Back in June of 2021, as Liz and I were planning our visit to Dablon Winery and Vineyards in Southwest Michigan (read the account of our visit here), I sent an email to James Lester of the nearby Wyncroft/Marland winery in Fennville asking if we could pay him a visit while we were out there. He obliged and we arranged a date and time to visit.
Why the two names? Wyncroft is the main, flagship label for higher-end single vineyard wines, and Marland is the one used for the more affordable line of wines from grapes sourced from other vineyards in the region. James made a point of saying that he only buys grapes from vineyards that adhere to his precise viticultural standards. I will be using Wycroft to refer to the winery for the rest of this post to avoid repeated slashes. There are only two full-time employees at Wyncroft, James, and his partner Daun Page.
Wyncroft is only open by appointment (no walk-in tourists!), but that appointment includes a personal tasting of at least five wines with James at the winery. It’s not free though. Tastings are $25 per person and no discounts are given. The tastings are scheduled for two hours but two hours with James can easily turn into four or more, especially as the wine and conversation start flowing.
On the afternoon of our appointment, I got an email from James reminding us of the tasting charge and that he does not give freebies or engage in quid pro quo arrangements with writers. As you know, dear readers, I never ask for or expect freebies, although when I visit wineries in my “official” Sipology Blog capacity, I do usually get complimentary tastings and occasionally get media discounts which I always disclose. I emailed him back and told him that we understood and that was perfectly fine.
We showed up to the front gate on time, even though Liz wasn’t sure if it was the right place since there is no sign (to deter the dreaded walk-in tourists). We were in the right place, I assured her, and I pushed the buzzer at the gate. After a few minutes with no response, I did it again. Still not response. I walked around the gate, wondering if we were supposed to just park there and walk. The winery buildings weren’t visible from there, so that was unlikely. I then checked the first email I received from James, and, of course, it contained his phone number and instructions to call him when we arrived so he could open the gate. I did so, he answered on the second or third ring and opened the gate for us to drive through. We drove up the short (by car) driveway up to the winery and parked in the precise spot James directed us to. We got out, greeted our hosts, and got the visit underway.
Unfortunately, the only notebook I brought was a large, ringed binder that was a little difficult to jot notes onto while standing. I think I did fairly well under the circumstances, and I have a pretty good memory when it comes to wine. That said, our conversation with him during our visit was wide ranging, and James frequently tossed tangential anecdotes and nuggets of knowledge our way. It was engaging conversation but it made note-taking difficult. To make this post readable, I’ve had to arrange most of my notes topically, rather than according to the flow of the conversation.
The first part of our visit was a tour of the property and its vineyards. As James told me, “You can do a lot in the cellar, but flavor begins in the vineyard.” The circular end of the drive is flanked by two buildings, the winery and James and Daun’s home. Surrounding them is ninety-four acres, most, but not all, of which is vineyard, which they’ve named LePage, a combination of their last names. Other Wyncroft-owned vineyards are nearby. The vineyard is technically in the Fennville Sub-AVA, making Wyncroft one of only two Michigan wineries to use Fennville on their labels. The other one, unsurprisingly, is Fenn Valley.
James also grows apples and pears on the estate, with plenty of room left over for prairie land, multiple ponds and twenty acres of forest. The forest includes the trees that ring the property, acting as a wind break and snow fence. Before James purchased the property it was a private arboretum. Many of the trees from that era are still standing and healthy, including several rare Asian conifers. The woods do attract deer, unfortunately, so James will occasionally drive through the vineyards while firing off a shotgun to scare them away.
We didn’t tromp over the entire ninety-four acres, but we did visit a few blocks of Merlot and Pinot Noir. Aside from those, he also grows Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Semillon on site. The rows are three feet apart, like in France (and at Dablon). James says this makes cropping easier, and that he crops in the sub-Grand Cru range, ten to fifteen clusters per vine. The rows are kept in a natural state, and clippings from the mower are left in place to act as a natural weed-blocker.
Ironically, a large north-facing slope is the warmest part of the vineyard, so that’s where he puts the Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. James claims the slope is so warm, his Pinot can overripen if care is not taken, a relatively rare problem for Michigan. He uses early-ripening, loose clustered Dijon clones for his Pinot Noir. He believes that Michigan is much better suited to Pinot Noir cultivation than warmer climates like California, because of how closely Burgundy’s and Michigan’s climates resemble each other. He believes that varieties are adapted to particular climates and that it’s foolish to attempt to grow them in a different one. It was hard not to think of some other Michigan vineyards after hearing that comment. “So it would be foolish to try to grow something like Tempranillo?” I asked. He gave a thoughtful smirk, then told me that Tempranillo is grown in the highlands in Spain, so it can actually be grown well in Michigan.
I’m a big fan of Michigan Merlot, and James makes some of the very best. He has five different clones planted, including two from Pomerol, one Northern Italian, and one Inglenook California clone. I know that only adds up to four, but I couldn’t find the fifth one in my notes. James says that Merlot is just as fussy as Pinot Noir, but it’s easier to grow, so it’s often grown in bad sites, which is to blame for its bad reputation in some quarters. He says his Merlot tastes like Pomerol, and I can’t disagree.
Lester’s business model is a bit different from that of his neighbors’, even wineries like Dablon or Domaine Berrien. James is the founder, winemaker, and vineyard manager and Wyncroft. Daun handles most of the business end of the business. As I noted above, they are the only full time winery employees, although part-time seasonal help is used. He uses distributors in Chicago (his biggest single market) and in Michigan. Wyncroft and Marland wines can be found at better wine shops in Southeast and Southwest Michigan, and, of course at Friends-of-the-Blog Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, specifically the one in Auburn Hills, Michigan. In the early days, though, he self-distributed, but the job quickly became too big, especially in Chicago.
James was raised in a Seventh Day Adventist family (West Michigan is a big center of that denomination) and never had a glass of wine until he was twenty-nine years old. He made his first wine as a hobbiest in 1983 becoming interested in aged Burgundy and Bordeaux, and reading books on the topic. His first wine was a Pinot Noir, and he liked it a lot. He sent samples around to friends and people in the wine industry and they all enjoyed it as well, so he kept at it. He counts Willy Frank of Constantin Frank winery in New York and Leonard Olson of nearby Tabor Hill as mentors.
James’s business philosophy is to make wines he likes, and then to find customers for them. The wines he likes are for the most part traditional, French-style wines. He describes his style as classic, full flavored “wow” wine, that is an expression of its terroir.
To be fair, a lot of winemakers say things like that, but what sets Wyncroft apart is James Lester himself. He cuts a dashing figure with long gray hair, an open lapel, and a full, well-groomed beard. James is one of those rare people who talks a lot about himself and his business but is able to back up every word with excellent product. His wines are as much an expression of his unique personality as they are of Wyncroft’s beautiful vineyards.
Wyncroft isn’t a part of any official wine trails or Michigan winemaking organizations, partially to prevent tourists from showing up unannounced, but also because James has reservations about the way those organizations operate. He takes grape-growing and winemaking very seriously and is concerned that not all wineries take it as seriously as he does. Why should wineries like his and tourist-oriented ones making plonk from bulk grapes get the same benefits for the same fees? James doesn’t think that makes much sense.
Most of James’ red wines, in both lines, are classic red Bordeaux blends in various configurations. Cab Franc/Merlot, Merlot/Cab Fran/Cab Sauv, etc. Their ability to age varies with the varieties in question (as well as the label they’re bottled under), but all should have at least a full four years on them before drinking.
The crown jewel of his Red Bordeaux blends is Shou (pronounced “show”) from a Chinese word meaning longevity. In 2019 it was 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Cabernet Franc, and 13% Merlot. As the name suggests, this is a wine made for an extended time in the cellar. As the percentage of grapes suggests, it is intended to be James’ take on a Left Bank red Bordeaux blend. When our tour finally got to the cellar, I was able to taste some of the wines that would go into the 2020 vintage. The Cab Franc was chewy and dark with lots of berry flavors. The Merlot was deep purple and tasted like blackberry pie. The Cab Sauv was brick red and tasted like fruit of the forest pie. When I remarked on how little sulphur I tasted in the barrel samples, he was very proud of the fact. “Too much sulphur in a barrel sample is a sign of bad winemaking.”
The Wyncroft LePage Pinot Noir ages very well and should also be at least four years old before drinking, but the Marland Pinot Noir can be consumed early with no loss of flavor. They’re both elegant, but easy drinking, in fine Burgundy style. Aside from the usual suspects, James also makes a Blaufränkisch (aka Lemberger) under the Marland label. The grape has been increasingly popular with winemakers in recent years, since it grows so well in Michigan and produces very flavorful red and pink wines. Despite my early skepticism about the grape, I am now all in on Blaufränkisch, and James is too. When I asked him if Blaufränkisch had a future in Michigan, his answer was an enthusiastic “Yes!”
James Lester’s reds are probably his best-known wines, but his whites should not be slept on either, as the kids say. We tasted the Wren Song Vineyard dry Riesling which was close in style to dries from Alsace and Oregon. James regularly makes Riesling Ice-wine as well. The Wyncroft website shows a Marland Late Harvest Riesling, but I don’t recall ever tasting it.
James produces two Chardonnays, the single vineyard Wycroft Chard with oak, and the Marland Chardonnay “Non Affecte”sur liewithout. When he discussed Wyncroft Chard with me, he compared it to a picture in a frame. The oak acts as a frame, supporting and drawing attention to the aromas and flavors of the grape, like a frame supports and draws attention to a picture. It’s not an attraction in itself. “Nobody cares about the frame.” I had a taste of Chardonnay (Wyncroft I think, the samples were coming fast and furious) in the cellars and enjoyed it quite a bit even at that early stage. It had lemon, a little butter, and tropical fruit. He also produces an Auxerrois, with grapes from Bel Lago’s Moreno vineyard.
The white wines he seems most proud of are his Semillion/Sauvignon Blanc blends, aged in acacia wood barrels, like in Bordeaux. He sells two, the Wyncroft Shou Blanc and the Marland Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends. The website also lists a Marland Pinot Grigio, which I think I may have tasted at one point, but I don’t recall when or where.
Wyncroft produces only one pink wine, Marland rosé of Cabernet Franc. I asked why he doesn’t make a Pinot Noir or Blaufränkisch rosé, and he replied that he thought Cab Franc made the best rosé of the varieties he uses (to which I agreed), and he didn’t find it necessary to make more than one pink wine. I asked about orange wine and he smirked. “I’ve never had an orange wine that wouldn’t have tasted better as a white,” he replied. It’s intended to be consumed promptly, but I think quality rosé is at its best the spring or summer after its first birthday.
After the vineyard tour (and before going into the cellar), James led us to a small table that he or Daun had set up outside the winery for the more formal tasting portion of the visit. We tasted through most of what he had in stock. It was all good. We also had a nice long discussion about my blog and James said some very kind things, and that he would, after all, give us a media discount, and throw in a few “freebies” for tasting purposes. We ended up leaving with six bottles after originally thinking we would only buy three (due to price). The strange thing was that when we received our receipt via email a few days later, no discounts of any kind had been applied. I contacted James and he was apologetic and said they would get it sorted out and adjust the bill accordingly. That hasn’t happened yet.
I have an enormous amount of respect for James and Daun and all they’ve accomplished. I only mention this because I feel obliged to be transparent to my readers about the discounts that I may or may not receive. As I said above, I never demand or expect discounts or free product from any winery, distillery or anywhere else when visiting. If I ever do receive any, I always disclose what I received in the post about the visit and in any subsequent reviews. So I feel like I need to disclose all this, in the event that we do end up getting the media discount at some point.
Discount or not, James’s wines are worth every penny we paid for them. We got a great tour, and bought some great wine. A visit to Wyncroft/Marland is highly recommended. It’s a beautiful estate and James Lester is one of the best conversationalists in Michigan wine. Call and arrange your visit today!
Note: All photos by Liz Wright