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!