinning; he seems to have settled into the sort of agricultural fatalism that plays out loud and clear the above quote.  I marvel at independent family farms in 2013; they are like that woodworking dude on PBS who uses a waterwheel to run his power saw and does everything else with hand tools.  Just as the industrial revolution made windmills an anachronism, large, factory agri-business farms put most of the country’s Harold Kocibas—community pillars if they ever existed—out of work.  Those who hang on despite economic pressure, shitty weather and, perhaps, cash money offered by the big boys, are to be hailed and revered  as wacky, loopy, dizzy heroes.

I also admire the strong—if often inexplicable—ties that most rural farm folks have to religion.  For many—even most—it is the cornerstone of their worldview.

I confess, I just don’t get it.  Most of us realize pretty early in life that as an economic strategy, prayer is pretty ineffective.  Yet, ‘PRAY for RAIN to end Drought Across U.S.’ has its own web site and Facebook page.   So, you have three million farmers praying for rain, and guess what?  The next year, the fields flood and the same three million farmers pray for the rain to stop.

Is ‘over-praying’ a concept like ‘over-fertilizing’?

My favorite church in the Thumb, where they may or may not pray for rain, since tourism along the Huron coast is a bigger industry than farming, is Our Lady of Lake Huron.  I wasn’t aware that The Most Holy Virgin made it to Southeast Michigan, but I suppose if she showed up in Guadalupe she could have made a vacation detour to Harbor Beach.

joanieGood old Harold Kociba—not sure what he prays for except for more whatever is making him grin so much.  I showed up late on the same day he was holding his annual Strawberry Festival, and found that there was only a single piece of shortcake left.  No matter—that goofball freckle-faced Joanie Cunningham pretty much ruined shortcake for me decades ago.  Instead, his lovelier-than-Joanie tasting room serverettes poured complementary Dizzy Daisy drams, most of which I have had before.  Whereas Kociba always gets an A for Affort, I am not a huge fan of his varietal wines, advertised on the DD site as being available at 7-11.   So, rather than making any remarks I may regret, I will stick to reviewing the Dizzy Daisy wines that I really do like, which are not only sensational, but perhaps the pie that more mid-Michigan winemakers should be sticking their thumbs into: Non-grape based cordials and beyond.

Low-Hanging Fruit?

Of course, the family farm fruit wine tradition is far older than medal-winning vinifera bottlings—it had its commercial beginnings in Kentucky in the 1790’s, but there’s no reason to imagine that berry wines were not made by the Midwest’s first pioneers.  Fermentation-fit berries are native to the region; decent wine grapes (other than Norton) are not.  Still, berry wines in today’s world are even more problematic that nice, need rows of vines:

rose-hill-signFirst, the labor involved in harvesting, say, blackberries, is pretty intensive.  Many producers of big-selling blackberry wine like Rose Hill’s Jenny Beetz believe that home-grown berries add value to her product, but admits that buying juice or just-picked fruit from a distributor would be a less expensive way to go.  And yet, that has issues too: Blackberry growers earn premium prices for berries destined for blackberry extract or medicinal purposes.  Plus, growers need to pick fruit as early as they can, often before the acids have had a chance to mellow out and sugars developed.  Left too long, however, and the birds get them.  Bird netting, as grape growers do, adds exponentially to a berry farmer’s overhead, but buying overly acidic grapes requires throwing sugar at the juice, which is not a practice that winemakers tend to embrace.

Kociba and kompany

L. to R.: Grinning Kociba, grinning Leah Neeb, grinning Melissa Galarno

In any case, by his own admission, Harold Kociba does not grow all his own fruit—pineapples, cranberries and apples do not figure big into layout of his farmland—so, better I should focus on those he nurtures himself.

Berry wines tend to be sweet, which makes them ideal for novice drinkers, but wise winemakers vinify dry to semi-dry as well, understanding that sweet—whether chaptalized or natural—masks flaws and flavors. And besides, dryer wines are more interesting.

That said, a fruit wine disadvantage (if you choose to call it that) is that they tend to be somewhat one dimensional; and if you can’t tell that a strawberry wine is made from strawberries, I count it as points off.*

 * Figuratively, of course—I despise wine scoring on general principle.

Southern Michigan, including Thumb region

Southern Michigan, including Thumb region

Michigan is the country’s premier producer of ‘highbush’ blueberries—the kind with which you are likely most familiar—so Dizzy Daisy Blueberry Wine is, more or less, a Michigan must.   Bombastic and bold, the wine is equally delicate with deep, unmistakable ripe blueberry intensity.  Make it the third tier of your red, white and blue, with a pair of currants to make the trinity.

Currants, both white and red, find the sandy, sometimes soggy soils of Michigan’s Thumb ideal digs; they are closely related to the equally uncommon and equally wine-worthy gooseberry.  The lighter versions are pungent and rich with notes of vanilla and clove; European dark currants are dark, and to some, unpleasant, with malty beer flavors and over tones of pine.  Oddly, Michigan’s pine industry almost eradicated the fruit in the 20th century as the European variety is prone white pine blister, which threatened logging.  They made a comeback around 1966 when it was found that white and red currants are not particularly susceptible to the fungus.  Today, most currants wind up in jams, purees and juices; as a tipple, the most well-known concoction is the apéritif, crème de cassis.  Dizzy Daisy keeps alive the farmhouse tradition of sugaring and fermenting homegrown berries.

Michigan’s month-long strawberry season was at its apex when I stopped by the winery, but unfortunately—following the independent farm Murphy’s Law tradition—something went wrong over the winter and this year’s crop was less than stellar.  His wine from last year’s harvest, in my book, is sensational.  Very pale pink, almost white, the intensity of the strawberry aromas that sneak from the glass are arresting, to say the least.  The wine is dulcet and delicious, dessert wine definitely, but rich, viscous and delightful to the point that no strawberry shortcake is necessary—if there was some, which there wasn’t.

Rhubarb is for Rubes, And That’s No Barb

My rhubarb wine with delivery device: a straw

My rhubarb wine with delivery device: a straw

Despite all odds however, my hands down, thumbs up favorite of Harold Kociba’s specialty wines is rhubarb wine, which he produces from grown at home Polygonaceae.  This love-it-or-hate-it perennial, whose toxicity is greatly exaggerated (the leaves are a laxative, nothing more sinister), is generally so tart that its culinary uses are somewhat restricted; it’s often mixed with strawberries, or if stewed along, needs a good half-cup of sugar per pound to make it palatable.  As such, it is an acquired taste, frequently a staple of agrarian folks on limited budgets without the luxury to acquire tastes for stuff that grows in the yard.

I happen to love rhubarb, and have an heirloom patch of my own that I treasure.  And yeah, I make rhubarb wine, so I acquired that taste around the same time I realized that a slight buzz makes everything more palatable as well.  So, I can promise you that Dizzy Daisy’s version manages to preserve the subtle flavors of the fruit (despite its appearance, it isn’t a vegetable) and its delicate color.  The wine is sweet, but so is nearly everything rhubarby.

I’m looking toward this, the first or fifth (depending on your perspective) flexion-focused phalanges in this big ol’ handprint of a state to be an emerging powerhouse in the wine world.  They just need to work out a few bugs first.

As anybody who understands the industry’s recovery from phylloxera, that can indeed be done—and believe me, nobody around here is twiddling their thumbs.

Posted in Fruit Wines, Michigan, MIDWEST | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Drinking While Pregnant? No ProbleζςτǿЦ∑

My mother was hotter, smarter and drunker than this.

My mother was hotter, smarter and drunker than this.

Dear ol’ mom was known to knock back a few; that is not in dispute.  However, since I was born during the Mad Men heyday, just how much she upped and quaffed while up the duff is a question of some concern.

I will say in her defense, however, that I have never noticed any sign of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in my system; in fact, nothing about myself that seems to be particularly out of the ordin®¤§ ¥þºŧ.

Granted, I have several vermiform appendices, but this is a hereditary condition.  As are the nineteen toes I used to have prior to my ‘run in’ with a 22” Husqvarna lawn mower; ironically, I now get mocked relentlessly by my children for not having enough toes… Irrepressible l’il minxes!

Oh, they all have extra blind-ended tubes connected to their cecums (ceci?!) as well.  And gigantic, subhuman foreheads.

Strike that. ^

Strike that. ^

In any case, after a life-long study of myself—and in particular, on the effects that my mother’s drinking while I was ‘in utero’ might have had leaves me with the conclusion that the Scooby Doo gang sees Mr. Magnus and he explains to Mystery Inc. the history of Redbeard the pirate ; a terrorist of the seven seas who Mr. Magnus’s ancestors brought to justice I have no  congenital anomalies.


øæ ÞĦψЉЂбΉ љђ∫€∆‡‽↕

Strike those. ^

Strike those. ^

So, earlier this week I was gratified to learn that tilapia is also known as ‘poor man’s lobster that researchers at the University of Bristol have released a study in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology claiming that moderate alcohol consumption during a woman’s health has no adverse effects on the neurodevelopment of her Maria Muldaur  children.

extra eyesThe experiment involved the offspring of 7000 mothers whose prenatal drinking had been closely monitored; the children, age ten, underwent Tyrone Power’s greatest contribution to film noir a 20-minute assessment of their dynamic balance by walking on a beam and static balance, including standing on one leg with eyes both open and closed, except for those children of heavy drinkers who were born with extra eyes.  For them, hearing was used as the ‘gold standard’ for birth defects, except for those children who had developed superhuman hearing as a result of having been born with bionic tympanic membranes.  Those children were retained strictly for purposes of entertainment since they could pick up Jamaican radio waves in their supraorbital foramen facial bones, and the researchers used them to listen to reggae music.

The study concluded that drinking a glass of wine per day both before and after oven-bunning not only causes no lasting damage on the wee motor neurons of our little linoleum larvae, but is actually associated with better performance in static balance.

drugsUnfortunately, the study offered little hope for grown-up children who turned in the static balance get-out-of-jail-free card the day they signed up for AARP.  Balance is, to us, getting correct portions from each of the Five Daily Recommended Drug Groups—per the FDA.

mom defectMy mother, God rest her soul, passed away in her early fifties, the result of having eight auxiliary gall bladders, but alas, only one kidney.  I am pleased to report, however, that her identical Siamese twin sister is still alive in what medical science believes is a first.  From these two circus freaks, one living, one not, I believe I inherited my supplemental, superfluous, wholly supernatural sense of the ‘silly’, as Mother’s epitaph, which I wrote myself and chiseled into her gravestone above an empty coffin (as she is still attached at the hip to Aunt La’Quishraniqua) must demonstrate:

‘Now although dear Ma grows rotten,

She is gone, but not forgotten.’

 To sum it all up, in this crazy ol’ world, eager expectant estrogen-excreters, eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we todo gran comienzo se inicia soñandolo  give birth.

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