The Wild Mild West: Lake Michigan Shore Wine Country

There’s an icicle moon over Lake Michigan—it looks wan and skeletal in early February, like a milky glass disc, a contact lens with cataracts that takes on tints of blood orange as it sinks toward the horizon.

Basking in Lake Effect

Basking in Lake Effect

I spent much of last year in Northern Michigan wine country; the twin appellations of Leelanau and Old Mission that perch like a vinous crown atop Traverse City.  This year, my focus shifts to Michigan’s west coast, an American Viticultural Area both bigger and older than either of the northern appellations—also interesting in that it encompasses Fenn Valley AVA, older than any of them and, in fact, the third viticultural area ever so designated in the entire United States.

Being farther south, Lake Michigan Shore has terroir that is considerably milder than Leelanau and Old Mission, and—unanchored by the huge, gentile tourist emporium that is Traverse City—it’s a whole lot wilder.

map_of_benton_harbor_miThat wildness is evident as I skid through the miles on the approach to Benton Harbor, where the 8th Annual Lake Michigan Shore Wine Evaluation is to take place.  The day before, the state’s entire west coast had been blitzed with a blizzard that left sixteen inches of snow behind, and the full moon, now on its sluggish descent and turned a shade that might rightly be called ‘oxidized Vignoles’, casts pumpkin light on a terrain of drifts and snow moraines stretching beyond the field of vision.

Not me

Not me

I haven’t been in Benton Harbor in decades, and even the name of that small town on Michigan’s tail-end, just above Chicago, produces a septic field of unsavory and likely undeserved thought-associations in my memory.  I was a Boy Scout in an era when—my kids refuse to believe me—being a Scout was cool.  But you were twelve, got weekends away from your folks to wreak havoc among the glades and gullies, to shoot bow and arrows and .22s, to sleep in tents, light fires and bond with other delinquents into the wee hours without pesky parents demanding, “Lights out.”

In the day, such scenarios defined ‘cool’.

Tent mate, or a reasonable facsimile thereof

Tent mate, or a reasonable facsimile thereof

Anyway, one summer I went on a month-long Boy Scout campout near Benton Harbor, and I was assigned a tent-mate from that same small city along the St. Joseph River. This kid, who I presume was underprivileged, smelled so bad that then I invested the sort of time I now invest in tasting notes, trying to define exactly what this foul effluvia was and—based on its proximity—from whence it emanated. It smelled like a blend of old eggs, wet cardboard, yesterday’s urine and tomorrow’s vomitus.

Suffice to say that over a hot, humid July, that ol’ Benton Harbor perfume did not improve.

That was Then, This is Now…

The Benton Harbor I encountered this early snow-clad February morning smelled frozen and that’s about all.

The gist of the wine program, as presented by the Michigan Grape Society, was a series of flights, arranged by varietal, pitting several wines from Lake Michigan Shore against a ‘control’ wine from another appellations—wines that were, in the opinion of the pair of Master Sommelier hosts, exemplars of the species.

Wines were to be tasted ‘double blind’, which meant that neither the tasters (us) nor the administrators (the two Master Sommeliers who chaired the tasting and ultimately chose the winners) knew what they were.

Although this is the eighth year that this tasting has been held, this is the first one I attended: It seemed like a rare, ideal opportunity to explore the state of the art from this sprawling appellation, which is lesser known among those Michigan wine geeks drawn to the vacation-adjunct, destination wineries around Traverse City.

These are, in many cases, the unsung, unglamorous, often plebian producers from the wild mild west.

lakewmichiganBut if terroir is a defendable concept—and let’s presuppose it is—then the climate between South Haven and the Indiana border (and for about 25 miles inland), where temperatures are balmier and the growing season is as much as two week longer than in the north, should (on paper) produce richer wine. Or more consistent wine. Or more flavor-ripe wine. Or all the above.

So, to me, the chance to consider and contrast selections from the AVA without knowing what they were, without having winemakers sneaking over-the-shoulder peeks at tasting notes, without the obligatory suppressed grimace while you think of artful ways to tell someone that his baby is ugly without being too offensive, was wine writer gold.

And the idea of a ‘mystery’ entry, a baseline example of ‘varietal integrity’ from anywhere in the world, against which the LMS challengers would pit both strengths and weaknesses? That struck me as some badass titanium marketing balls, especially at an event underwritten by a group whose lifeblood is made of Michigan grape juice.

So I showed up with bells on to see if they genuinely had their balls on, which—with one major disappointment—they did.

I’ll get to that.

A brace of winos

A brace of winos

The event was hosted by a brace of Master Sommeliers, Ron Edwards MS and Wayne Belding MS.  A third Master was promised, but the aforementioned snowmageddon prevented him or her (we never learned who) from showing up, and it’s probably just as well. As Matthew 6:24 reminds us, ‘No man can serve two masters’; imagine having to deal with three?

It should be mentioned that I make little bones about my respect for (and not necessarily my reverence for) Master Sommeliers; early in one’s journey through the vinosphere, they appear on some distant citadel of omnipotence, but one may (or may not) ultimately conclude that it is a tower of power reserved for a certain scholarly type of wine lover and doesn’t guarantee perceptive superiority any more than having a degree in etymology guarantees that you’ll be a good literary critic.

I felt the same way about Eagle Scouts when I was twelve—it’s a remarkable, laudable, detail-driven achievement if you happen to be that type of remarkable, laudable, detail-driven soul.  Alas, I wasn’t and I’m not.  Whether it’s wine or Webolos, scuppernong or scouting, I’m strictly in it for the lulz—for the midnight bacchanalias in the forest, not the slow afternoons in the wine library.

dirty-dish-ragThat’s why I wasn’t particularly surprised when the analyses provided of each wine by these eno-eggheads differed from my personal notes, sometimes dramatically, but in most cases, to some noticeable extent. An example is a corked bottle from a flight of Sauvignon Blanc which was re-poured before I rinsed my glass (my bad); I rinsed and the third pour was the charm—the wine wound up being fresh, bracing and delightful.  Yet Master Ron described the wine as smelling like dishrags, and surely, Master Ron is an honorable man. Thus, how can I conclude anything but residual TCA taint in his glass and not mine?

What the MSs thought the wine tasted like

What the MSs thought the wine tasted like

Likewise the prevalence of the word ‘sulphur’ in the various notes of both maestros, which appeared no less than ten times, and in at least one case, was considered the dominating aromatic profile they detected. I can tell you that of all these wines, I detected sulphur—often the result of over-deploying the preservative sodium metabisulfites—in only a couple. And, ironically, not only was the sulphur bite not mentioned in one of those, it went on to win the flight on their scoreboards.

So much subjectivity is blended into the Meritage talent of ‘ability to recognize flavors in wine’ that the result is an uncomfortable paradox: There are no wrong answers except the ones that are wrong, and no right answers except the ones that are right.  If, after twenty-odd years of scrawling wine scrap I didn’t implicitly trust my palate, even over the palates of people with capital letters grafted to their names, I’d own up and go back to etymology school.

In this particular case, however, I was fortunate enough to be seated next to a chemist who worked at a winery, whose sole raison d’être is identifying and correcting flaws in wine, and I can promise you, our notes matched far more closely than they did the notes of the sensei—especially about the sulphur.

logoWhich leads us to the flaw—not in the wines, but in the program, at least for me. My primarly goal in attending a Lake Michigan Shore wine evaluation was to identify those LMS wineries who can demonstrate that they lead the pack, possibly the state and potentially, the entire Midwest, in their interpretation of grapes grown in their terroir.  That means (as wine people have come to understand) that these wines remain iconic examples of the varietal while exhibiting characteristics that offer a unique sense of place.  And plenty of these wines did.  But in the end, after mountains of marginalia, jumbles of jottings, reams of reports, other than the top wine in each category and the wines that were not from Michigan in the first place, the sponsors of the tasting refused to identify which wines we had just tasted.

It had something to do with not wanting to embarrass those wineries who didn’t win; I heard the explanation twice and neither time did it register as rational.

Because, essentially, it means that we lowly wine journalists, having seen the light—just as the Michigan Grape Society intended—and wanting to rush out and spread the gospel, can’t, because we have no idea what to recommend.  In nearly every case, I thought there were better wines poured than those that took first place and in most cases, better wines than the ‘control’ foreigner, and yet I’m poleaxed in my ability to give credit where it’s due.

See, to me that makes no sense.  But then again, trusting twelve-year-old hormonal boys with rifles and matches and cans of Sterno didn’t either, and God knows, the wilderness has the scars to prove it.

All I am left with is an idea of the appellation’s overall style and substance, with adjectives galore, but no nouns to pin them down.

So be it; life handed me a lemon-scented Pinot Grigio and I’m gonna make some generality lemonade:

Sauvignon Blanc:

Sauvignon_blancMichigan has struggled with incarnations of this grape in the past—it tends to be an early ripener, which is a plus in our climate, but it needs a lot of sunshine and is prone to diseases that a damp vineyard is more than willing to provide.  It is ‘cool hardy’ rather than cold hardy.  Even so, the flight of wines presented prove that the bar has been raised quite majestically on Michigan Sauvignon Blanc: They were, in the main, mouthwatering, with varying degrees of intensity, characteristic pink grapefruit notes, grassiness, some tropical edges and, as a whole, a firm acid grip.  Many were styled after the supple Sauvignon Blancs of the limestone-rich Loire, and most showed better:

The ringer wine was a Sancerre.

Pinot Gris/gio:

A lot of time was spent by the judges discussing semantics; Pinot Gris vs. Pinot Grigio, does it taste like it’s from Alsace or Alto Adige?  Conclusion:  Call it what you want. These wines were somewhat lighter on the palate than expected and few displayed acids in perfect balance, which is pretty much a table stakes requirement for this grape.  Those that pushed the wine toward Pinot Gris viscosity seemed to get hung up on a canned peach sort of simplicity.

The rogue Italian entry won the flight in my notes—though not in the judges’.

Pinot Noir:

Boy Scouts playing Amontillado

Boy Scouts playing Amontillado

I know, right? Air-dropping a red wine flight into the middle of whites is an odd move, but don’t ask me; I wasn’t running the show.  I’ve had some decent Pinot Noirs from Michigan over the years, and these were, for the most part, serviceable translations.  It’s a grape that does not suffer missteps in the production phase gladly, and some of these wines showed some microbial taints (band-aid scents; gym socks) while some seemed under ripe and acidic.  At least one displayed an Amontillado-like nuttiness that generally is a sign (not necessarily unpleasant) of some oxidization.

Alas, (like the Riesling in the following flights) the tanned, beefcake intruder from Santa Barbara was obvious.  I say ‘alas’ because it is not necessarily a style of Pinot I like, but many Michigan consumers do: Meaty, full-blown, warm with ethanol and fruit sweet.

Riesling:

An interesting category, because this varietal is often called ‘Michigan’s grape’, due in part to a handful of beautiful renderings from upstate.  In this flight, however (consisting of fifteen wines) the imposter—a German Pfalz—was so obvious that it stuck out not like a sore thumb, but like a gilded thumb among fourteen sore ones.  The good Michigan wines here were somewhat simple and lacking in aromatics; the best were still in the bush leagues compared to the winner.

Lemberger:

LembergerA spectacular flight, filled with assertive statements; nicely integrated tannins, silky mouthfeels, bright red fruit expressions—decent wines across the board, with the Austrian example (from whence the grape derives its name) about middle-pack in terms of quality.  Master Ron claims that this grape should be groomed as a candidate for Michigan’s premiere red wine, pointing out—as many have, and for many years—that it needs a name change before it will be accepted by a drinking public.  Right. So effing do it already. Call it Gruyère or Parmigiano-Reggiano or Beaujolipple; who cares?  Jump through the TTB hoops and start selling some goddamned wine.

Syrah:

Syrah 0802Another remarkable eye-opener: These were a lovely set of New World syrahs, less bombastic than Australian Syrah, less jammy than Washington Syrah, less peppery and leathery than wines from the varietal’s home base in Rhône. In fact, of all the wines in the tasting, Syrah showed the most defendable, definable, describable Lake Michigan Shore terroir.  They were bright with glossy red fruits, pomegranate and tart cherry, some with meat on the bones and a nice undertow of lush smokiness.  It’s almost too bad that the control wine—a Crozes-Hermitage—was so bad. This was a wine that smelled like the specimen you hand to the parole officer when your chit comes up; these weren’t playful Sauvignon Blanc ‘cat pee’ thiols, this was human piss from behind the dumpster at 7-11.

How it slid past the powers-that-be is a WTF? that be…

Chardonnay:

Ah, the wine from the viniferous permaculture—the most popular white wine in the world, and a vine that finds different things to say wherever it is planted, and thus may be seen as a canvas for terroir.  And yet, in Michigan, we’ve been somewhat slow to find our seat on the bandwagon.  This flight proves that we have the foundation down—crisp and creamy, citrus and apple with some tropical and vanilla notes—but, the flight, however consistent and non-flawed, was somewhat single dimensional. It’s obviously a varietal with a huge future here, if only to pay the light bills with something that a winery can actually be proud of.

Several other flights of red followed, but by this time, I had pretty much worn my palate to a nub, and anyway, the handwriting was on the wall—and it didn’t list the blind wines.  Not even a follow-up call to Mike de Schaaf of the Grape Society could shake loose the names, and so, the wines that stood out to me remain unknown to me.

nite skyBut I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.  This was a first step on a long trek through the appellation, and it’s now up to me to track my quarry down.

Didn’t I learn how to do that in Boy Scouts?

And from the ash piles of spent campfires and snuck cigarettes, I vow to approach Lake Michigan Shore wine country with the sense of wonder of a twelve year old in the wilderness, looking up at the cold Michigan sky at midnight.

 

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