Maker: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USA
Grape: Cabernet Sauvignon (at least 75%)
Place of origin: Michigan
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.
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!).
The tasting room with its awards, photos and piano.
Warren Raftshol (top).
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 behind the bar.
Liz in front of it, tasting the orange Marsanne.
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.
Rows of Cabernet.
Pruned hunk of vine
Sandy vineyard soil.
The carefully pruned vines
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.
Left & Right Bank
Back labels featuring actual photo of Nathaniel performing a feat of strength.
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!).*
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.
Maker: Chateau Aeronautique, Jackson, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Michigan, USA
Style: Straw wine (made with raisins)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nothing could really compare to that experience, but we visited a few more wineries over the next two days.
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:
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.
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.
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!