Appearance: Dark brown, like cola with a bluish tinge.
Nose: Burnt blueberry pie, asphalt, alcohol.
Palate: Dark roasted malt, cooked blueberries.
Finish: Pleasant. Bittersweet stout and blueberry pie.
Parting words: I’ve been reviewing Atwater’s beers for years and they haven’t once made any sort of contact with me on social media or anywhere else. Not even a like or a favorite. That’s a little annoying but I don’t hold it against them. Some companies are good at social media and some aren’t. My annoyance in no way negatively influenced my review, but didn’t help either.
This beer is OK, but the nose is really weird. It’s called blueberry cobbler, but it tastes much more like blueberry pie than cobbler. There’s no biscuity-topping flavors. It’s just all cooked fruit. Heck, even the guy in the Atwater logo is carrying a lattice top pie, not a cobbler. Yes, it’s a minor quibble but it points to the confused state of this beer. There’s some blueberry in there but there’s not enough to make it actually taste like blueberries. I get that they were going for a baked blueberry thing here, but the toasty malt just makes it taste like the burnt drips that stick to the bottom of the oven after the pie is done.
I like, nay, love most of Atwater’s beers but this is a failure. Blueberry Cobbler is not recommended.
Maker: Wm. Grant & Sons, Dufftown, Banffshire, Scotland, UK
Style: Blended Single Malt Scotch (Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Kininvie)
Michigan state minimum: $33
Appearance: Medium copper with a lot of necklacing and legs.
Nose: Sweet malt, vanilla, sage, alcohol, old oak, serrano peppers.
Palate: Medium bodied and semi-sweet. Vanilla buttercream, strawberry, butterscotch, sweet cinnamon.
Finish: Dry and long lasting. Crème brûlée, alcohol, oak.
Parting words: The success of blended malts like Sheep Dip and especially Compass Box’s offerings led older, older companies to take notice. Monkey Shoulder, released in the UK in 2005 was Wm. Grant & Son’s response, and it’s a dammned good one. A blended malt (formerly known as a vatted or pure malt) is a blend of all single malts. This is different from a standard blended Scotch because it contains no grain whisky, only malts.
The family resemblance to Grant’s blended whisky (the last Scotch I reviewed) is evident, but it’s much more complex, as one might expect. Like Grant’s, this is a very tasty whisky at a good price. For a top notch blended malt, it’s impossible to beat. Grant’s marketing folks keep pushing it as a mixer but it’s so good neat that I couldn’t bring myself to mix it with anything.
Palate: Dry and medium bodied. Meyer lemon and mineral water.
Finish: Short, clean and dry. A little bitterness and minerality with a spritz of acid.
Parting words: I had the privilege of wandering around the famous Block II a couple weeks ago with three of my best friends. It’s a noble, old stand of Riesling with soil is so sandy that I felt like setting up a volleyball net. As our guide told us, the sand is very important. It retains very little water, so the vines are forced to send their roots deep. This stresses the plant, and leads the plant to focus more on reproduction (fruit) than producing leaves and stems. Many also believe that greater root depth leads to more complex wine, since the roots are drawing minerals from a greater volume of soil.
Whatever the role of terroir, this is a very tasty dry Riesling that is still drinking well given its age. There’s not a lot of fruit or flowers left here, but what there is keeps the acidity and minerality from overrunning the glass. The few reviews I was able to find of this wine were from 2012 and there seems to have been a lot more going on back then.
Even with the lack of complexity, this is still a good dry Riesling at this price. 2010 Bower’s Harbor Vineyards Block II Riesling recommended. If you have one in your cellar, drink now, with food or without!
Maker: Diageo, Louisville, Kentucky/Norwalk, Connecticut, USA
Proof: 82 (41% ABV)
Michigan State Minimum: $30
Appearance: Light copper.
Nose: Alcohol, cayenne pepper, leather.
Palate: Sweet and mild. Brach’s caramels, chocolate covered toffee, a little bit of alcohol bite.
Finish: Sweet but a little spicy. Caramel, cocoa, alcohol.
Mixed: Excellent in all cockltails- Manhattan, Perfect Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Boulevardier. OK on the rocks and with soda.
Parting words: I.W. Harper was reintroduced to the U.S. this year after being gone for a couple decades. I.W. Harper begin life as the flagship bourbon of Isaac Wolfe Bernheim’s (d. 1945) distillery. After prohibition, the distillery and brand were sold to Schenley. Through a series of mergers I.W. Harper came to be owned by Diageo, even though the Bernheim distilley was sold to Heaven Hill in 1997. Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Wheat Whiskey is a tribute to I.W. Berneim and his brother Bernard.
One of the first ever “dusties” I found was a bottle of I.W. Harper. It was also the first dusty I was ever disappointed with. It was bland and watery. The 15 y/o (a part of the Bourbon Heritage Collection) was bland and watery but with a little oak thrown in. This is a big improvement on those two. It’s not extremely complex, but it’s got a great mouthfeel and enough spice to keep things interesting. It also plays very well with mixers. There are better choices at $30, but I.W. Harper isn’t a bad one.
Grapes: 87% Zinfandel, 13% others (Muscat, Syrah, Carignane and more). Field blend.
Place of origin: Morisoli Vineyard, Rutherford AVA, Napa Valley, California, USA
Price: $45 (We think. Didn’t save the recipt)
Note: Not sold in Michigan retail stores but they do ship.
Appearance: Dark crimson.
Nose: Blueberry jam, wild blackberry, cherry, toasted oak, a squirt of Meyer lemon
Palate: Full bodied. Jammy but well balanced with oak, clove, black currant, black and blueberries with a little burn on the back end.
Finish: Medium long. Chewy oak tannins, dried fig. Clean, but leaves me craving another sip.
Parting words: Elyse Winery is a small family located near Yountville, California that draws from vineyards in other sections of Napa Valley, including this one from the also family-owned Morisoli Vineyard. Morisoli is 57 acres located at the base of Mt. Saint John at the southern end of the Rutherford AVA. The vineyard is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, but Zinfindel is grown there too, and has been for over one hundred years. Elyse has been working with the the family for decades and has produced a Morisoli Cab and Zin every for every vintage back to 1986.
When my wife and I were contemplating tacking on a trip to Napa to a trip to Northern California for my cousin’s wedding (see “Two Days in Napa”) Elyse was recommended to us by our friends Jessica and Brian who have been members of their wine club since a trip to Napa they took a few years ago. The experience at the Elyse tasting room was a contrast from the big, slick tasting rooms that take in most of the wine tourist trade in Napa. It’s in a small, no frills white building and the pourers were all family members or winemakers. The only wine we picked up there was this one, but they were all quite good and reasonably priced, for Napa.
We were saving it for a special occasion so when we finally sold our tiny old house last month, we decided that was the perfect special occasion. I grilled up a couple T-bone steaks in my cast iron grill pan to go with the wine and it all worked together perfectly. Sometimes a great wine and a great piece of meat is all you need for a great meal.
The price is reasonable for a single vineyard old vine California Zin of this quality. It could probably have been cellared for another two or more years, but it is drinking beautifully now. Elyse Winery 2009 Morisoli Vineyard Zinfandel is highly recommended.
Palate: Medium sweet. Rock candy, tarragon, vanilla, sarsaparilla.
Finish: Sweet and spicy with a little bit of heat. Thyme, anise, butterscotch, bubblegum.
Parting words: Wiser’s 18 sits atop Corby’s Wiser’s line, which includes the flagship Wiser’s Deluxe, Wiser’s Rye, and Wiser’s Legacy, a mong others. Canadian whisky ages very well (the Canadian climate makes for slower aging than in Kentucky) and so I had high hopes for this.
It is a good whisky. Unlike some other Canadians at double digits, like the 12 y/o Canadian Club or the 21 y/o Collingswood, Wiser’s 18 still has some teeth at its advanced age. There’s plenty of rye spice and vanilla and even some alcohol bite on the palate, even though it’s only 40% ABV. It also comes in an elegant rectangular bottle that looks very sharp on a home bar.
Long time readers may sense a big “but” coming, and here it is: $75 is much too expensive for this. It’s much better than the all-nose Collingswood 21, the only other venerable age-stated Canadian available in Michigan, but even that bottle of disappointment is $15 cheaper. The real kicker is that Wiser’s Legacy is superior in every way. It’s 45% ABV, was $45 the last time it appeared in Michigan, and is all rye whiskey, unlike this blend.
Wiser’s 18 y/o is good, but not good enough to justify being the second most expensive Canadian whisky on the Michigan list. It is mildly recommended.
Maker: Uncle John’s Fruit House, St. John, Michigan, USA
Style: Semi-dry hard apple cider.
Note: Old can design pictured.
Appearance: Light gold with lots of bubbles, but a short lived, bubbly head.
Nose: Gravel, apple juice, aged late harvest Riesling.
Palate: Light bodied and semi-dry. Mildly tart apples, mineral water. Effervescent.
Finish: A touch of tartness on the front end, but then long and dry with a little sweetness just to hold it together.
Parting words: Uncle John’s empire is located about twenty-five miles north of Lansing, our proud state capital. It’s an agricultural attraction. U-pick blueberries, a market featuring asparagus, sweet corn, strawberries, sweet cherries, peaches, apples and probably more (all seasonal of course). They also have doughnuts, caramel apples, unfermented cider by the glass (mulled or unmulled), pies, jam, apple butter and just about everything else one would expect.
They also have a winery. They mostly make fruit wines, but they do offer a red blend (Merlot-led), a white blend (Chardonnay, Vignoles, Pinot Gris, Riesling), Concord, a few styles of mead and hard cider. Cider is what they’re best known for, and with good reason. They do a very good job. They make a very full line of different apple cider styles and flavors, perry and even a fortified apple wine. They have a still, too and make an apple brandy. If you’re into wasting high quality produce by turning it into a colorless, flavorless beverage, they also make an apple vodka that should be right up your alley.
At any rate, this Draught Hard Cider (now simply labeled “apple” on their new, snappy-looking white cans) is their flagship hard cider. I like it a lot. It’s dry enough to enjoy anytime but has enough sweetness to keep it from tasting like Perrier with an apple slice. It’s well balanced and I like it a lot. I can’t wait to explore some more and, better yet, take a short road trip to see the whole operation in person some time!
Uncle John’s Hard Apple Cider is highly recommended.
The Night of 100 Rieslings event was at the pavilion at Clinch Park, an easy walk from our hotel. Apparently last year it rained and the ground turned to mud, so this year it was in a paved area near what normally functions as a snack bar. Additional tables were put on the lawn adjacent to the paved section. To one side was a boat dock and to the other was a beach. The location made for a pleasantly surreal experience, sipping world class wine while hairy, tattooed men in trunks, women in bikinis and sunburnt children with water wings frolicked in the water a few yards away. Wine writer and co-organizer Stuart Pigott seemed especially tickled by the beachgoers. Music was provided by the Go-Rounds, a local favorite rock band that was quite good, although the volume wasn’t conducive to conversation. They did a good job of keeping the energy high through the evening, though.
The event began at 6 pm Sunday night so we decided to make it dinner. Each attendee was given thirteen pink wine tickets and two food vouchers. One food voucher got a person either one sausage plate with accompaniments, one cheese plate (one cow, one goat, one sheep) or two oysters. The sausages were supplied by Corridor Sausage in Detroit, a favorite of ours. The oysters were not local, obviously. They were very popular and the people serving the oysters had trouble keeping up with demand. The uncharacteristically hot day (high of 91° F) didn’t help either. I don’t remember the “varietal” names of the oysters, but one was west coast and one was east. The west coast one was all coastal funk, while the eastern one had a nice brininess and a bit of citrus. Both paired well with the wines.
It was also a challenge keeping the wines chilled in the heat but they held up very well. I even learned to appreciate warm Riesling that weekend. As you can see in the picture, there were Rieslings from all over the world. Three continents, nine countries, six U.S. states, twenty-two German producers from seven different regions and twenty Michigan producers from three AVAs were all represented, all served by certified professional sommeliers, including Detroit wine star Madeline Triffon, the first American woman to pass the master sommelier exam.
The evening was a bit of a fog so, forgive me if I can’t remember all the great wines I had, but based on my notes, some standouts were Schloss Schonborn Ausleses from 1994 and 1997, wines from Villa Wolf, G.D. Vrja (Piedmont!), Chateau Fontaine, O’Brien Vineyards Late Harvest Dry (no, that’s not an oxymoron; from OMP), Bellweather (Finger Lakes), Pacific Rim, and the Chateau Ste. Michelle/Loosen Eroica, which I’m embarrassed to say I had never tried before. I also had the opportunity to talk with and card Barry O’Brien (CEO of Select Fine Wine Imports and O’Brien vineyard owner, who wasn’t pouring his own wine for some reason), Chip Davis (Michigan manager for Chateau Ste Michelle) and Nicholas Quillé, chief winemaker for Vinmotion Wines (Pacific Rim among others).
The wines were international, but the crowd was less so. Stuart Pigott is an Englishman who lives in Berlin and spends a lot of time in the U.S., so he’s pretty international in and of himself. The only German whose presence I was aware of was Dominik Sona of Koehler-Ruprecht in the Pfalz, who participated in the Salon Riesling sessions. It seemed strange to have such a low number of Germans at an international Riesling event. North America was very well represented with Quillé and Chris Williams of Brooks Winery in Oregon (easy to spot because of his infamous “If you don’t like Riesling you’re a fucking idiot” t-shirt) and a number of others from the U.S. and Canada, including the strong Michigan contingent. Speaking of that contingent, we ran into Courtney and Shannon from Michigan by the bottle and had a short conversation. They informed me that that had already found a replacement for Gill’s Pier in their Royal Oak line up, but it’s staying under wraps for now. I’ll admit that I’m privately rooting for a couple of my favorites, but it’s hard to go wrong with any winery from one of Michigan’s AVAs.
Unfortunately, the industry people did not do much of socializing with non-industry people who were present. Nametags were issued to attendees in the trade but not everyone wore theirs and they often became turned around so that the person’s name was no longer visable. Some people were easy to spot, like co-organizer Sean O’Keefe with his long flowing locks or Pigott with his flamboyant attire and tall, thin frame, but I had trouble picking anyone else out. I didn’t have a nametag myself because I went ahead and bought tickets for our group before I knew that I could get a trade ticket. Not that I ever had the urge to shout “Don’t you know who I am?!” but I had hoped to connect with more industry people and a nametag might have helped break the ice with a few of them.Not to say the night was a disappointment, not at all. It was a lot of fun and more than worth the price of admition.
The crowd started to thin out after eight o’clock, so it became easier to move around and ask the sommeliers questions about what they were pouring. Some of them stopped paying attention to tickets (I don’t think Triffon ever did) at a certain point so we all ended up getting more than thirteen pours. Around that time a few of the sommeliers ordered a pizza for themselves and passed it around. Someone broke out some red wine, too. It was very conspicuous. The red wine blazed out of the glass like lighthouse beacon in a sea of Riesling or a tongue of fire floating waist high bouncing here and there all over the patio, as if it were independent of any hand. Anyhow, The Night of 100 Rieslings was a great time. I learned a lot and had fun. If you can make it to the next one, I highly recommend it. We didn’t take any pictures that night, but Courtney and Shannon did. Their pictures can be found in their Instagram account here: https://instagram.com/michbythebottle There are also some great ones on the City of Riesling Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/cityofriesling
After the event we walked back to the hotel to get a snack. Unfortunately we had to order a pizza because the hotel bar’s kitchen had already closed. We ate our snack, watched some dumb TV and went to sleep.
We all got up fairly early and walked to what was basically a French themed Panera Bread. We had a nice meal there, then split up. Amy and Pete went to the beach and Liz and I went back to the hotel. She showered and got herself put together while I recorded some audio notes. I’m at my most rambling when I’m talking to myself so I quickly lost track of time and left the hotel five or ten minutes after I had intended to. I rushed over as quickly as my rheumatic joints could carry me. I arrived two or three minutes before the first session was supposed to start but luckily, it hadn’t started yet. As Amy later reminded me, Traverse City is on “Up North Time”. Glasses were still being distributed and attendees were still drifting in. Feeling a bit like a kid on the first day of school (I get weirdly anxious at things like this), I looked for people whose faces I recognized and found Courtney and Shannon, who graciously let me sit next to them. Our “Michigan bloggers’ row” was up front and stage left and we were joined in our row by master sommelier Claudia Tyagi (formerly of the Marais restaurant in Grosse Pointe) and occasionally Madeline Triffon. Pigott was behind me and Karel Bush of the Michigan Wine Council was somewhere behind me too. Very good company!
The first session was on Rieslings of the Great Lakes and was moderated by Madeline. The panel was Angelo Pavan (Cave Spring Cellars, Ontario), Meaghan Frank (Dr. Frank, Finger Lakes), Brian Ulbrich (Left Foot Charley, Old Mission), Adam Satchwell (Shady Lane, Leelanau) and Bruce Murray (Boundary Breaks, Finger Lakes). We tasted ten Rieslings from around the Great Lakes, starting with three from Niagara, three from Northern Michigan, and three from the Finger Lakes. They were all excellent. The biggest surprise to me was the outstanding 2012 Charles Baker Riesling made at Stratus Winery in the Niagara Escarpment region. It was truly outstanding and yet another reason to make a booze run to Ontario in the near future.
More of an informational panel than a discussion, the winemakers discussed what their regions had in common with one another and what made them unique. Overall, what they all have in common (even the Finger Lakes) is the lake effect, which makes them essentially a “continental maritime” climate. In a normal growing season, the lake is the winemaker’s friend. It insulates the vineyard and lengthens the growing season on both ends. It moderates the continental extremes that winemakers in northeastern North American have to deal with. On the other hand, a frozen lake is lake effect gone bad. It sucks all the heat out of the surrounding areas and drags temperatures down which can damage or even kill vines. The glaciers that formed the Great (and Finger) Lakes also dumped a lot of “glacial garbage” around them, making for widely varied soil types, in turn making for interesting wines, particularly with varieties like Riesling.
The first session ended late so co-organizer Amanda Danielson and her hard-working assistants had to rush to get everything set up for the second session so that the schedule wouldn’t be thrown off any more than it already was. I exited the room to give them more room to work. I went to the hallway to fiddle with my phone and ran into Sean O’Keefe and Stuart Pigott. I introduced myself and we managed to have exchange a few sentences before going back to the session room.
The second session was entitled “I Say ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, You Say ‘How About Dry Riesling?’: Propelling Dry Riesling to the level of ubiquity Sauvignon Blanc enjoys among consumers.” The question was a fairly simple one. How can dry Riesling become as popular as Sauvignon Blanc? The answer is not so simple. The moderator for this one was Barry O’Brien. The panelists were Eduard Seitan (One Off Hospitality, Chicago), Eric Crane (Empire Distributors, Atlanta), Mick DeCamps (Red Wagon Wine Shoppes, Metro Detroit), Lee Lutes (Black Star Farms) and Angelo Pavan (Cave Spring Cellars, Niagara).
Twelve wines were poured for this session. The first was Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, the most popular and easiest to find New Zealand Sauv Blanc in the U.S. Then followed dry Rieslings from Germany, Washington, the Finger Lakes, Old Mission, New Zealand and Australia. Another Sauvignon Blanc, Frog’s Leap from Napa, hopped into the lineup at number eight and was followed by some largely very dry dry Rieslings from New Zealand, Austria and Alsace. The last one was an oddball Riesling from Napa. We’ll get back to that one later.
The discussion was a very lively one. The moderator began by asking the panelists to describe the differences between Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. The descriptions ran the gamut and were contradictory at points. Sauv Blanc was described as aggressive, loud, banal, “quenchy”, chuggable, expected and seafood friendly. Riesling was described as complex, contemplative, mercurial, scary, not chuggable, and undiscovered. One panelist described Sauvignon Blanc as cleats and Riesling as figure skates. I’m still trying to figure out what he meant by that.
After the initial more or less trashing of Sauvignon Blanc (Loire Valley Sauv Blanc was explicitly excluded from said trashing), the discussion moved to consumer impressions of Riesling. The consensus was that many consumers perceive Riesling as sweet and they don’t think they like sweet wines. This point of view is prevalent among restaurant servers, too, the sommeliers said. One panelist said that he has even heard it from local tasting room employees as they were pouring for visitors! This perception is wrong in a couple of ways. First, as my dear readers know, Riesling can be made in a wide variety of styles. Second, and this was new to me, consumers say they don’t like sweet wines but their buying habits often tell another story. Many of the top selling white wines in the U.S. actually have high levels of residual sugar. It’s just that consumers don’t taste the sweetness in them. This could be to Riesling’s advantage, some of the panelists thought, because Riesling’s acidity has the ability to mask the sort of sweetness that consumers think they don’t like. The role that distributors play in influencing restaurant wine lists and the weird phenomenon of people looking down on wine from their own state were also discussed. As Sean O’Keefe has frequently said, Chicago is a much better market for Michigan wine than Detroit.
So how does one overcome this bias? By educating consumers. How does one do that? By educating those who touch the consumer. No, not anti-sexual harassment training, although the panelists would no doubt agree that’s important. What they meant was educating servers and store employees so that they can educate consumers. Sell dry Riesling by the glass. Put Rieslings on special or put them near the front of the wine list. In some cases simply including more than one on the list would be a giant leap! There was no discussion of the role that social media can play in this education process. Of course, I could have raised the issue myself but by the time the conversation started getting close to that, we were already running over and we still had a few wines to go.
I did get a word in eventually. After tasting a bone dry 2013 Domaine Wachau (Austria) and the very dry and very good Domaine Weinbach Personal Reserve (Alsace) we tasted a Riesling made by an old family winery in the Spring Mountain area of Napa. I thought it tasted like those awful buttered popcorn jelly beans that used to come in the Jelly Belly variety packs. Barry had us taste it and asked what we thought. There were a few seconds of silence then I piped up. “I thought it was awful. Didn’t like it at all,” then I gave my jelly bean note. Eric Crane got a quizzical look on his face and said something like “That’s surprising” and sniffed the wine a couple times. Brian Ulbrich piped up and told a story about a great experience he had working at that winery and others mentioned how great the family was and how great it was that they gave prime Napa vineyard space to Riesling. Karel then said that stories like those are the ones we need to tell to consumers to change perceptions. None of them said anything about how the wine actually tasted, though. The standout wines (in a good way) from that session were the Ravines Dry Riesling (Finger Lakes), O’Brien Vineyards and Domaine Weinbach, although I thought all the Rieslings except for the Californian were very good. The Frog’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t even half bad.
The session was then ended (Barry looked in my direction and grinned as if about to chuckle as he got up). It was around 1 pm already and my group had already eaten, but the kind folks at the Franklin allowed them to get me a pork sandwich to go (which was really good). The trip back was quick and painless. My wife and I carried back 16 bottles of wine, of which five were Rieslings.
As a whole, the weekend was a blast. Our winery visits went smoothly with no problems beyond the occasional wrong turn on a winding road. There wasn’t even much in the way of bickering in the car, which is a minor miracle given how much time we spent in the car and what I grouch I can be sometimes. Even when we didn’t like the wines somewhere, our service was great. The highlight of the winery visits was the tour and tasting at Bower’s Harbor. It was a really wonderful educational experience. Talking with a winegrower (as he called himself) in the vineyard and watching him pull off laterals and discuss viticulture in front of actual vines is as good as it gets. The talks I had with Charlie Edson at Bel Lago and Paul Hamelin at Verterra were very illuminating. The official City of Riesling events were great too. Event creators Amanda Danielson (of Trattoria Stella), Sean O’Keefe and Stuart Pigott have a lot to be proud of. The wine selection was excellent all weekend and while Michigan Riesling was well represented, the wines were truly global.
Events like this are exactly what Michigan Riesling, and Michighan wines in general, need. In order for Michigan wines to achieve global respectability, they need to be presented in a global context. We Michigan wine lovers know that Michigan Riesling (and Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Lemburger, Cab Franc and maybe soon Pinot Noir) can hold its own against any other Riesling of comparable style anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t know this yet. It’s always a great thing when Jancis Robinson or another famous wine person writes up a Michigan Riesling but we here in Michigan need to be contextualizing our own wines instead of waiting for others to do it for us. The City of Riesling, in both of its official aspects, did a great job of that.
We in Michigan also need to realize that we are in the same boat with New York, Ontario and other winemakers in this part of North America. Our climates are similar and the challenges we face are similar. I saw a lot of Northeastern wine collegiality that weekend. Not just in the first Salon Riesling session where one might expect it but in the second and the Night of 100 Rieslings. If Michigan Riesling is to take a place on the world stage, both contextualization and extended camaraderie need to happen and City of Riesling did an excellent job of promoting both.
Like any event in its second year, there was room for improvement. All of the problems I noticed were ones that will most likely work themselves out as the event gets bigger and better known. The sessions I attended were very heavy on sommeliers and wine business people and light on consumers and people from other aspects of the wine world. This was not so much the case on the panels themselves, which were perfectly in tune with the subject matters being addressed, but in the audience in general. The perspectives of the people whose jobs are to sell wine are very important and a vital part of any well rounded discussion like those in the Salon Riesling sessions but more perspectives are needed. As I mentioned above, the Sauv Blanc vs Riesling discussion focused a lot on the point of sale in restaurants and very little on the role of media (social or otherwise). There was a lot of guessing and reference to research on consumer behavior but no opinions from consumers themselves. I’m not sure how to remedy that, but better communication with potential attendees about the event might be a place to start. Maybe a Salon Riesling panel on Riesling in social media might be interesting, too.
The biggest area for improvement was communication prior to the event, as I touched on in the paragraph above. The website wasn’t updated until a few weeks before the event and even then it was hard for me to figure out how to buy tickets to the Salon Riesling sessions. Facebook posts were pretty regular starting in June, but unfortunately they got buried in my feed. On Twitter, where there is an extensive wine community, posts were few and far between. I don’t remember anything in local print or broadcast media about the event, either. Maybe more was done in the northern part of the state or Chicago but nothing in metro Detroit that I was aware of. Amanda and Sean both have day jobs with lots of responsibilities and Stuart is a very busy man so they probably didn’t have the time or budget to engage the media as much as they would have liked to. Engaging a volunteer to handle social media might help communication for next year, as would an increased budget for radio commercials or promoted social media posts. Hopefully as the festival continues to gain traction in its third year, a bigger budget for media engagement will follow.
The Night of 100 Rieslings was a great success, I thought. My (minor) critiques of it are outlined above. Something as simple as double sided name tags could help improve socializing and as the event becomes better known, the number of international attendees will likely increase. Having the music at a lower decibel level or having longer breaks between sets of songs might have made chatting easier too.
City of Riesling was a lot of fun and it is a very good thing for the wine world, and for Michigan wine in particular! The organizers should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished with this event. I am eagerly looking forward to next year. City of Riesling is highly recommended!
The next morning we promptly checked out (as promptly as we could anyway) and headed for TC. We found a wonderful French themed place called Patisserie Amie and ate breakfast there. I’m not sure how authentic it was, but it was delicious. Amy and I got a house made sausage patty on a bed of sautéed spinach, topped with a poached egg and covered in pork gravy. Pete got a riff on eggs benedict that swapped out the Canadian bacon for a bone in pork chop. Liz got a much more sensible wild mushroom scramble. Ridiculous amount of food but we thought of it as an early brunch.
In planning our Old Mission Peninsula visit, we took two factors into account. The first was what time the tasting room opened and the second was how recently we had visited it. Favorites like 2 Lads, Chateau Grand Traverse and Black Star Farms were skipped in favor of ones we hadn’t been to in years: Peninsula, Brys, Bower’s Harbor and relative newcomer Hawthorne.
Peninsula Cellars was our first stop. As we drove from TC up the peninsula, we passed a large construction site on the left, building a very large, European looking building. We later learned that it is to be the winery and tasting room for Mari Vineyards, the newest comer to Old Mission. Their winemaker is City of Riesling co-organizer Sean O’Keefe, formerly of Chateau Grand Traverse, and they’re doing a lot of things that other Northern Michigan wineries are not. They’re having a cave dug on the property for barrel aging and using hoop house technology to extend the growing season and make it possible to grow exotic (for Michigan) grapes like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Syrah and Malbec. Sean has stated that he will be growing Riesling there too. He is an O’Keefe after all. It will be interesting to see how that all pans out.
Anyhow, to Peninsula! Peninsula’s tasting room is one of the coolest on Old Mission. It’s a converted one room schoolhouse built in the 1890s and used through the 1950s. Don’t let the cheesy-label table wines (which are themselves good) give you the wrong impression. Peninsula makes seriously good Riesling and Gewürztraminer, some of the best on OMP. They’re also producing apple cider now. I tasted the apple wine (the difference between apple cider and wine is the higher ABV for the latter) at the tasting room and it was quite good. I also enjoyed the Mélange fortified cherry wine. The biggest surprise was the impressive 2012 Hog’s Back Vineyard Merlot/Cab Franc. We got a bottle and plan on letting it sleep in our cellar for another three or more years. We also picked up a bottle of Manigold Vineyard Gewürztraminer, a perennial favorite.
Hawthorne was another early opener, so we headed over there after Peninsula. I had chatted with Hawthorne’s founder Brian and tasting room manager Jan at the Michigan Wine Showcase back in April and I was interested in getting another chance to taste their wines. Neither of them were there when we tasted but we did get good service from Nan. The beautiful modern tasting room is up on a hill and has a great view of their vineyards and both sides of Grand Traverse Bay. It also has a beautiful outdoor seating area with a fireplace and a patio that makes a great picture taking point. I liked their 2012 Pinot Grigio (on sale to make room for the 2013) and barrel aged Chardonnay which was oaked but balanced. They did charge for tastings, like almost of them did, but the tastings pay for themselves if bottles are purchased.
Brys (rhymes with eyes) Estate was next. I thought I hadn’t been there before, but as soon as we entered the tasting room I realized that I had. The tasting room had a very upscale feel and was run very effeciently. Shortly after we arrived two party busses pulled up and emptied their cargo of party people into the tasting room. Things got pretty loud but we still got good service. When we mentioned that we were headed to Bower’s Harbor next, our server mentioned that she knew a “gentleman” who worked there, although she hadn’t talked to him in a week. We should ask for him and say hi, she said.
The tasting scheme at Brys is unusual. One can purchase 4 tastings for $5 or 6 for $7. Wines in the reserve section count as 2 tastings though. Liz and I shared a 6 wine tasting, using two of those to try the 2012 Cabernet Franc. It was wonderful so we bought a bottle. It was also $50 so that was the only bottle we bought at that stop. Most of the wines there were good, the rosé being the other standout. They also had two wines available for tasting from their newly revived line of table wines under the Wally’s label. I didn’t taste either of those but they did have cocktails made using them at the upper deck tasting bar available for free tastings. I tried them both and they were refreshing. The highlight of the upper deck is the “Walk Above the Vines” that juts out above the plot of Chardonnay vines that runs along the tasting room. Yes, it sounds a little corny but it’s a cool feeling, like being a vineyard ghost hovering just above the vines. Makes for a nice photo op too.
Bower’s Harbor was our last stop that day. We had scheduled a special tasting and tour that was being offered in honor of City of Riesling weekend. Our guide was Tom Petzold, longtime employee of Bower’s
Harbor and candidate for Most Interesting Man in the World (see his bio in the box on this page: http://www.bowersharbor.com/estate). He started us off with two sparkling wines, both made in the traditional method, a blanc de blancs and a pinot noir rosé. Our party was split as to which was their favorite (I liked the white one the best), but everyone thought both were good.
We then got a tour of some of BH’s vineyards, including the famous Block II, while sipping chilled Riesling that Tom would occasionally whip out of a cooler he had slung over his shoulder. All three of the wines we sampled in the vineyard were wonderful, but I don’t remember what they were, unfortunately. We started out in a section of Chardonnay, but quickly moved on to Riesling and wrapped up with a largely untended section of Pinot Noir. I’ve read about many viticultural topics like the stages of bud and grape development, vine pruning and training, rootstocks and so on, but my eyes always started to glaze over after a couple minutes. Hearing Tom talk about these topics and techniques in the vineyard itself, and in some cases watching him actually do it, really made the subject come alive and I was about to understand how it all worked in a much clearer way. Tom knows what he’s talking about and has a knack for answering questions in a clear, direct way.
One of the questions I asked was about the 2014 vintage, which led into a discussion about recent vintages. Tom said that, in Northern Michigan, 2011 & 2013 were Riesling years, 2012 was a red year and 2014 was a “nothing year.” That pretty much sums it up. He backed that up with some shocking stats from BHV and his personal vineyard. Harvest was down to 40-25% of average yields and vine loss was high. Overall, Tom (and other OMP producers) seemed slightly more optimistic about the 2015 vintage than those on Leelanau. Like every winery on the two peninsulas, Bower’s Harbor will be using Washington grapes to fill in the gaps in its supply left by the Arctic Vortex. Normally they would look to New York for grapes after a harsh winter, but New York got hit as hard as Michigan did, he said. Tom said that the tasting room employees have been instructed to not mention the out of state grapes unless they were asked. If they are asked, they should answer honestly, of course, but not dwell on it. Tom said that he talks about it anyway.
The tour finished up with a vertical tasting (literally) of BHV semi-sweet (purple label) Riesling from three different years, 2007, 2011 and 2013. The purple label was originally called semi-dry (the 2007 bottle still had that on the label) but Tom said he convinced them to change the name to semi-sweet since that was a more accurate descriptor. The 2007 was an outlier in another respect. It was made using grapes from two different vineyards while the other two were made using grapes from those same two vineyards plus another (the same other). As one might expect, the 2007 was over the hill and rolling down it. It still drank ok, though. The 2011 was very good with a good balance of sweetness, fruit and acid. The 2013 was young and acidic, but just as good as the 2011 and will probably be even better in a year or so. The experience was great and worth every penny of the $25 we paid per person (I was given a complementary ticket as a media attendee of City of Riesling). The tour also included a 10% discount on Rieslings. We bought a 2013 Block II and a 2013 Semi-sweet.
As a final note, dogs have been a part of BHV for a long time. Golden lab Otis was the original winery dog, followed by Cooper, a laid back Bernese mountain dog who warmly greeted tasting room visitors for many years. Cooper’s successor was Brix, also a Bernese. All three have their own BHV wines. When we asked about the absence of a dog at the tasting room Tom told us that Brix had gone to a better place, the lake (permanently?). According to Tom, Brix didn’t share Cooper’s easy going personality and that the health department was not big on the idea of a dog wandering around the tasting room. One final note, Liz was able find the “gentleman” our Brys server mentioned. Liz told him that she had told us to ask for him and that she hadn’t talked to him in a week. He rolled his eyes and said, “That sounds like her.” So there’s the canine and Old Mission singles’ scene updates.
After all that walking and drinking, we were in need of a snack, so after we cashed out, we found ourselves another boat launch on Bower’s Harbor (the harbor) that had a tiny sandy beach. We sat down and had some mild raclette and crackers, paired with tiny bags of nacho cheese Doritos and water. Amy and I had a nice wade in the cool, clear water while watching people put their boats in and out of the water. The disadvantages of owning a boat but not having lakefront property were discussed. Then we drove back to Traverse City, enjoying the beautiful views of the bay along the way.
We checked into the Park Place Hotel in downtown Traverse City around four. It was pricy but the proximity to the events of Sunday and Monday made it worth the money and it helped the budget that the MCM Grand was so cheap. It is a tall, clean, modern hotel that has a wonderful view and a nice bar and restaurant on the first floor. My wife and I didn’t make it to the pool but Pete and Amy gave it high marks. It’s also within walking distance of the beach at Clinch Park.
I hadn’t spent much time in downtown Traverse City before then. It was a pleasant surprise. Other Northern Michigan “cities” I’ve been to like Charlevoix, Petoskey, and Boyne City were fine, but had a very small town feel to them. Cutesy shops (the same ones usually) and small buildings are the rule. Downtown Traverse City felt like an actual city. Its permanent population is small (15,000 or so) but the downtown has an urban feel. Not Detroit, Chicago or New York urban, but Louisville Urban. Relatively small downtown with big buildings, good bars and restaurants and real retail shops and cultural attractions, as opposed to the trinket shops and tourist traps of cities like Charlevoix.
Next episode- Part 3-The Night of 100 Rieslings and Salon Riesling!
I was lucky enough to be able to attend this year’s City of Riesling event (festival? gathering?) in Traverse City, Michigan this year. The official dates were July 26 and 27, but since those were a Sunday and a Monday, we decided to make a weekend of it. We in this case being my wife Liz, our friends Amy and Pete, and myself of course. I’m probably the biggest Riesling fan in the group but we’re all wine lovers, so it didn’t take much convincing to get them to accompany me up north that weekend. Traverse City in July is an easy sell on its own.
This was the second City of Riesling event. I was unable to attend last year’s due to a glitch in the date of my twentieth high school reunion. It’s a long, dull story that doesn’t need to be told here. Anyhow, City of Riesling is intended to be a celebration of all styles of the wine from all around the world. I tasted Rieslings from eight different countries and six U.S. different states at official events over the weekend. I tasted ones as old as the 1994 vintage (the year I graduated high school), as young as 2014 and in every possible style of Riesling, of which there are many. That’s what makes this such a special grape. Not only is it a “noble” grape that thrives in cool, relatively high latitude climates but it can be made in a style anywhere from bone dry to dessert.
There were two official parts to the City of Riesling. First was Sunday night’s Night of 100 Rieslings, a party with music, food and literally one hundred Rieslings on pour from certified professional sommeliers. The second part was Salon Riesling, four seminars/symposia on Riesling related topics featuring panels made up of sommeliers, industry insiders, winemakers and writers (well, at least one writer). Between the second and third session was a rare Riesling luncheon featuring a vertical tasting of nine Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Auslese vintages (1983, 1990, 1999, 2001-2007) from wine writer Stuart Pigott’s private collection. I was only able to attend the first two sessions due to the work schedules of my fellow travelers. I was unable to attend the rare Riesling luncheon due to the tickets being $250 per person.
Since we were making a weekend of it, we decided to get some tasting room visits in while we were in the neighborhood. We drove directly up to Leelanau Peninsula on Saturday and then that evening we drove back to the closest reasonably prices hotel room we could find for that night, which was forty minutes or so from Traverse City. We stayed there that night, then we drove to Old Mission Peninsula and tooled around there until check in time at our hotel in downtown Traverse City. The Night of a Hundred Rieslings began at 6 that night near the beach in Clinch Park, and the first Salon Riesling session began the next morning at 10 am (or at least was scheduled to) at the Franklin restaurant. Our intention was to eat lunch at the Franklin after I got out of the second session, and hit the road directly.
We left Royal Oak about 8:30 am. Instead of taking I-75 N for most of the way as we usually do, we decided to exit near Midland and take an angled route, a combination of U.S. 10 and M 115, to Leelanau. We overshot it, though and ended up in Thompsonville for lunch. I’m glad we did because we ended up stopping at Rosie’s Country Café. It was just what a person wants in a place like that. It was clean, service was efficient, menu was full of rib-sticking selections (breakfast served all day of course), and nobody got sick afterwards. My fellow travelers got sandwiches, which they said were ok, and I got ham hash and eggs. Few restaurants will serve a ham hash, so I usually get it when I can. America needs more ham hash.
After filling our bellies, we backtracked to the road we needed and made our way along the winding backroads to Bel Lago Vineyards & Winery. I had wanted to go to Bel Lago first because it’s not near any other wineries and it’s a little tricky to get to from TC, the gateway to Leelanau for most travelers. It takes its name (Italian for beautiful lake) from the beautiful view of Lake Leelanau from outside the tasting room.
We tasted some excellent wines there. The tasting was complimentary, a rare luxury in Leelanau these days. They are well known for their Auxerrois (a grape rarely grown outside of France), their superb cherry wine (the gold standard for Michigan), and of course Riesling. They were also pouring a new 2014 rosé that was delicious. We bought a bottle of that, one of the Auxerrois, and the cherry wine (my new favorite cherry wine).
There’s good reason why Bel Lago’s cherry wine is so good. They practically invented it. Prof. Amy Iezzoni (of Michigan State University), did, that is. In days of yore, cherry wine in Northern Michigan and everywhere else was made exclusively from a sour variety called Montmorency. Amy made it her mission to break the sour cherry monoculture in the U.S. to improve the quality of the crop overall. While in Hungary, where cherries are a really big deal apparently, she discovered a semi-sweet variety perfect for making cherry wine. The only problem with this cherry was the name: Ujfehértói Fürtös. Amy realized this so she got approval to allow it to be grown under the name Balaton, after Hungary’s largest lake. Then she fell in love with a winemaker. Literally. She married Charlie Edson of Bel Lago in what has to be the ultimate act of synergy (see Chris Kassel, Heart and Soil: Northern Michigan Wine Country (2014) 52-58).
Charlie was in the tasting room that day. I introduced myself to him, and we had a nice talk. He told me a story about City of Riesling. Last year, Bel Lago was a sponsor of the event and they were excited about being involved. This year it slipped his mind and he only learned when the deadline for wine submissions was after it had already passed. By that time, he said, it was too far gone to get anything together so he didn’t try. That’s why there was no Bel Lago among the 100 Rieslings on Sunday night.
Our next stop was at Verterra. Unlike most tasting rooms in Leelanau, Verterra’s is not at the site of their vineyards. It’s in central Leland, a hamlet on the west coast of the peninsula. Leland is noteworthy for being the place to catch ferries to the Manitou Islands (a part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore) and being home to the charming Fishtown historic area. Fishtown is a combination of cheesy tourist shops and working docks. Commercial fishing boats, charters and the aforementioned ferries still use the area and its collection of weather-beaten early twentieth century buildings. It’s worth a stroll through on a sunny summer afternoon. We strolled through after our visit to Verterra.
Verterra is a short walk from Fishtown for a good reason. To catch tourists, as proprietor Paul Hamelin openly admits. Winemaking is an art and a science, but it’s also a business. What better way to introduce new customers to his wine than to go where the customers are and make his wine a part of the Leelanau tourist experience? Customers reluctant to drink because of concerns about drinking and driving may also feel better about using their feet to get a tasting room.
Verterra charged for their tastings as most did, but the tasting was comped if two or more bottles were purchased. That seems like a sensible way to do it, if one is going to charge, but not everybody seems to agree with me. The wines I enjoyed there the most were the two different styles of Gewurztraminer (medium sweet and dry), Chaos Sparkler and the 2012 Dry Riesling. I also tasted a 2014 unoaked Chardonnay and a 2014 Sweet Riesling and found them enjoyable. They both had “American” on the label instead of Michigan or Leelanau.
I had a conversation with Paul about his plans for the future including the release of a traditional method blanc de noirs sparkling wine next year followed by another release of the same batch in 2017 and his plans for an event facility at the vineyard. I asked about the American Chard and Riesling and that opened up a conversation about the 2014 vintage. Those wines were made with half Washington State grapes and half grapes from Verterra’s own vineyards. The Polar Vortex winter did such damage to his vineyards that there weren’t enough grapes at the end of the season to maintain those labels on Verterra or Michigan grapes alone. Paul thinks 2015 is going to be just as bad.
Forty-Five North, one of my favorite Michigan wineries, was our next stop. As we exited the car, we noticed a huge bus was rolling up into the parking lot that very moment. Fearing a busload of bridesmaids or who knows what was about to overrun the tasting room, we ran to the tasting room and grabbed seats at the bar immediately. No drunken hoards descended on the room, but a group did seat themselves in the outside sitting area. As they did that a fairly tall middle-aged woman with poofy reddish hair walked into the tasting room and into the ladies room. She looked familiar but I couldn’t quite place her. When she walked out again, I realized it was the senior senator from Michigan, the Honorable Debbie Stabenow. She was holding some sort of meeting or town hall with a group of women on the patio. We couldn’t quite tell what was going on, but whatever it was, it was a relaxed affair.
The tasting room at Forty-Five North is decorated in an intentionally quirky rustic style. The high ceiling gives it a nice sense of space and the bar is very nice. There are purse hooks under the bar too, a big plus for 50% of our party. Forty-Five has long been a favorite of mine but I was not impressed with much of anything on the menu. Most of it was 2014 American (likely Washington) whites. I had the American Chenin Blanc which was fine but nothing special. The one that stood out to me was the peach crémant. It was a sweet fruit flavored wine, of course, but wasn’t a bad for what it was. We bought one.
They also had two apple ciders on tap (literally). One was a natural cider made with only wild yeast. It was interesting in concept but ultimately flat. The other was a citra hop infused cider that smelled like apple armpits, or well-aged sweat socks. I can’t stand the smell of citra hops though so your mileage may vary, but good on them for trying something different with their ciders, which are apparently obligatory for Northern Michigan wineries now. Most of the others I’ve had have been dull, and Forty-Five North’s were not that.
After the disappointing time at Forty-Five North, I was feeling kind of sad. We hadn’t planned on visiting another winery that day but we had some time so we went ahead and backtracked a little to Aurora. Wow, am I glad we did! Aurora Cellars was fantastic.
Aurora’s beautiful tasting room opened up just this year. The dark wood bar looked to be made from reclaimed wood and there was a big mirror at the back making it feel like an actual bar. Wines were sold by the glass too, so if one wants to have a glass of wine, it’s not necessary to chug a spit bucket á la Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways. They didn’t have a spit bucket, anyway.
I was impressed with just about everything on the menu. There was one wine I didn’t care for, but it wasn’t bad, just dull. We started off with the two sparklers and Blanc de noirs and a brut, respectively. I preferred the creaminess of the Blanc but my friends preferred the noir. Both were excellent though. I loved the Gewurztraminer. It was exquisitely balanced. The semi-sweet Riesling was excellent too, so much so that we bought two bottles of it.
The service was great, even with the drunken bachelorette party arriving shortly after we did. They weren’t awful, they were just a drunken bachelorette party. In fact, as I walked out I noticed that I got charged $7 for a bottle of wine I bought when it should have been much more. I attracted my server’s attention. “Is this the right price of for this one?” “It is today!” she responded and then ran back over to the bachelorettes.
We didn’t have time to stop at any more wineries, but we wanted to be sure to stop in at one place in
particular before we left the peninsula: Leelanau Cheese. What kind of cheese does Leelanau Cheese make? They make both kinds, mild raclette and aged raclette. For those who don’t know raclette is a cow’s milk cheese traditionally made in the French speaking areas of Switzerland. It’s similar to Swiss or gruyere but more pungent and is best known as the basis of a traditional melted cheese dish by the same name originating in Valais. It is traditionally paired with Fendant (Chasselas) wine but does just as well with Pinot Gris or Riesling, making its appearance in Northern Michigan slightly less surprising. Samples of the mild raclette are available at the shop/factory. Versions with rosemary, green peppercorns and other herbs and spices, as well as the aged version are all available at the store along with estate grown lavender and t-shirts reading “In queso emergency, pray to Cheesus” among other delights. We were a little concerned about refrigeration, but the charming family member working in the shop at the time said it was not necessary.
For dinner, we went to a local gastropub. It had great atmosphere and a large outdoor seating area, but not much else to recommend it. Except the coleslaw. It was fantastic. I should have just ordered a bucket of that and forgotten about everything else. After the meal, Amy wanted to go dip her toes in a lake. We found a boat launch and waded in West Grand Traverse Bay for a few minutes, then headed back to our home for the night, Mesick, Michigan’s Mushroom Cap Motel or as Pete dubbed it, the MCM Grand.
The MCM Grand gets its name from the annual mushroom festival held annually in early May (morel season). Our check in took a while, due to the loquacious proprietors, but otherwise service was solid. The outside was well landscaped with a few large, phallic looking carved wooden morels placed around the grounds. The motel was clean and neat, but as I walked in the door, a cabbage aroma that reminded me of my late grandmother’s apartment building greeted me. The decorating style was rustic with plywood paneling in the room (some of it printed with dune scenes) and pictures of game animals above the beds. Pete and Amy slept under deer and Liz and I under turkeys. The look was rounded out with an antler chandelier in the lounge on the second floor. The place was quiet, except for the loud A/C unit, and we all slept well that night. Next episode, Old Mission and Traverse City!