Maker: Hawthorne Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Style: Oak aged Chardonnay (17 months in oak).
Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Price: $22 (winery)
Appearance: Bright straw.
Nose: Brown roux, lemon thyme, oak.
Palate:Mandarin orange, bitter oak.
Finish: Strong oak with a bit of tartness and sweetness.
Parting words: This is a pretty good buttery, oaky Chardonnay. I was a big fan of it at the winery but for whatever reason (probably the state of my palate), it’s not thrilling me currently. Nothing remotely objectionable here, though. It’s not complex but it does serve up pleasant citrus, butter and oak flavors. The oak is strong but some people like that sort of thing (even I do sometimes). If you’re a fan of big Cali Chards, you will also enjoy 2013 Hawthorne Barrel Reserve Chardonnay. It is recommended.
Maker: Buffalo Trace. Frankfort, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)
Style: High corn bourbon.
Proof: 88.9 (44.45% ABV)
Michigan state minimum: $55
Appearance: Light auburn.
Nose: Alcohol, leather, corn syrup.
Palate: Full bodied. Alcohol, vanilla, creamed corn from the can.
Finish: Canned corn, alcohol. Fairly short.
Parting words: Hancock’s President’s Reserve was released in 1991 as a part of Ancient Age (now known as Buffalo Trace) distillery’s series of single barrel bourbons introduced by master distiller Gary Gayheart. That series also includes Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms and Blanton’s. All of them are made from what is now Buffalo Trace’s mashbill #2, also used for the lower shelf Ancient Age line. As far as I can tell, Hancock’s was created at that time, although Hancock and Hancock Club bourbons were produced in Cincinnati before prohibition.
I’ve never been able to figure out what Hancock’s Reserve was supposed to bring to the table. Blanton’s has big leathery oak, Rock Hill Farms is elegant and high proof and Elmer T. Lee has the best QPR of the four, or at least did until it started being hoarded by stooges. Hancock’s is more expensive than Elmer, rougher and lower proof than RHF and sappier than Blanton’s. At one time, it was often a good example of BT’s earthiness, but that time has passed. It tastes like it’s barely 5-6 years old now. I tasted it next to the current 36 m/o Ancient Age 10 star ($19), and it tasted better but not by much. It reminds me of what AA 10 star tasted like seven years ago. Best thing I can say for it is that the bottle is one of the best looking on the shelf.
Hancock’s is a sad illustration of how some brands have had to fall by the wayside as Buffalo Trace has struggled to keep up with high demand for its bourbon. Maybe it would be best just to kill this one all together. Hancock’s President’s Reserve is not recommended.
Maker: Chateau de Leelanau, Sutton’s Bay, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Leelanau Penninsula AVA, Michigan, USA
Production: 210 cases
Price: $24 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting room Sipper Club selection)
Appearance: Dark plum
Nose: Wild blackberries, toasted oak.
Palate: Raspberry juice, black cherry, crimini mushrooms, oak, smoke.
Finish: Blackberry jam, oak.
Parting words: I wrote off Chateau de Leelanau for dead years ago after visiting the place and being unimpressed with everything, except the cherry wine which rose to the level of mediocre. I reviewed the wine back then, and got an annoyed comment from “Matt” who rattled off a long list of awards and an “interesting reaction” comment from MBTB’s Courtney Casey. I stand by that review, but after hearing that they’ve changed ownership since then I decided to give them another chance at a review.
Holy cats, am I glad I did. This is a fantastic wine, easily one of the top five Michigan Cab Francs I’ve had, maybe the best one. It’s earthy, fruity, oaky, perfectly balanced and delicious. Only two things about this wine disappointed me. First, that I only had one bottle. Second, that I didn’t wait for another year or two to open it. It’s only gonna get better kids. CDL’s 2012 Cab Franc is an example of the best that vintage has to offer. This is one to seek out. Highly recommended.
Maker: Ballentine’s, Dumbarton, Dumbartonshire, Scotland, USA (Pernod-Ricard)
Age: 12 y/o
Michigan state minimum: $30
Appearance: Shiny caramel, thick, widely spread legs
Nose: Wood varnish, honey, vanilla buttercream, old oak.
Palate: Medium bodied and light in flavor. Butterscotch, salted caramel.
Finish: Werther’s Original candy, alcohol, grape soda, puff of smoke.
Parting words: This review was supposed to be a head to head with Ballentine’s Finest, the entry level NAS blend, but I lost my notes to that. As a friend said to me on Twitter, “Jesus saves and so should you.” True words, but MS should also make it so that autosaved versions of one document doesn’t pop up when you open a different document and give you the opportunity to delete the autosaved versions of the one document.
Anyhoo, not much was lost because there isn’t too much going on with Ballentine’s Finest. It’s inoffensive, but $25 should buy you more than that (though the mid-century style bottle is pretty cool). For $5 more, you can buy the 12 y/o Ballentine’s which is better. This is a Speyside-centered blend with sweet malt and sherry as the leading aromas with some oak and smoke thrown in to round it out. It’s mildly interesting and priced in the same neighborhood as its competition like Dewar’s. That whole neighborhood is overpriced, though. Get yourself a 1.75 liter bottle of Grant’s instead. Ballentine’s 12 y/o is mildly recommended.
Maker: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Michigan, USA
Price: $16/375 ml
Appearance: Dark, brassy pink.
Nose: Strawberry jam.
Palate: Full bodied. Strawberry pie filling.
Finish: Fruit salad with ripe in-season strawberries, as opposed to those pale, tasteless Florida or California ones you get in the fall or winter.
Parting words: Of all the summer berries, strawberries are probably my least favorite. Years of being forced to make due with crap, imported strawberries (see above) took their toll and I now view strawberries as the opening act to blueberries and cherries.This wine is changing my mind though. It captures the essence of strawberries at their very best in late May or early June, perfectly ripe and sweet, but not sticky or cloying. Perfect chilled on the patio after dinner on a humid summer evening.
The price is admittedly high for a fruit wine, but this and the raspberry dessert wine are Sandhill’s best in the dessert category. It’s limited edition so this year’s iteration may be sold out already, but if you can find it Sandhill Crane Strawberry wine is recommended.
Style: Apple cider with peach juice, ginger juice and sugar.
Price: $11/4 pack of pint cans (Binny’s)
Appearance: Bright gold.
Nose: Light ginger, golden apple, peach nectar.
Palate: Medium bodied, medium dry and well-integrated. Tart with a little tannin. Fresh cut peach and a pinch of ground ginger.
Finish: Much bigger peach in the finish. Dry, underripe peach. Lightly lingers.
Parting words: At the annual early June party my wife and I host, I went with an all Michigan theme. I wanted to make sure there was cider there since I like it and like variety. I also bought a six pack of Beard Bender dry cider from Blake’s. I assumed the Blake’s would go quicker, but Ginger Peach did. After tasting it, it’s easy to see why.
When making a fruit flavored cider it is critical that the cider base is of good quality. When it’s not the fruit element has to be increased to hide the flavor and the whole thing ends up being cloying and gross. The best flavored ciders, like this one, let the tannins and apple character come through while harmonizing with the flavorings. Ginger Peach goes well with food, too, especially grilled meats and South or Central Asian food. Ginger Peach is recommended.
Once a summer, our family has what we call Grandparent Camp. We send our daughter to Indianapolis for a week to spend time with the grandparents, all four of them. When we were thinking about what to do that week, returning to Lake Michigan Shore wine country was on the top of the list. The wrinkle was that we would have the baby with us, since he’s still too little for Grandparent Camp. As most parents can tell you, taking a baby along on trips is actually much easier than taking a toddler or an older child, though. The baby doesn’t complain about getting bored or knock over shelves or have temper tantrums. If the baby cries changing the diaper or feeding will usually do the trick.
Anyway, we wanted to visit some new places but also hit some old favorites in our limited two-night stay. On the way over, we stopped at Lawton Ridge in Kalamazoo for a tasty crepe supper and some wine tasting. The whites were good as was the service. Friendly, homey, neighborhood type place. The next day (Thursday) was our busy day. We started off with a visit to Fenn Valley in Fennville (north of the cluster of wineries around Baroda but worth the trip), got lunch at Crane’s Pie Pantry (good pie and cider but mediocre food otherwise) and then headed back south stopping at old favorites Domaine Berrien (great as always), neighboring Lemon Creek (cozy tasting room) and newbies Dablon with their beautiful hilltop tasting room.
I had wanted to do a “A Visit To…” profile on one of the LMS wineries and I thought Round
Barn would be the perfect choice. I had a nice conversation with winemaker Matt and then Brand Ambassador Bethany of Round Barn/Free Run Cellars at the Michigan Wine Showcase so I thought I’d send Bethany and email and ask if she’d be available to give us a tour for blogging purposes. A man named RJ replied that Bethany was no longer brand ambassador, but he was now and he’d be able to give us a tour. Unfortunately, he ended up having a conflict himself, and we got our tour from veteran tour guide Jessica.
Round Barn opened as a winery in 1992. It was founded by Rick Moersch, who was winemaker at nearby Tabor Hill at the time. He had owned vineyards since 1981, so he used them as the basis for his own winery which he named Heart of the Vineyard. In 1997 the round barn was purchased and moved from Rochester, Indiana to the property where it was reassembled by Amish builders. Rick intended it to serve as a home for a brandy distillery. In 2004 the winery was renamed after the remarkable building. The spirits and brewing program began then as well.
We arrived at Round Barn shortly after opening. The place has changed quite a bit since our first visit several years ago. When we last visited, the eponymous round barn was used for production and the tasting room was in the other barn. The round one has been beautifully remodeled and now serves as the tasting room. The bar runs in a circle around the interior with bottles on the wall opposite. The second level has another bar
and six compartments for small group tastings. The group tastings are a popular bachelorette party activity according to Jessica.
Our tasting was on ground level and went through the usual tasting procedure with a few add ons. The system has been in use since mid May. You can see the tasting menu and the format they use in the photo. The menu changes monthly. Nothing we tasted was bad, but the standouts were Vineyard Tears (dry Riesling/Pinot Gris/Chardonnay blend), Albariño (American, but estate grown grapes are in the mix), estate Merlot (we had a lot of Merlot on this trip!), Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (also estate). Farm Market Blueberry and the wine-based Black Walnut Crème were standouts in the dessert arena (also the name of my new gameshow). When I mentioned that I wanted to try the Farm Market Blueberry, Jessica and had a short discussion about fruit wines. We agreed that fruit wines are really their own category that shouldn’t be judged by the standards of wine grape wines.* As I put it, it would be silly to say that a Chardonnay was bad because it lacked hop character. It’s just as silly to dismiss fruit wines for tasting too much like fruit. That’s entirely the point.
According to another employee, Round Barn has eighteen acres of vines, plus an additional four used for Free Run cellars (see below). Another two acres are used for something else, but I forgot to write it down in my notes (fruit maybe?). The vineyards didn’t suffer much damage in the polar vortex, according to Jessica. The only losses were their black currants, which I thought were illegal in Michigan, but can be grown with a special license.
We also tasted their spirits. The rum and agave spirit (distilled from imported agave juice) are both unaged and of mixer quality (as you can see above, those spirits are offered in cocktail form in the tastings). The real standout was the bourbon which is a very pleasant surprise. It is of limited production and will be reviewed in the near future. They also produce an aged brandy and a “grappa” but those are under the Free Run label and not currently offered for sale at the Round Barn tasting room. They are available at the Public House (see below). According to Jessica, there are no plans to produce an aged rum or agave spirit. There is also a blended American Whiskey on the menu that is a blend of rye and bourbon, according to RJ. I did not taste it. An Applejack is in the works too, made using locally grown apples.
The roof of the round barn
Round Barn’s best known spirit is DeVine Vodka, made from grapes. As I’ve ranted about on Twitter a few times, I don’t understand the desire to take perfectly good fruit like grapes or apples and turn them into a spirit that is by nature flavorless. It’s always seemed like a waste, but as the saying goes, you can’t argue with success and DeVine Vodka has been a success. They recently followed up the success of DeVine with 269 Gin, named after their area code. It’s a basket infused gin made using the grape spirit used for the vodka and will be reviewed in the future as well.
The column on the still
After touring the upstairs, Jessica led us through a beautiful courtyard to the not-
roundbarn (built in 1907 on the property), now christened the Round Barn. Upstairs is a smallish bar and gift shop with seven Round Barn beers on tap and all their spirits behind the bar. It’s a decent size space with a good sized deck attached. It seems like it would have a good flow of people between the two spaces when busy (and warm). We tried a sample of Vanilla ‘Stache, a vanilla porter, there. The vanilla comes through but in a subdued way. I liked it.
Deck at the other barn with hop vine
Black Walnut tree
The next stop was the production facility. It’s a non-descript industrial building set several yards away from the barns. It houses the winemaking equipment, automated bottling line, still and oak barrels, (all French for the wine). Since 2014, all brewing has been located adjacent to the Round Barn Public House in downtown Baroda (such as it is). That was our next stop. RJ’s meeting was over so he was able to meet us there.
The Public House is a red building with a bar and a large seating area and a large covered patio. It once served as a tool and die shop, owned by RJ’s father, as a matter of fact. The food is limited but good. Sandwiches mostly. Our lunch (RJ comped us for this) was good. They exclusively serve their own beer and spirits. With my lunch (turkey Bahn Mi and a cup of chili) I ordered a pint of Escaped Goat, the Hef PA. It was good. I told RJ that I was a fan of wheats, so brought me a couple samples of their current wheats (Vacation wheat ale and Straw Beery Strawberry wheat ale, both good) plus a couple experiments. The first experiment was a Saison they had been working on. It was good, but was not as flavorful as I had hoped. The second was a dry, tannic cider with Balaton cherry juice added. It was really intriguing. The result was closer to a sour beer than a fruit cider. It was not ready for prime time, but it had a lot of potential that I hope is realized soon!
RB Public House & Brewery
Public House bar
The one aspect of Round Barn’s business that we didn’t get to see was Free Run Cellars. Free Run is a multifaceted project. The name comes from the juice produced from the initial pressing of the wine, called free run juice, but also from the Rick’s sons (Matt and Christian) being given “free run” in the Round Barn Cellars. All the wines under the Free Run label are from free run juice (appropriately), and are single vineyard, estate wines. Free Run also has its own facility (opening later this month) that will host four wine, four appetizer pairing tastings with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients.
Many businesses that try to do a lot of different things end up letting their ambition getting the best of them. They are mediocre at everything instead of being good at one or two things. Round Barn does not fall into this trap. Some products are better than others, obviously, and wine is what they do best, but their beers and spirits were good too, some of them very good. If anything maybe they to be more ambitious with their beers and spirits. An aged rum could be very good. Ramping up their production of brandy might be a good idea as well. Bourbon is hot right now, but rum is also popular and getting more so. Brandy is on the way up as well. Copper & Kings in Kentucky is getting a lot of attention for bottling and selling Michigan-made brandy. Michigan producers need to be getting that attention.
Beautiful grounds, well run facilities and delicious products. Round Barn does it all and does it well. A visit to Round Barn is highly recommended.
Note: I received a free lunch at the Public House and a 25% media discount on purchases on this visit.
*”Wine grape wines” may seem redundant but the phrasing is intentional. In my opinion, wine made from grapes like Concord, Niagara or table grape varieties belongs in the “fruit wine” category. While they are grapes, they are not grown for the express purpose of winemaking. The line gets fuzzy when it comes to some native North American grapes like Muscadine that are eaten as fruit but also have a long history of being made into wine. Maybe this discussion would make a good My Two Ounces post.