A Visit to Mari Vineyards

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Panoramic photo from the Mari parking lot. Winery on the right, east arm of Grand Traverse Bay on the left.

I always seem to run into Sean O’Keefe when he’s busy. One time I ran into him was at the 2015 Michigan Wine Showcase in Detroit. He invited me out to see his new place of employment, Villa Mari (now Mari Vineyards) on Old Mission Peninsula. The winery was still being built then but he was eager to show me around anyway. I took him up on his offer over two years later, on July 7, 2017. In my defense, my wife and I did have a new baby in that time period. That baby tagged along with us.

Anyhow, when we walked up to the tasting room and asked for Sean, we learned he was in his office filling spreadsheets and he would be up in a few minutes. Mari’s tasting room and winery is in a beautiful stone building perched on top of a hill, The building (and the whole enterprise) is a tribute to the owner’s family origins in northeast Italy. It’s intended to resemble a Romanesque Italian monastery.

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Winery building with patio on the left.
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Tree stump in arcade, looking out over the patio.
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Cork art over the tasting room bar.
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Ash bar in the tasting room. Note the marks from the emerald ash borer.
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Table in tasting room made from tree in arcade above.
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Fireplace area in tasting room with metal crosses and chainmail belonging to the owner.

The tasting room has an airy Mediterranean feel with a decorating theme that could be described as “DaVinci Code”. Energy mogul and Upper Peninsula native Marty Lagina is the owner and founder of Mari Vineyards. He’s best known as co-star of the Canadian-produced reality show The Curse of Oak Island, in which Marty and his brother Rick search for treasure on an island in Nova Scotia. In the course of the show they consult with a number of self-described experts on “mysteries in history” type topics who link the yet-to-be-found treasure to Aztecs, Africans, pre-Colombian European mariners and the like. As playwright Anton Chekov once said, “Money, like vodka, turns a person into an eccentric.”

After Sean arrived and said a few words, he took us down the next level to the winery. There we tasted some of the white wines being fermented in the stainless steel tanks at the time.

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Tanks in the center and left.

We tasted samples of Pinto Grigio , Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. The Grüner was bound for Troglodyte Bianco, a white Pinot Blanc-heavy white blend Sean compared to his own Ship of Fools. There was one white Grigio (closer to an Alsatian Gris than an Italian Grigio) but also an “orange” version. If a rosé is a red wine treated like a white, then an orange wine is a white wine treated like a red. As is usually done with red wines the skins are left in contact with the juice for an extended period of time to add tannins, color and other things.

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The orange Pinot Grigio, soon to be bottled as Ramato, Italian for copper.

This style has become trendy recently, so much so that Sean prefaced pouring us some of this wine said he has resisted making hipster wines but this one is actually good. And I agree.

We also had three Rieslings each from a different vineyard. Sean likes to segregate wines by vineyard in the winery and the cellar so that they can develop their own character. It’s easier to then blend the wines together to produce the profile he wants for the expression. Or bottle as a single vineyard offering of course. The first one we tasted was dry (Sean made a point of pointing out that it was truly dry, not semi-dry like many Michigan Rieslings labeled as dry), the second was described as more of a semi-sweet feinherb style and the third was fruity like the second but even sweeter. About releasing the third one as a varietal Sean said, “People like this one [the most] but..”

After tasting the whites, it was down to the cave for the reds. The extensive cave/cellar was dug specifically for the winery though there were some utility trenches under where the winery is now.

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Sean by the big German barrels. Bubblers on top (airlocks) are to prevent contamination of the wine from air moving in while still allowing the gasses from fermentation to move out.
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Sean drawing out some extremely oaky Merlot for us to try. It is intended as a blending element. Mari’s house style is not oak heavy. The cellars also have a space for group tastings.

The variety of reds in the cellar was staggering. The usual suspects were there, Cabernets Franc & Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah but also estate grown Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Malbec and a number of obscure Northern Italian like Refosco, Teroldego, and Scuppatino. How can they grow these, you may ask? It’s due to their nellaserra system, aka hoop houses. They’re similar to cold frames, only they don’t go all the way to the ground, they just warm the soil under them more quickly. One the biggest surprises for Sean was how well some varieties did in this system, Nebbiolo in particular. On the other hand, others like Merlot don’t seem to do any better under the hoops than not.

Most of these wines will be blended, but some may be released as off-beat varietals on sub-labels.

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Templar cross under the oculus in the cellar. On the summer solstice, the exit doors at the end of the passageway are opened and a shaft of light shines through, “Raiders of the Lost Ark style”.
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The oculus.

We then went back up to the tasting room. They were officially sold out of white wines but we were able to sample some of Mari’s Malvasia Bianca. The grape is grown in Croatia, Friuli and California and a few other places. Mari’s Malvasia Bianca vines are the only ones in Michigan. The clone they planted is virtually extinct in Italy, according to Sean, but is widely grown in California. Unfortunately, it was not available for purchase at that time because Sean was still waiting on label approval from the TTB.

There were three reds available. Bel Tramonto (below), Row 7 (Cab Franc & Merlot field blend) and Ultima Thule (Cab Sauv, Nebbiolo, Merlot, Syrah). All were very good. We came home with a bottle of Ultima Thule and a bottle of Row 7 at an 18% media discount. Both retail for $60 at the tasting room.

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We tried this wine, which is a blend of Melot and Sangiovese. It’s Mari’s take on a Super Tuscan.

Sean started at Mari Vineyards as a consultant charged with hiring a winemaker for the new winery. As is often the case in these situations he ended up recommending and hiring himself. As the winery was being built, he made the wines at his family winery, Chateau Grand Traverse, of which he is still co-owner along with his father and brother. He was responsible for many of the “special” labels put out by CGT over the years like Ship of Fools, Whole Cluster Riesling and the acclaimed Lot 49 Riesling. Sean described his approach to winemaking as one that seeks to use as few interventions and additions as possible. He does add yeast to Mari’s wines, but he has experimented with wild fermentation. While he seeks to intervene as little as possible, he said he didn’t want to be like some natural winemakers who make mistakes and then take an “I meant to do that” attitude when their wine turns out funky.

As I was writing this review I sipped on wine from a 2010 bottle from Mari I found at A & 20170719_190717L Wine Castle in Ann Arbor a year or so ago. It’s more of a Bordeaux Blend with a little Syrah thrown in than a straight up Cab Franc. Juicy but well structured. I recommend it, although there are very few bottles of anything from Mari Vineyards kicking around outside the tasting room anymore.

Look for an icewine in the near future, as well as more bottlings of Mari’s standard blends and a few oddball varietals.

Mari is still relatively new, but Sean has a brain that is constantly thinking about his wines and what he’s going to do with them. He didn’t ask me, but I’d like to see more dessert wines and maybe a passito from Mari Vineyards in the future. Even more fun might be planting some Trebbiano and hooking up with Black Star Farms or Red Cedar and producing an aged brandy. I’d love to see what spirits do in that cellar. Whatever is actually coming down the pike, I’m looking forward to it. Next time you’re in Traverse City, stop into Mari Vineyards tasting room!

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Alfie enjoying the echoes in the caves.
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