SP: Black Star Farms, Suttons Bay/Traverse City, Michigan, USA
SL: Slivovitz (traditional Damson plum brandy)
SP: Damson plum eau de vie “made in the traditional style”
SL: $26 Michigan state minimum
SP: $27.50 (website)
SL: Varnish, plum pits, oak.
SP: Underripe plum, varnished wood.
SL: Full-bodied and sweet. A little fruit then all burn.
SP: Light-bodied. Fruit then a little burn.
SL: Mild and sweet.
SP: Fruitier but less sweet. Long.
Parting words: The Maraska distillery is located in Zadar on the Adriatic coast of Croatia. It’s the oldest continually occupied city in Croatia, first mentioned on a Greek instription in 384 BCE, but is likely much older than that. It was refounded as a Roman colony in 48 BCE. I had trouble following the timeline on the Maraska website, but it seems that Maraska was founded in the 18th century by an Italian businessman (it was under Austrian rule at the time). Maraska produces a wide range of liqueurs including its flagship maraschino. Its Slivovitz is widely distributed in the US, or at least is in the US. It is certified Kosher.
Black Star Farms is no stranger to readers of this blog. Their spirits line includes an eau de vie of just about every fruit anybody distills. Their website invokes Slivovitz in the blurb on Spirit of Plum, but its unclear if they use ground up pits in the production of the spirit like slivovitz manufacturers do.
I didn’t do a lot of digging into the world of Slivovitz before I chose Maraska for this exercise. I just found one that was relatively cheap. Maraska is what it is. It doesn’t have much going on except sweetness and burn. What plum character exists is subtle.
Spirit of Plum is elegant and has much more fruit character. It works best as a pleasant, slightly rustic, summertime digestif. Although it’s nearly twice the price per ml, I’d rather have 375 ml of Spirit of Plum than 750 ml of Maraska Šljivovica. Spirit of Plum is recommended. Maraska Šljivovica is not.
Maker: Good Harbor Vineyards, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA
Grape: 100% Marechal Foch
Place of origin: Good Harbor estate, Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA
Purchased for $16 (winery)
Appearance: Very dark for a rosé. More light ruby Burgundy than pale Provançal pink.
Nose: Grape jelly, crushed mulberry.
Palate: Cherry soda, allspice.
Finish: Sweet and fruity.
Parting words: This is a simple but very tasty wine. It’s very fruity but not overly sweet. Goes down easy with food or on its own. I haven’t had a lot of Foch, but I think maybe the world needs to see more of it, at least in pink.
Maker: Domaine Manoir de Montreuil, Montreuil-en-Auge, Calvados, Normandy, France (Giard family)
Apples: Various heirloom French cider varieties.
Place of origin: Domaine Manoir de Montreuil, Pays d’Auge, Calvados, Normandy, France.
Purchased for $13/750 ml (Westborn Market, Berkley, Michigan)
Appearance: Golden orange.
Nose: Sourdough starter, sawdust, dried apricots.
Palate: Fizzy and sweet. Caramel apple with peanuts, smoked pork shoulder.
Finish: Mild but meaty. Apple wood smoked pork.
Parting words: The Giard family has owned the Manoir de Montreuil estate since the eighteenth century. Like many apple growers in Calvados, the Giards produce cider and brandy from their estate, both under the Pays d’Auge appellation.
As far as I can tell, the brandy is not available in the US, except for in California where it sells in the $40-$45 range, which seems like a bargain for estate Calvados. One of the estate’s claims to fame is its large herd of free-range cattle which are allowed to roam the orchard and fertilize the soil the old-fashioned way.
I have found some Norman ciders to be overly tannic and funky. While the nose is funk and tannin forward, the palate is surprisingly fruity and even meaty on the back-end. While the orchards may be home to a lot of beef, the finish is porky. It’s like quality pork chops smoked over fruit wood.
It pairs very well with food of all kinds and is a great value at $13. Be careful, though! When I started to untwist the wire cage, the cork shot out, leaving a foamy mess all over my dining room floor.
Manoir de Montreuil Cambremer Pays d’Auge Cidre is recommended.
Distillery: Unknown. (Hiram Walker? Brand owned and bottled by Sazerac).
Style: Canadian blend.
Age: NAS (at least 3 y/o)
Michigan state minimum: $10
Appearance: Bright copper.
Nose: Alcohol, rye toast, grilled sweet corn.
Palate: Full-bodied and round. Creamed corn, burn, a touch of oak.
Finish: Burn, Red Pop, tiny touch of oak.
Mixed: Did well with Ginger ale, on the rocks and in an Old Fashioned.
Parting words: When I was writing this review, I went back to look at my notes on Rich & Rare to compare the two. What I noticed was that I forgot to write the tasting notes and only had the basic information and parting words. I dug into the depths of my tasting notebook and found my R & R notes and I have now updated that post.
Ahem. So, how does it compare? R & R was heavy on the dessert notes, especially vanilla and butterscotch. R & R Reserve is more balanced and has much more rye character and fruit than its cheaper sibling. R & R R is better suited to sipping than R & R, but R & R R mixes just as well or maybe even better. So while R & R is a good value, it’s worth your while to lay down an extra $2.50 for the Reserve.
The bottle is very pretty too, for what it’s worth. R & R Reserve is recommended.
Maker: Hawthorne Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Grape: Gamay (at least 85%)
Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Purchased for $14 (Meijer)
Appearance: Translucent ruby.
Nose: Fruit punch, toasted oak.
Palate: Raspberry, strawberry, black cherry, wood, clove.
Finish: Cherry juice, oak
Purchased: I love Gamay and I love this wine. It is a great example of what Gamay does best. It makes fruity, enjoyable wines that are great summer sippers or alongside the sort of food Pinot Noir usually accompanies. If I were to compare it to a red from Beaujolais (Gamay’s home base), I would say it most resembles a quality Beaujolais-Villages or a fruity Cru Beaujolais like Fleurie. It’s great to drink now, but it will probably deepen and grow more complex if cellared for another year or more. I recently finished a bottle of Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir from 2014 that was still quite good, so don’t feel rushed. $14 is a very good price. 2016 Hawthorne Vineyards Gamay is recommended.
Mixed: Did well on the rocks, with soda and with Ginger Ale. Subtle but good in a Manhattans, and Sazeracs. Quite good with a splash of Akvavit.
Parting words: Old Overholt was founded in Pennsylvania in 1810, making it one of the oldest whiskey brands in the US (maybe the oldest), even older than most single malt Scotch distilleries. It was one of National Distillers’ brands back in 1987 when Beam and ND “merged”. Once the ND distillate ran out, Beam filled OO with its youngest, worst rye, similar to how it turned Olds Crow and Taylor into bottom shelf bourbons. Until last year, Beam little interest in Old Overholt, aside from 2013’s weird, ill-fated “The Olds” ad campaign in collaboration with Onion Labs (yes, affiliated with The Onion).
Jim Beam improved its Jim Beam rye a few years ago, raising it to 90 proof and four years of age. I reviewed it here. ND had produced a BiB years ago, but it had not been produced in decades and was pretty rare even as a “dusty”. Last year, Beam finally brought OO BiB back. The popularity of Heaven Hill’s Rittenhouse Rye was probably a factor in the reintroduction of OO BiB. OO’s old-timey label is also appealing to bearded hipster mixologists and now it finally has liquid inside that will appeal to them too.
Old Overholt Bottled-in-Bond is a good companion to the other fine ryes in Beam’s stable and outclasses competitors like Rittenhouse and Sazerac ($3 more and 5% lower ABV). OO BiB is recommended.
Parting words: I’m a fan of Laurentide, the wines, the people and the ice sheet, which shaped our beautiful Great Lakes. Emergence White is a well-balanced, easy-to-drink, food-friendly wine. A bottle is perfect for dinnertime on the patio. A case is perfect for a BBQ with grilled chicken. Emergence White is recommended.
The last time Liz and I were on Leelanau Peninsula we visited a winery we had long wanted to visit but hadn’t yet. We got a chatty, but professional pourer. I didn’t mention my blog, as usual. I usually don’t mention it at the beginning of a tasting because 1. I don’t want to get special treatment and 2. Nobody knows or cares who I am.
We were tasting through the menu and we came across a wine that had no appellation visible on the label. I asked our pourer whether the wine was American or Michigan or Leelanau. Our pourer replied by kindly asking me if I knew how to read a wine label. I said, yes, I asked because I didn’t see an apellation on the label. Pourer’s response was, “If you know how to read a wine label, then you already know the answer. Don’t make me lie.”
I was taken aback. Our pourer went on to explain how in 2014 and 2015 that winery, like many others in Michigan, did not have enough local grapes (due to the dreaded Polar Vortex) to produce their usual array of varietals and blends, so they had to buy out-of-state grapes to stay afloat. The owner of the winery felt weird about this, apparently, and so omitted any statement of origin on those labels at all. This is in contrast to most wine makers who put “American” on the label in the same place where the usual appellation appeared, since most bought grapes from Oregon.
That is annoying, but what our pourer told us next was shocking. They said that the owner had told them to lie about the wine’s origin to tasting room visitors who asked. “I wish I didn’t have to lie. I wish I worked for Charlie Edson. He’s very honest.”
Why would a winery want its employees to lie about the origin of its wines? One reason may be marketing. Many Michigan wineries, large and small, use local-ness as a large part of their marketing. If their grapes aren’t locally grown, that could be embarrassing. That said, many Michigan wineries aren’t embarrassed about that at all. Black Star Farms, Round Barn, Brys Estate, Mackinaw Trail and many others have regular offerings that use out-of-state grapes. I don’t have any data to back it up, but I don’t believe most Michigan wine customers care either. Personally, I’m less likely to buy a wine from a Michigan winery if it’s “American”, but I don’t think any less of wineries that do.
The lying and obfuscation in the realm of Michigan wine will probably die down with the recent run of two (and probably three) good, warm vintages in a row (2016, 2017, 2018?). With rising demand for Michigan wine and the inevitability of a few bad vintages every decade, the temptation to lie will rear its ugly head again, though.
Lying about place of origin is not confined to the wine world, of course. It’s quite common in whiskey, especially in the shady world of sourced “craft” whiskey. One of the most common ways of lying, or at least obfuscation, is for the bottler to “forget” to put the state of distillation on the label, as is required by law. A surprising number of producers make this mistake. When confronted about this they usually either ignore the warning or hide behind the fact that the label has been approved by the TTB. Approval by the TTB doesn’t mean the label is correct, though, as producers know. Like many other government agencies under the austerity regimes of the last thirty years, the TTB is understaffed and underfunded. It relies on consumers and the producers themselves for policing. There’s also this little bit on the bottom of the COLA (Certificate Of Label Approval) form:
Under the penalties of perjury, I declare; that all statements appearing on this application are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief; and, that the representations on the labels attached to this form, including supplemental documents, truly and correctly represent the content of the containers to which these labels will be applied. I also certify that I have read, understood and complied with the conditions and instructions which are attached to an original TTB F 5100.31, Certificate/Exemption of Label/Bottle Approval.
More egregious than that is the phenomenon of Japanese whisky that’s not actually made in Japan. Margarett Waterbury at The Whiskey Wash breaks it down here. Due to limited stocks and the unfriendly duopoly of Japanese whisky, Japanese distillers frequently import whisky from Scotland and Canada to stretch their stocks.
Why do whiskey producers lie? The reasons are not very different from why wine producers lie. It has to do with marketing. Some distillers do market themselves as local, even using a local place-name while buying their local product from elsewhere. It only takes a second or two of boredom for a consumer to look at the back label and see that their local hero was actually born and raised in Indiana. The “craft” aspect of craft spirits is also vulnerable to accurate labeling. Articles like this one from the Daily Beast have been drifting around the internet for a few years, explaining how many craft producers buy their product from MGP’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. While these articles did blow the lid off of this practice for the general public, it may have made distillers even more afraid of producing accurate labels than they were before.
What can be done about this? One thing we can do as consumers is to warn and report whiskey label violators. Universally beloved* Texas bourbon enthusiast and blogger Wade Woodard has made it his personal quest to file complaints of whiskey labeling regulations. He’s been making progress, but many still ignore regulations. With so whiskey booming and so many new labels hitting the market every year, it’s hard to keep up.
Regarding wine obfuscators, I think it’s important to always ask where the grapes come from if no appellation is listed on the label. lf at a tasting room, ask your way up the chain of command. If not, call or send an email and ask. If you get lied to, then press the owners or managers in person, or on social media. Business owners who are unrepentant liars should be shamed.
It’s important that this is done responsibly, though. It’s counterproductive and just plain shitty to do so in a way that gets someone fired or punished at work. Tasting room employees aren’t responsible for marketing or labeling of the wines they pour. That’s why I haven’t named the winery in question. It would take a minimal amount of snooping around on social media and going over work schedules to figure out who our pourer was once I disclosed the winery.
What should producers do to avoid being reported or shamed? Pay close attention to what I’m about to say, folks: TELL THE TRUTH. Disclose what you’re supposed to disclose. Disclose even more than you have to even. If truth-telling and disclosure interfere with your marketing strategy, change your marketing strategy. Being truthful to your customers should always come first. Most people don’t like to give money to people they don’t trust.
As for me and this blog, even though I did buy some bottles at the winery, I will not be reviewing any of those bottles here anytime soon. Maybe I will if the winery in question shows that they have changed their ways when the next bad vintage rolls around, but without a change in ownership, I’m not holding my breath.
Place of origin: Isle St. George AVA, Isle St. George, Ohio, USA
Note: No lees contact.
Purchased for $12.50 (Joseph’s Beverage Center)
Appearance: Medium light gold.
Nose: Canned pear, lychee, gravel, fruit punch.
Palate: Medium sweet. Lemonheads, dried thyme, Hawaiian Punch.
Finish: Light. Pinch of thyme, lingering sweetness in the cheeks.
Parting words: Isle St. George, AKA North Bass Island is a part of the Lake Erie Islands archepeligo, which includes the other Bass Islands and Pelee Island, among many others. Pelee is by far the largest. North Bass Island is the fifth largest at just over 1,000 square miles. It is (barely) inhabited but much of the island is given over to parks and vineyards. Like its Canadian cousin, Isle St. Geoge’s climate is moderated by Lake Erie and for that reason is a prime location for vineyards.
Firelands is the “vanguard” winery of the Lonz group, which owns other Ohio wineries and wine brands. Firelands claims to be the largest winery in Ohio (by what measure is unclear) and they produce a full line of the usual cool climate varietals, sparklers and dessert wines.
When I bought this wine, I also bought a bottle of their 2012 Pinot Noir, which I did not like at all. It was musty and tired, though in its defense it may not have been stored properly. I was apprehensive when opening this Riesling. There was some initial mustiness on the nose, similar to what I get in many Oregon Rieslings, but it dissapated within a few minutes. It was crisp and fruity with an odd but pleasant squirt of tropical punch on the back end of the palate. $12.50 was a fair price, but the website lists the current vintage at $11, which is even fairer. Firelands Riesling is recommended.
Maker: Dunkertons, Pembridge, Herefordshire, England, UK
Style: Perry (100% organic, heirloom perry pears)
Price: $8/500 ml bottle (Binny’s)
Appearance: Big, fizzy head. Straw-colored with persistant bubbles.
Nose: Yeast, cut fruit wood, lemon zest.
Palate: Dry and funky. Chewy old pears, wood chips, pear syrup.
Finish: Clean with a little funk and tannin on the back end.
Parting words: Dunkertons comes from Herefordshire, in the West Midlands of England, near the border with Wales. They exclusively use heritage cider apples and perry pears. The latter are nearly impossible to find in North American perries. Those pears and the use of wild yeast give this perry a unique farmhouse-cider taste and aroma unlike any other perry I’ve had.
This perry is fairly well-distributed in the US and is an excellent value considering how rare perries like this are. Dunkertons Organic Perry is highly recommended.