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.
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.
Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan, USA
Price: $15 (winery)
Appearance: Dark crimson.
Nose: Grape jelly, tart cherry pie filling, cassia, brown sugar, whiff of oak.
Palate: Full-bodied and velvety. Overdone cherry pie, allspice, mace.
Finish: Chewy, sweet and a little tart.
Parting words: Bel Lago has the reputation of being the best cherry wine produced in Michigan. That’s probably because they invented it. Michigan State’s Dr. Amy Iezzoni, wife of Bel Lago founder Charlie Edson, is responsible for bringing the Balaton cherry variety to the US after discovering it in Hungary. The variety’s original name was Ujfehértói Fürtös but Dr. Iezzoni thought Balaton (after Lake Balaton) rolled off the tongue a little better. Her goal was to help break up the Montmorency monoculture in the US. She has succeeded. Balaton produces wine and juice that has more depth and complexity than Montmorency and has the ability to reach wine-like sugar levels of 24 °Bx or so.
The wine is lush, complex and velvety in a way that few fruit wines are. There’s no doubt that this is cherry wine, but it transcends the category at a decent price. Bel Lago Cherry Wine is highly recommended.
Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan, USA
Cherries: Montmorency, Balaton.
Purchased for $12
Notes: Estate grown.
Appearance: Brick red.
Nose: Spiced cherry pie,
Palate: Medium bodied. Tart cherries, nectarine, white pepper.
Finish: Black cherries slowly morphing into a lingering tartness.
Parting words: I don’t recall ever drinking, let alone seeing, an estate grown Michigan cherry wine before this one. Lots of credit to Good Harbor for taking cherry wine seriously and most of all, making a very good one. This is an elegant dessert wine that’s worth every penny. Good Harbor Cherry Wine is highly recommended.
Maker: Gill’s Pier, Traverse City/Northport, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Michigan, USA.
Purchased for: $15
Appearance: Dark burgundy.
Nose: Black cherries, blackberry, hint of leather and clove.
On the palate: Medium bodied and slightly tart. Black cherry, black raspberry, allspice.
Finish: More tart and long-lasting. Tart cherries, touch of mace.
Parting words: I’ve reviewed cherry wines before but it’s been a while. I have never reviewed anything from Gill’s Pier though, so when I saw this in my local grocery store I bought it and gave it a spin.
I’ve never been to Gill’s Pier and don’t know much about it other than what is on their website. It was founded in 2002, is located on the Leelanau peninsula and is owned by Ryan and Kris Sterkenburg. Judging by the wines on their website, their emphasis is on white blends with a couple reds as well. The winery was named after a nearby former Czech settlement, which included St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, now a parish Sutton’s Bay, Michigan.
The wine drinks very nicely. It is well balanced and fairly complex for a cherry wine. It’s not quite sweet enough for a a dessert wine, but it’s too sweet and dry to drink with a meal. It probably works best as an after dinner chitchat wine or with a cheese course. It’s not cheap, but it’s one of the better cherry wines I’ve had. Cheerio is recommended.
Maker: Chateau de Leenenau, Sutton’s Bay, Michigan, USA
Region: Michigan, USA
Appearance: Translucent brick red. Like a ruby or unscooped raspberry or cherry jelly in a glass jar.
Nose: Slightly tart cherries, sweetness.
On the palate: Light-bodied and sweet. Sweet cherries, a touch of tartness. Not much else going on.
Finish: Sweet and light. Slightly tart.
Parting words: After tasting what Black Star Farms, Chateau Chantal and St. Julian do with their cherry wines, Chateau de Leenlenau is a disappointment. It’s not unpleasant. It could hit the spot on a hot afternoon or evening if properly chilled. But Michigan cherry wine can be so much more interesting than this. Sadly this wine was the best one at the tasting room, too. The folks at CDL are nice people, but I can’t bring myself to recommend this wine. There are better options for your cherry wine dollar.
Maker: Black Star Farms, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Appearance: dark burgundy with broad, slow legs.
Nose: tart cherry, wild blackberry, walnut.
On the palate: Full-bodied, with a sumptuous mouthfeel. Mildly sweet and mildly tart. Bold, robust cherry flavors with a little clove and allspice.
Finish: slightly sweet, tart and tingly.
Parting words: Cherry wine and other fruit wines are looked down upon by many connoisseurs as pop wine or a representative of the bad old days of American wine. There are plenty of bad, sickly and cloying fruit wines on the market, granted. In the right hands, though, fruit wines and especially cherry wine (a northern Michigan staple) can be fine dessert wine. A cherry wine will probably never reach the heights of complexity of a decades old vintage Port, but a good one like this can give a ruby a run for its money. Black Star Farms takes what could be little more than a sop to the fudgies and transforms it into something worth drinking. Recommended.
Maker: Black Star Farms Winery (Traverse City, Michigan)
Is there anything Black Star Farms doesn’t do well? One may well ask. At the most recent Michigan Wine & Spirits competition they did fairly well: Best of Class Dry White: Black Star Farms – 2009 Arcturos Pinot Gris, Best of Class Semi-Dry White: Black Star Farms – 2009 Arcturos Riesling, Best of Class Sparkling Wine: Black Star Farms – 2008 Sparkling Wine, Double Gold: 2007 A Capella Pinot Noir. Not too shabby. They also have an aged apple brandy and numerous eaux de vie. Rumor has it that a 10 year old apple brandy will be hitting the shelves of their Traverse City tasting room soon. I’ve put my best dusty-hunting friends on the case.
Anyway, this apple cider, presumably the younger cousin to their brandies, is not exception. It is in the dry-ish British style (of the mass-produced ones we get here, anyway) but doesn’t go off the edge like the one I reviewed from Motor City.
The nose is light, almost like a Riesling, sweet apple blossoms and a bit of citrus. In the mouth, it’s all crisp, early season golden skinned “eating” apples, like Golden Delicious or Ginger Gold. The sweetness then comes in, but fades away quickly. The finish is light and sweet. This is one of the best ciders I’ve had since I’ve started this blog.
Round Barn is a jack-of-all-trades winery. Located in the heart of the SW Michigan Lake Michigan Shore AVA (American Viticultural Area), they cut their teeth on the white wines and fruit wines that are the lifeblood of the Michigan wine industry. They have branched out into brewing and distilling, producing (or at least bottling) a vodka made from their own grapes.
The concept of an apple wine still seems odd to me. Why not drop the prentense and call it a cider? But after a few drinks, I understand why they call it an apple wine. First of all, as you may have noticed, the alcohol content is much closer to a wine than a typical cider, which frankly is a little dangerous, I can already tell you. It is also more acidic than typical ciders and has a delicate dryness that is as close to a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as it is to a glass of Woodpecker, for instance.
Still, the apples are leading the charge. It is in the lighter, dry style of most British ciders. The smell reminds me of working my way through grad school in the childcare industry and the hordes of apple juice guzzling children I shepherded through their single digits. It lacks the robust body of my favorite ciders, but has a lightness that makes a good change of pace on a summer afternoon.