A Visit to Nathaniel Rose at Raftshol Vineyards

On Saturday, June 9, Liz and I headed up to Traverse City, Michigan for the fourth City of Riesling Festival (For my review of the first, click here). We had a great time. We drank wine, we walked on the beach, we drank more wine, we learned about wine. On Sunday we also visited Good Harbor and Chateau Fontaine wineries and drank and bought wine.

On Monday we had one more wine stop: Nathaniel Rose winery at Raftshol Vineyards. Nathaniel Rose has been running his own winemaking business since 2010 operating out of whichever winery he was working at the time, starting at Raftshol and ending up at Brengman Brothers, with several in between. Last year, he purchased Raftshol Vineyards in Suttons Bay in Leelanau and is now using it as his HQ (and homestead!).

Raftshol is one of the oldest wineries and vineyards in Leelanau. It began at the turn of the last century as the dairy farm of Anders Raftshol. In 1930 the cows left home and the farm was converted to a cherry orchard. In 1975 the cherry business was bad so the trees had to go. Sometime after that, hybrid grape vines were planted. Anders’ grandsons, Warren and Curtis were not happy with the results so in 1985 they planted vinifera instead, being the first commercial vineyard on Leelanau to do so. Instead of the usual practice of grafting vinifera vines onto native rootstock, they grafted them onto the existing hybrid ones. Rose believes this unusual set up may contribute to the high quality of the fruit produced by the estate. When Warren decided to sell last year, Rose jumped at the chance to own some of the oldest vinifera vines in the state, including Cabernet Sauvignon. According to Rose, the vineyards had been neglected for the past ten years, but he’s in the process of whipping them back into shape using careful pruning.

Nathaniel Rose’s namesake project is mostly about making quality, single-vineyard red wines. They are currently sourced from vineyards in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA and almost entirely red except for an orange Marsanne and a dry Traminette (we bought a bottle of Traminette for $13 minus trade discount). Rose has worked at nine different wineries in various capacities over the years, including Raftshol and Brengman Brothers, which he operated out of until purchasing Raftshol. His extensive knowledge, experience and contacts in the Michigan wine industry allow him to get quality fruit from quality vineyards. His wines There may also be a Chardonnay in the works, but Rose says he doesn’t really have the proper equipment for whites at the moment.

Everything we tasted there was wonderful, but my favorites were his excellent Syrahs (we purchased a bottle of the single barrel #4 Syrah at $85 minus trade discount). They were the best Michigan Syrahs I’ve tasted and maybe the best Michigan reds I’ve tried overall. For the single barrel, Rose was aiming for a wine reminiscent of Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhône valley, so he cofermented the Syrah with Viognier. When we were tasting, he helpfully provided a bottle of Côte-Rôtie for comparison and the two wines were indeed very close and I would be hard pressed to say which I liked better.

His signature wines are his Cabernet Sauvignon blends, Left Bank and Right Bank. They were both very good. Rose is rightfully very proud of these, especially the Left Bank. He loves to tell the story of the tasting he attended with several sommeliers (including  Master somm Brett Davis), winemakers, writers and other experts in which his 2012 Left Bank Blend went up against a group of Second Growth Bordeaux and cult California Cabs, including Cardinale (~$270), Ridge Monte Bello (~$250), and Jos. Phelps Insignia (~$190), all of the 2012 vintage. Left Bank won. None of the experts could pick Left Bank out of the lineup blind and tasters could not tell the difference between it and the 2012 Cardinale Cab at all. In fact, they belived they had mistakenly been poured the same wine twice. Rose believes that Northern Michigan and his new vineyard in particular (which is not the source of Left Bank) has a climate that is very similar to high elevation viticultural areas in California and is capable of producing reds of the same high quality.

Left Bank sells for $150 (we also purchased a bottle of this at a trade discount) which puts it at or near the top of the price range for Michigan wines, even higher than wineries like Brys Estate or Mari Vineyards. When I asked him if he thinks consumers will be willing to pay that much for Michigan wines, regardless of quality, he responded with a few points. First, that his wines are plainly worth the money as tastings like the ones he’s entered Left Bank into prove. Second, that he’s had no trouble selling any of his wines so far. Finally, he pointed out that, while he is selling it at the Raftshol tasting room, the primary purpose of a wine like Left Bank is to enter into contests and tastings to bring attention to the quality of his wines. In other words, he’s not expecting Left Bank to fly off the shelf. It’s intended as a showpiece, not pizza wine (although it would be good with pizza!).*

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Nathaniel’s current residence. To know the grapes, one must live amongst them, or at least down the road from them.

Nathaniel Rose’s winery is one of the most exciting things happening in Michigan wine right now. I’m a cheap skate but his wines are as good or better than ones from more prestigious and expensive regions and if any wines deserve to push the price envelope in Michigan, Nathaniel’s do. A visit to Nathaniel Rose at Raftshol Vineyards is highly recommended! Joining his wine club is also recommended, so you can get the generous club discount!

*When I spoke to Nathaniel on August 29, 2018 he informed me that Left Bank has actually turned out to be his best seller! Collectors are stocking up.

Corrected and updated September 4, 2018.

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