Palate: Juicy on entry. Medium bodied. Cherry, red currant, blueberry, pink peppercorn, strawberry.
Finish: Juicy with growing oak.
Parting words: Bel Lago winery lives up to its name, Italian for “beautiful lake”, with one of the most beautiful views on the Leelanau Peninsula. It overlooks Lake Leelanau, which is named after the peninsula & county which was itself named by Indian agent and ethnographer Henry Schoolcraft in honor of his wife Jane Johnston Schoolcraft who wrote under the name Leelinau, a neologism created by her or Henry. Henry used the name for Native American women in some of the stories he wrote. Henry created several other pseudo-indigenous place names in Michigan, including Lenawee, Alpena, Kalkaska and Oscoda, combining native words with Latin or Arabic elements.
Pinot Noir was one of the varieties hardest hit during the disasterous 2014 and 2015 Polar Vortex vintages. I recently spoke to a Northern Michigan winemaker who told me that he was burnt out on the grape. This winemaker said that Pinot Noir is not worth growing in Michigan because it’s a pain in the ass to grow and it’s rarely any good (my paraphrase).
Bel Lago’s Moreno Vineyard Pinot Noir is a brilliant counterpoint to that view. Oak and spice provide the right amount of contrast to highlight the fruit that drives this wine. This wine is an excellent example of how good Pinot can be in Northern Michigan, at least in a long, hot year like 2012. $45 puts it at the top end of Michigan reds, but I think it’s worth the money. It’s as good as Pinto gets in Michigan. Bel Lago Moreno Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 is highly recommended.
I first met Chantal Lefebvre at the 2015 Michigan Wine Showcase. Since it’s the only Michigan wine industry event I get invited to, I try to make the most of it when I’m there. I seek out new wineries or at least ones I haven’t heard of to try. WaterFire was located near the center of the room with the food, so I strolled on over. The table wasn’t crowded so I was able to strike up a conversation with Chantal who was there pouring herself. Chantal is an introvert but not shy, if that makes any sense. As soon as I started asking her questions about the vineyards her passion for sustainable viticulture and winemaking poured out.
Like Mari Vineyards, WaterFire is a relatively new winery but, aside from both having great winemakers making great wine, the two operations couldn’t be more different. There’s no big money behind WaterFire, just Chantal’s (and husband Mike Newman’s) dream and skill. The property was purchased in 2008, planted in 2009 and the first vintage was 2012. The tasting room opened memorial day weekend of 2017, just a few weeks before we visited! They looked for property on Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas but land was too expensive. They eventually found a cherry orachard in Antrim county that was promising and purchased it. It’s located between Torch Lake (WaterFire? get it?) and the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay, opposite Old Mission Peninsula, north of Elk Rapids. Chantal has heard rumors of other properties being purchased for in the county but has no idea who or where they are.
Before starting her own winery, Chantal worked at many wineries across Michigan, including Left Foot Charley and Bower’s Harbor. WaterFire only has one other employee, also a woman. This makes it the only winery in Michigan with a 100% female workforce! She informed me that the dogs are male, however.
In the tasting room they currently offer five selections for tasting, including one wine they don’t make themselves, a Williamette Valley Pinot Noir (for any “I don’t like white wine” types that may straggle in). The estate wines are Rieslings from 2013 and 2014 respectively, a 2012 Grüner Veltliner and a Sauvignon Blanc from 2013. As you may have noticed, WaterFire only produces white wines. Why? White wine grapes do best at this site and in Northern Michigan in general. Why waste time with a fussy grape when you’re just starting out?
Waterfire also produces a hard cider, made from feral apple trees of on the estate and accross the road. The cider is very well balanced with some chewy tannins. It’s only available out of the tap at the tasting room, so bring a growler if you want to take some home.
As I alluded to earlier, Chantal’s passion is growing grapes and doing so in a sustainable way. WaterFire has two Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) certifications, for cropping and farmstead practices. Chantal uses no herbicides and only one pesticide, a natural, fermented product to control beetles. She has considered getting an organic certification for WaterFire, but the pesticide does not qualify as an organic. Chantal thinks the organic certification process is a pain and could stand to be simplified.
Chantal’s immediate plans are to put in another vineyard block in front of the tasting room, probably with a (not fussy) red variety, possibly “something Austrian”. Lemberger is grown in Michigan and would be the obvious choice, but Zweigelt is grown widely in Ontario and might also be a possibility. If she asked me, I would suggest Gamay. It’s not Austrian, of course, but it is a grape that does very well in Northern Michigan but is not grown nearly enough.
Something I would also like to see is an East Grand Traverse Bay AVA (or something like that) in that area, if more vineyards do go in. If WaterFire’s vineyards are typical of the terroir there, it’s deserving of AVA status.
We didn’t take a look around the winery itself because we were short on time, but we had a lovely visit and conversation with Chantal. I love her wine and I love her committment to growing grapes in a sustainable way. We’re grateful that she was able to spend time talking to us for my little dog and pony show. The next time you’re in the area, stop into WaterFire and try some of the best white wines in Michigan. Then take home a few. Look for reviews of the wines we brought home over the next few weeks.
For more on the beginnings of WaterFire, check out this interview with Chantal and Mike from 2013 by Michigan By The Bottle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 & L 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!
Palate: Fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh red pear, meyer lemon.
Finish: Mineral with a squirt of citrus.
Parting words: The old saying is that familiarity breeds contempt. I don’t think that’s true in most cases, but I think it does happen to St. Julian sometimes. St. Julian’s Heron series of sweet, plonky wines are best sellers in Michigan and elsewhere. Their tasting rooms are located in touristy areas and interstate exits. This could lead a person to dismiss St. Julian as an unserious winemaker only interested in trapping tourists or resting on its laurels as Michigian’s oldest and biggest winery.
Who thinks like this? Well, sometimes I do and that’s led to me unfairly ignore St. Julian’s wines. I’m hoping to rectify that with this review and some that will be coming later this year.
2013 St. Julian Riesling is a very enjoyable semi dry wine at a wonderful price. It does a nice job of representing both the grape and LMS terroir. It’s crisp, as a Riesling of this style should be, but as it warms a tropical fruit and a hint of petroleum appear. Nothing unpleasant, though. It pairs well with just about anything. $12 is a steal for a tasty, single vineyard Riesling from a good producer. St. Julian Riesling 2013 is recommended.
Maker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Manigold Vineyard, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA
Syle: Dry (Semi-dry)
Price: $20 (winery)
Appearance: Medium gold with tiny still bubbles.
Nose: Lychee, limestone, pineapple sage, apple juice.
Palate: Meduim bodied and juicey. Peach, mango, pink peppercorn, raw ginger, thyme, mineral water.
Finish: Fruity but with a lot of spice on the back end.
Parting words: Manigold is one of my favorite vineyards on Old Mission. It’s known best for Gewürztraminer and also has Chardonnay vines. The vineyard is only two acres in size but its wines are big. Gewürz’s spicy character is in full effect here but there is also loads of tropical fruit making for a complex, aromatic, flavorful wine. I could gush over this for a few more paragraphs, but I’ll spare you. Hard to find a better Gewürz at this price from Michigan or anywhere. Peninsula Cellars 2013 Manigold Vineyard Gewürztraminer is highly recommended.
Parting words: The WaterFire winery is located in Northwest Michigan, on the isthmus between Torch Lake and Grand Traverse Bay, opposite Old Mission Peninsula. It’s not within the bounds of any of the Northern Michigan AVAs but it is close to all of them. Antrim County is one of the county appellations that were grandfathered in when the new AVA system was rolled out in the 1980s.
Chantal Lefebvre, owner and winemaker of Water Fire does not have natural, organic or biodynamic certification for her wines, but she is firmly committed to growing grapes and making wine in a way that is in harmony with the natural world. I had a fairly long conversation with her about that topic at the 2016 Michigan Wine Showcase in Detroit. Water Fire wines are estate grown and limited production but are some of the best wines Michigan has to offer. They currently produce Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Grüner Veltliner.
2013 was a banner year for white wines in Michigan as you, the attentive Sipology reader, know. 2013 Water Fire Riesling ranks near the very top of great Michigan Rieslings in a year full of them. This wine’s minerality and herbal aromas provide the perfect foundation for the gothic cathedral of acidity that rises up through the palate. I love this wine and this winery. WaterFire deserves to be a household name, and their wines deserve a place at your table. 2013 WaterFire Riesling is highly recommended.
Place of origin: Avonlea vineyard, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Price: $35 (Michigan by the Bottle, Auburn Hills)
Appearance: Medium gold with a thin robe.
Nose: Rancio, golden raisins.
Palate: Full bodied and medium sweet. Sherry, gruyere cheese, sweet butter, hint of oak.
Finish: Sweet. Apricot, croissants.
Parting words: Wyncroft/Marland is a very limited production, estate winery in the Southwestern Michigan co-owned by winemaker Jim Lester. Jim was one of the earliest boutique winemakers in Michigan, as he frequently reminds people. He’s one of the rare big talkers who lives up to his own hype, though. The Wyncroft label is used for limited production estate wines with Marland used for their line of more affordable wines from vineyards they don’t own. I’m very fond of his reds, but I haven’t always liked his whites. It’s not that they’re inconsistent, it’s that I haven’t always enjoyed the style in which they’ve been made. No accounting for taste, as they say.
Avonlea vineyard is Wyncroft’s flagship, planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling. Avonlea was hit hard by the Polar Vortex in 2014 with substantial loss of Chardonnay vines, according to Wyncroft’s website. The surviving Chardonnay vines had their fruit devoured by a murder of crows shortly before harvest. The damaged area has been replanted. In the meantime the 2011, 2012 and 2013 vintages are available.
This heavy, buttery style of chardonnay is not my favorite, especially not when from Michigan. Avonlea Chardonnay was pleasant but heavy handed when first opened. As it opened up, it became even more unbalanced and took on unpleasant oxidized and burnt butter flavors. Even Mrs. Sipology, who normally enjoys oaky chards, didn’t like it. I can’t say I liked it either. I don’t know if this wine is flawed or tainted (I don’t think it’s the latter) or what, but I really can’t recommend it, especially not at $35.
Place of Origin: Langley Vineyard, Bower’s Harbor estate, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA.
Price: $38 (original price on shelf. Purchased on sale with a discount from the owner)
Appearance: Inky dark purple.
Nose: Blueberry, cherry juice, oak.
Palate: Medium sweet. Cherry juice, blackberry, pepper, chewy leather on the back end.
Finish: Cherry and lightly fruity. Stays in the cheeks for a good bit of time.
Parting words: 2896 is Bowers Harbor’s big, flagship red. The 2013 vintage is currently selling on the BH website for $55 and the 2012 vintage (considered the best recent vintage for Michigan reds) for $100. I haven’t had either of those, so I don’t know if they’re worth the money, but they are both at the top end of red wine prices in this state.
As for this wine, it’s very good and worth the price that was on the shelf on which it sat. It is well balanced, but still has the laid back, fruity character of a cool season Bordeaux-style red. Enough oak and alcohol to keep it from becoming a fruit bomb but not aggressive or overly tannic. It goes well with beef and smoked or grilled meats. My only complaint is that the gold wax is very hard to get off and it looks corny. The bottle would be better off without it. At any rate, at around $40 or so, 2896 Langley 2010 is recommended.
Maker: Domaine Berrien, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA
Grape: St. Vincent (per tasting room employee)
Place of origin: Domaine Berrien estate, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Style: Semi-dry rosé
Purchased for $12 (winery)
Appearance: Dark, almost bloody pink.
Nose: Red currant, allspice, blueberry.
Palate: Mild but full bodied. Semi-dry. Apple, cherry juice, white grape juice.
Finish: Linger tang in cheeks. Raspberry, cranberry juice.
St. Vincent is a grape with a mysterious past. It’s probably a French-American hybrid but its parentage is unknown (Chambourcin/Pinot Noir has been suggested) and nobody seems to care, frankly. It got its start in Missouri and it’s grown widely accross the Eastern US, but not in great volume. It seems to be best at making fruity, semi-dry reds and rosés. It is also used in still or sparkling blends. It’s one of few hybrids grown at Domaine Berrien.
Domaine Berrien is known for their emphasis on Rhone grape varieties (they were the first in Michigan to grow Syrah) and red Bordeaux varieties. They also have their Satin line, consisting of the white blend White Satin and this wine, Pink Satin, affectionately nicknamed Pink Satan by me. Nothing devilish about this wine, though, other than the color. It’s an easy drinking, unchallenging food friendly rosé. If I have a complaint it’s that it’s too mild, but at $12 one shouldn’t be too picky. This is a solid summer porch sipper or hotdog wine. Domaine Berrien’s 2015 Pink Satin is recommended.
Maker: Laurentide Winery, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA
Grape: Pinot Gris/Grigio
Place of origin: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA
Style: Semi-dry Gris.
Purchased for $20
Thanks to the Laurentide and the retailer who helped me get a replacement for my original tainted bottle.
Appearance: Pale gold with tiny stationary bubbles.
Nose: Mozzarella cheese, toasted pizza crust.
Palate: Medium dry, full bodied. Underripe peach, minerals, oregano, candied lemon peel.
Finish: Clean, slightly tart, then dry
Parting words: After meeting Laurentide co-owner Bill Braymer and his charming daughter Calla at the opening of Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Auburn Hills, I got excited about opening the one bottle of Laurentide wine I had in my cellar, a bottle of the 2013 Pinot Gris. The moment I uncorked it, I realized there was something wrong. One sip confirmed it. Taint. Luckily I was able to get a replacement from the winery along with an assurance that future vintages will use screw caps.
This one was flawless. No, I wasn’t eating pizza when I took these notes, but I felt like I could have been. Mozzarella, pizza crust and oregano sound weird in a wine, I know, but they were all delicate and delicious in this one. There’s enough sweetness and acid to balance those slightly funky pizza notes and create a harmonious beverage.
Nothing not to love about this wine or the Braymers for that matter. Bill impressed me at that tasting room opening. I remember him taking a sip of another winemaker’s product after a few glasses and saying something like, “Something not right about this one. Picked too soon, maybe? No excuse for that in 2012!” A winemaker who can’t shut the critical winemaking part of his brain off even at an event like that is somebody whose wine I want to drink. 2013 Laurentide Pinot Gris is recommended.