A Visit to Wyncroft/Marland Winery

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.

The Winery

 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.

Trying to keep up with James!

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.”

A pair of Shous

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

A Visit to Dablon Vineyards

Disclosure statement: We received a free night in the guest house, and a complimentary wine tasting of just about everything on the menu during our visit.

Back in December of 2020, I received an email from Bill Schopf, owner of Dablon Vineyards (and the Music Box theater in Chicago and Music Box film distributors). He had seen my head-to-head review of Dablon’s 2016 Cabernet Franc and 2Lads’ 2016 Cab Franc and offered to host me in the winery guest house and show me around the place. December of 2020 being December of 2020, I told him I didn’t feel comfortable going there at that time, but I would email him back when I did feel comfortable.

Dablon and da big blue sky

 By mid-May, Liz and I were both fully vaccinated, and things seemed to be settling down for the moment, so I emailed Bill again and took him up on his offer.  We arranged to stay at the Dablon guest house for one night on July 5, as the opening night of our scaled-back 20th anniversary trip.

We arrived at the winery at around 2 pm on July 5.  Bill was at the tasting bar when we arrived, and he promptly gave us a tour along with one other person, Magda, a friend of Bill’s. It was a very hot day by southwest Michigan standards, so we only visited the vineyards right outside of the tasting room, which happened to be planted with Pinot Noir. Later, Liz and I did have a chance to wander through the Cabnernet Sauvignon, though.

Bill stressed the importance of vine density in the vineyard. His Pinot Noir vines are planted about three feet apart, mirroring the density found in many French vineyards. This results in about 2,000 vines per acre, cropped to yield around 3 tons of fruit per acre. All Dablon’s grapes are harvested by hand, which can be a challenge, given the the tight harvest window here in the Wolverine state. That said, trimming and hedging are done mechanically for the Burgundian varieties. All wines produced under the Dablon label are estate grown. The nearly phased out Music Box label is used for wines from grapes that were purchased from elsewhere.

I asked Bill which clones he used for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Bill referred us to his winemaker/vineyard manager Rudy Shafer, who responded via email. Out of curiosity I asked about some other varieties as well. Here’s how it breaks down*:  Four out of the five Pinot Noir clones used are from Cote d’Or in Burgundy. The other one (clone 23) is from Switzerland. For Chardonnay they use two clones from California, two from Dijon in Burgundy, and the remaining three are other French clones. For Riesling, Dablon uses all German clones: 3 from the Rheingau, 2 are from Pfalz, and one from the Mosel. All their Cab Franc and half of their Cab Sauv clones are French. The rest of the Sauvignon clones are from Mendoza in Argentina and one is from California.

It was a very hot day by Michigan standards so after showing us the Pinot Noir block, Bill quickly hustled us inside to take a look at his equipment, his winemaking equipment, that is. Bill said he loves technology, and I could tell by the pride in his voice when he ran down the vital stats on everything in the winery proper. He was especially proud of his new bottling machine.

For fermenting the whites, Dablon uses temperature-controlled, Italian-made jacket tanks. According to Rudy Shafer, Dablon has thirty of these tanks ranging from 1500 to 13,000 liters in campacity for a total capacity of 40,000 gallons. All Dablon wines are cold stabilized to reduce the amount of tartrate crystals in the finished product. Personally, I like wine crystals but I’m not in the business of selling wine. Different yeast strains are also used for different varieties.

Dablon almost exclusively uses French oak for their wines that spend time in wood. Bill estimated that less than 2% of their barrels are non-French. “Good for whiskey, not good for wine.” The exception is their forthcoming Tempranillo, with which they’ve been using American oak, since Bill thinks it works better with wines made from that grape.

The highlight of the tour was the wine library, a small room will racks covering the walls and high-top table and chairs in the middle. All the racks are made from the wood of a single ash tree from the property that was cut down shortly after Bill purchased the farm in 2008. It’s a beautiful room, and he said there had been many proposals made there. I assume he meant marriage, but he wasn’t specific.

We then headed back up to the tasting room for a tasting with wine club manager Cassondra Rudlaff. She grew up in the area and was able to give us some nice insights into the state of SW wine and agriculture in general. One issue that came out of my look at the Michigan Craft Beverage Council’s Small Fruit and Hops report back in May was the slow decline of juice grape farming in southwest Michigan. I asked her if she could see SW Michigan grape-growers shifting over the wine grapes entirely (or close to it). She noted that there are geological limits to where good quality wine grapes can be grown, wine juice types can be grown nearly anywhere. She also expressed pessimism on the future of the blueberry industry in the state, which is facing competition from the coasts.

The tasting room itself is beautiful with lots of glass and wood and an open, airy feel. Liz was instantly a fan because of the purse hooks underneath the bar.

Magda also joined us for the tasting. We started with dry white wines, as one does. Cassondra poured all three of us the 2017 unoaked Chardonnay to start and it ended up being everyone’s favorite of the whites. The other stand-outs in that category were the 2017 Eastate White Blend (75% Chardonnay), the 2017 Pinot Gris (oaked, unlike the Pinot Grigio), and of course the 2017 Dry (<1% residual sugar) Riesling.

Next were the 2018 Pinot Noir Rosé and 2018 sparkling Blanc de Blanc. The Rosé was strong, and according to Cassondra there are no plans to make any of other varieties. The Blanc de Blanc was even better. They make it themselves, and it is a money-losing proposition even at $50 a bottle, according to Bill. It’s a matter of “honor” for him, though. I’m with Bill on this. When you can grow Chard of this quality, producing a Blanc de Blanc is the right thing to do.

As good as their whites were, dry reds take up the most space on the Dablon tasting menu. At the time, it listed one Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and Carmenere (according to Bill, the Dablon estate is the only place in Michigan where this grape is being grown), two Cabernet Sauvignons, and three red blends. Petit Verdot and Tannat were available by the bottle but not for tastings and large format bottles of the 2016 Syrah and Cab Sauv Reserve are also available for purchase. Older varietal bottlings and an exclusive blend are available through the wine club. A Tempranillo blend was released earlier this year (2021) and a varietal Nebbiolo is planned for release sometime in the next few years, according to winemaker Rudy Shafer.

All of the dry reds we tasted were good. My favorites (earning the coveted ++ mark on my menu), were the 2016 Merlot, 2017 Cab Sauv, and the 2016 Estate Red blend. The Estate Red varies in its composition from year to year. In 2016 it was 59% Cab Sauv, 25% Merlot, 10% Malbec, and 6% Petit Verdot. The constituent wines spend one year in oak separately and then another year together. The 2016 Estate Red Blend sells for $50 a bottle at the winery.

The other dry red blends include Producer’s Cut and the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot. The producer’s cut also varies from year to year with regard to grapes and percentages of those grapes. The 2016 we tasted was 45% Cab Franc, 45% Merlot, and 10% Malbec. It sells for $36. The Cab Sauv/Merlot blend is always 50/50, had good acid, and also sells for $36 a bottle.

Dablon produces a limited number of sweet wines. The standouts in that category were the 2018 Traminette, and 2020 sweet Riesling. The only remaining Music Box wine still on the menu was the 2017 Matinee Red, made from the relatively new Arandell variety, a Seyval Blanc descendent created at Cornell University. The grapes were grown in the vineyards of the Nitz family, frequent St. Julian collaborators. Dablon does not produce any fruit or true dessert wines.

After the tasting Cassondra showed us to the guest house. It was a short three-minute walk away, but five to ten minutes by car. (They frown upon driving through the vineyards). I expected a tiny one-room cottage or trailer, but it’s a comfortable, fashionably decorated three-bedroom, three level house with a full kitchen, dining room, patio and a den in the basement. No food or WiFi was provided, but there was an extensive DVD collection (all Music Box films of course). I was too tired to cook anything at the end of the day, so we picked up some grocery store fried chicken and ate it in the dining room.

After a comfortable night’s sleep, we ate a light breakfast and decided to talk a walk along the forest trail next to the house. After a pleasant stroll among the cohosh and ferns, the trailed ended at the top of the huge (by lower Michigan standards) hill that is home to Bill’s Cabernet Sauvignon, a hill made even bigger by dirt excavated from what’s now the wine cellar. We wandered around the vines a bit, taking a few photos and enjoying the beauty of the scene before heading back to pack.

Parting words:

What sets Dablon apart from its peers? A couple things do, in my view. First, their Burgundian-type wines are very good, but Dablon’s overall strength is in age-worthy Bordeaux style reds. This puts them in relatively rare company in Michigan, but what sets them apart from even from the other winemakers  that produce strong is their willingness to experiment with different varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are relatively rare in Michigan, but Malbec, Tannat, Tempranillo, and Petit Verdot are almost unheard of. Nebbiolo is only grown one other place in the state to my knowledge, and as noted above Carmenere is probably unique to Dablon. You’re not going to get to taste Michigan Carmenere anywhere other than at Dablon’s tasting room, and varietally bottled Michigan Malbec is nearly as rare.

Future 2021 Pinot Noir.

Second, there’s an independent streak to Bill, and Dablon in general. The winery is not a part of the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail or the Michigan Wine Collaborative, so Dablon doesn’t appear on wine trail maps or participate in many Michigan wine events. They’re a little too big to be called a cult winery, but they do have a dedicated group of fans that have sought them out despite their rugged individualism and remain loyal year after year. After this visit, I think Liz and I consider ourselves a part of that group.

What’s the future have in store for Dablon? Besides new vintages of their current line-up, they’re very excited about the upcoming Tempranillo and Nebbiolo releases. According to Rudy, the 2020 unoaked Tempranillo was released in September, with the 2022 vintage due to be released in the summer of 2022. The 2019 Tempranillo blend may be released this November (2021). As for the Nebbiolo: “The 2021 Nebbiolo will be made as a 100% varietal and aged in French oak. We will taste it every few months to determine for how long we age it in oak. It could be as long as four years.”

Our visit to Dablon was a lot of fun and we appreciate Bill’s hospitality, Cassondra’s knowledge and Rudy’s willingness to take time out from harvest to answer my questions after we returned home. If you have to opportunity to take a tour, visit the tasting room or just buy a bottle of their Cab, I highly recommend it!

*Pinot Noir clones: 115, 667, 777, 828, 23. Chardonnay: 17, 96, 41, 76, 70, 69, 72. Riesling:  09, 21, 23, 17, 01, 12. Cab Franc: 12, 04, 214, 13, 11. Cab Sauv: 06, 04, 33, 337, 43, 05.

Thomas S. Moore, Cabernet Sauvignon cask finish

Maker: Barton 1792, Bardstown, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)

Style: Rye-recipe bourbon finished in Cabernet Sauvignon casks.

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 95.3 (47.65% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $70

Appearance: Ruddy brown.

Nose: Overdone cherry pie, particle board, alcohol, anise.

Palate: Full bodied. Cherry juice, oak, then burn.

Finish: Cherry vanilla ice cream, alcohol.

Parting words: Sazerac has done a lot with the Barton distillery in Bardstown since they purchased the distillery from Constellation in 2009. The latest thing is the Thomas S. Moore line of wine barrel finished bourbons.

I’m not a purist when it comes to finished bourbon. I think a finish can be a nice addition to bourbon when applied judiciously and when the underlying bourbon is good quality. Fortified wine finishes are pretty common with whiskeys of all kinds, so I thought I’d try the Cab Sauv finish first. The finish adds some fun, fruity notes, but they’re quickly overcome by an underlying unrefined harshness. Water reduces the heat, but the harshness remains. It reminds me of going to my senior prom. I was wearing a tux and a sporting a fresh haircut, but underneath I was the same crude, rude teen.

If this were $20 cheaper, this harshness might be easier to overlook or I could write it off as an interesting mixer, but $70 is serious money for a bourbon from a major distiller. Sazerac can do better than this.

While I’m at it, I might as well mention the bottle and label, which are worse than what’s inside. The two tone horse picture, disjointed graphic design, and ugly, generic bottle, makes Thomas S. Moore look more like a prop from a mid-century movie set than a 21st century high-end bourbon.

Thomas S. Moore, Cabernet Sauvignon cask finish is not recommended.

Ultima Thule, 2013

Maker: Mari Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Grapes: 45% Nebbiolo, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot

Place of origin: Mari Estate, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 13.5%

Purchased for $60 at winery (minus 18% [IIRC] media discount)

Thanks to Sean O’Keefe and everyone else at Mari for the generous media discount.

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Plum, black currant jam, blackberry, white pepper, leather.

Palate: Full-bodied and tart. Raspberry, black currant, mulberry, tart cherry, oak.

Finish: Acidic and relatively short. Chewy on the back end.

Parting words: The islands of Thule were first mentioned by the Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia (died c. 285 BCE). It was as six days sail north of Great Britain and was the most northern point known to people of the ancient Mediterranean. It’s unclear what, if any, real place Thule was. Iceland, Greenland, Orkney, Shetland, or some island off Norway have all been suggested. One later geographer suggestions the name may come from an old name refering to the Polar night, the sun never sets for weeks or months on end in high latitudes. When we were in Orkney, locals refered to it as the “simmer (summer) dim” when the sun never completely sets but just hangs around the horizon all night. We actually experienced a bit of this ourselves during our brief time there. I remember waking up around 2 am or so to see sunlight peaking through the blinds in our B & B.

On ancient and Medieval European maps, Ultima Thule became a fixture in the northwest, representing the northernmost inhabited bit of land. While the Old Mission Peninsula is much closer in latitude to Bordeaux or Torino than to Orkney or Iceland, Mari’s vineyards are at the northernmost point of Old Mission and this wine represents the ultimate expression of their nellaserra (hoop-house) system. Northern Michigan has enough sun to ripen Nebbiolo, but the cold springs present a big problem for the grape, which needs a relatively long time to ripen. The hoop-houses act as large cold frames and enable Nebbiolo to get the head start it needs to ripen.

As for the wine itself, it’s complex but not busy. It’s more acidic than I expected, but 2013 was a very cool vintage that saw pretty tart and but very long-lived wines. It’s not bracing or pucker-inducing by any stretch, though. The acid is firmly grounded in the fruit, and rounded off with judicious oak and spice.

$60 is a lot of money for a Michigan wine, or any wine period, really. I think it’s worth the money, however, and I think there’s three reasons why. First is rarity. To my knowledge there are no other Nebbiolo vines in Michigan besides those belonging to Mari Vineyards. Second is longevity. Cab Sauv and Nebbiolo are known for their ability to age for long periods of time so I originally planed to open this wine in the fall of 2023 but I just couldn’t wait that long. I have no regrets about opening it when I did but I think it could have gone for two or three more years at least. This is born out by how good it still tasted one and even two days after open.

Finally, this wine is worth at least $60 because it’s just so good. It’s good with food, by itself, in a box, with a fox, however you want to drink it. Mari Vineyards Ultima Thule, 2013 is recommended!

Sandhill Crane Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012

Maker: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USA20191130_071255.jpg

Grape: Cabernet Sauvignon (at least 75%)

Place of origin: Michigan

Vintage: 2012

ABV: 13%

Purchased for $22 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Appearance: Brick red.

Nose: Toasted oak, walnut, crushed black cherries, dark chocolate.

Palate: Medium bodied. Tart and a little chewy. Balanced. Blackberry, black pepper, mushroom.

Finish: Tart, then a little tannic.

Parting words: Sandhill Crane is located in Jackson County Michigan, in the south central part of the state. While Jackson doesn’t have the lakefront and glacial features of Southwest and Northwest Michigan wine country, it does have three fine wineries, Lone Oak (in Grass Lake), Chateau Aeronautique, and Sandhill Crane.

Sandhill Crane is the biggest of the three with a wide variety of blends and varietals, including this Cabernet Sauvignon. Michigan isn’t known for this grape, but it is grown more widely than one might think. Still, it’s rare to find it bottled as a varietal here, so when it is, it’s almost always worth picking up. This wine is no exception.

No one would confuse this wine for a Napa Cab or a Left Bank Bordeaux, but it has some very nice varietal and cool climate notes with fruit, acid and tannin pleasantly balanced. It would probably hold up for another year or two at least, but this vintage is drinking very well right now, so sear yourself a steak and crack open your bottle if you have one. The 2016 and 2017 vintage should be able to age this long too if you have one of those. 2012 Sandhill Crane Cabernet Sauvignon is recommended.

 

 

 

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.

Chateau Aeronautique Passito Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013

Maker: Chateau Aeronautique, Jackson, Michigan, USAwpid-2015-11-11-11.19.03.jpg.jpeg

Place of origin: Michigan, USA

Style: Straw wine (made with raisins)

ABV: 12%

Price: $45/375 ml (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Notes from label: 38.0 brix at harvest, residual sugar 15% by weight.

Appearance: Rusty red, big heavy robe, thick slow legs.

Nose: Tawny port, cherry, other stone fruit.

Palate: Full bodied and fruity. Plum, cherry pie filling, vanilla, white pepper.

Finish: Big cherry flavor, like a cherry wine. Gets a litt

Parting words: The technique for making straw, or raisin, wine is an ancient one. The epic poet Hesiod (a contemporary of Homer) mentions a Cyprian straw wine called Manna in his poem Works and Days. Ancient Carthage produced a straw wine the Romans loved and called passum. The modern Italian term for raisin wine is passito, derived from the ancient wine. Amarone is probably the best known, but passito is made all over Italy, and in the Czech Republic (slámové víno), France (vin de paille), Greece (variety of local names), Austria and Germany (strohwein or schilfwein), among other places. Drying the grapes has a similar effect to “noble rot” (botrytis) or allowing the grapes to freeze, as in ice wine. The result is an intensely flavored, thick, sweet wine. As one might guess, the process also adds to the price of the wine.

The label describes this wine as “cherry pie in a glass” which is a bit of an overstatement, but it does have a wonderfully fruity aroma and flavor that makes for a delicious holiday dessert wine. It might also make a good gateway dessert wine with its easily discernable flavors. It pairs well with chocolate and it’s probably my favorite of the dessert wines currently on pour at Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room in Royal Oak. The label says to serve it chilled, but I’ve had it both chilled and at room temperature and it was good either way.

My only concern with this is the price. This is a good wine but for $45/375 ml I want it to be exceptional. I understand that a number of factors contribute to the high price of this wine, like being from a boutique producer, being made using a special technique and being made with a variety that can be hard to grow successfully in Michigan. After factoring that in, the price is still high, but it’s a unique product for Michigan and I think that unconventional thinking should be rewarded. It’s not like anyone’s going to be trying to chug this from an oversized balloon glass or a Solo cup after all. Chateau Aeronautique Passito Cabernet Sauvignon is recommended.

Two Days in Napa

One of the things I enjoy about wine is its strong connection to place. There’s an old saying that when you taste cider, you taste apples and when you taste cherry wine, you taste cherries but when you taste wine made from grapes, you taste the soil and the sun and the rain. This concept is called terroir, and while it is often over emphasized there is a strong element of truth to it. Different varies of grape grow in differently in different places and the same variety or even an identical clone of the same plant will produce a wine that tastes very differently from vineyard to vineyard. That’s to say nothing of the different traditions and techniques of the world’s vineyards.

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a wine lover is visiting these places where grapes are grown and wine is produced. Last year when I received an invitation to my cousin’s wedding in Fremont, California the little hamster wheel inside my brain started turning. My wife and I went to Sonoma years ago when my sister and her husband lived in Northern California so it seemed natural that the next area to visit would be Napa.

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When we left Royal Oak in the morning, our backyard looked like this.

When we left our hotel in the morning, we saw this.
When we left our hotel in the morning of the next day, we saw this.

We arrived in San Jose late at night so we just stayed at an airport hotel and drove to Calistoga to Rivers-Marie HQ in the morning. The most harrowing part of the drive was the final leg driving up and down mountains on two lane roads with no shoulders. Luckily my wife was behind the wheel so I could just close my eyes for the most alarming parts.

The office for Rivers-Marie is in a beautiful, fairly large craftsman style house in Calistoga itself. After meeting with friend-of-the-blog Will (R-M’s employee, as he described himself), we hopped in the truck and went to the associated winery, Tamber Bey. They make wine for a variety of labels and from a variety of vineyards, but Rivers-Marie is the house brand. Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is their specialty but they also do a Cab and a Chard under that label.

When we arrived they were racking the wine and Will showed us around the equipment.IMG_20140327_121951

We then got a chance to visit the wines resting in the barrels and taste a few. With most of them, I took a sip and thought, “This isn’t so bad” and then got smacked in the mouth with a big burst of sulphur. Not good drinking but educational.

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We then went back to the office for a great tasting and great conversation with Will. I learned a lot about Napa and Sonoma and wine in general from the conversation. My thinking was even changed on a few things, like being overly tough on certain Michigan wineries whose wine I haven’t liked.

We ended up ordering four bottles from them. Since they don’t have a Michigan distributor, we were able to have them shipped.

RM Wines

Nothing could really compare to that experience, but we visited a few more wineries over the next two days.

There was scenic and pricey Alpha Omega.
There was scenic and pricey Alpha Omega.

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And Mumm, specializing in sparklers.

We also visited a couple “Judgement of Paris” wineries, Grgich Hills and Stag’s Leap. Both were nice, but Stag’s Leap was an especially nice experience and the wines were amazing. Thanks to the advice of friends of the blog Jessica & Brian we also stopped at Elyse winery, a small family-owned winery. It’s not particularly scenic but the wines were very good and it’s always nice to be able to talk to the people who helped make the wine while you’re tasting it. This was our haul, at least all that we could carry on the plane:

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We had heard horror stories about how Napa was a wine-themed Disney World, but it didn’t strike me as Disneyesque at all. Yes, there are plenty of touristy wineries, especially the big or famous ones, but the ones we saw didn’t seem any more touristy than ones we’ve seen in Michigan, Indiana or New York. Our experience with Will and at Elyse was anything but touristy. So, like most places, it’s all about expectations. If you go to Mondavi expecting Robert to look up from picking grapes to wave to you from the vineyard as you roll up on the gravel driveway, you’ll be disappointed. Especially since Robert Mondavi has been dead for several years now. If you plan your visit carefully and know what you’re in for you’ll be able to have a good time.

Napa isn’t just wine of course, but lots of good food too. Oenotri in downtown Napa was a standout, but we hit a couple nice little bistros along the way.

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The wedding was a blast. The ceremony was a shortened version of the traditional Hindu ceremony, but instead of a horse, the groom rode in on a Ford Mustang. That summed up the festivities pretty well. The reception (on the next day) was even better. Best Indian food I have ever had and best beer list I have ever seen at a wedding reception. My cousin is a big craft beer fan, and she especially loves sour beers. I think we clean up well, too.

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It was a wonderful time, and it’s all thanks to my brilliant cousin Rhiannon (aka Rachel) and her brilliant husband Ashish, who is already living up to his name. May you have many more blessings in the years to come!

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