City of Riesling Weekend, Part 2- Old Mission Peninsula and Traverse City

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My wife Liz enjoying her sensible scramble.

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.

wpid-20150726_105843.jpgAnyhow, 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 wpid-20150726_113308.jpgHawthorne’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.

Hawthorne Vineyards overlooking the bay.
Hawthorne Vineyards overlooking the bay.

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.

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The Walk Above the Vines

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.

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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

Entrance to Bower's Harbor tasting room
Entrance to Bower’s Harbor tasting room

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.

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The bottles from the vertical.
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Pete at the literal vertical tasting. 2007 at the top, 2013 at the bottom.

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!

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