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.
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: Moraine (now Dablon) estate, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Style: Unoaked, dry Chardonnay.
Price: $20 (winery)
Appearance: Light gold.
Nose: Tangerine, brown butter, peach, mango, minerals.
Palate: Dry. Butter, melon, mineral water, banana.
Finish: Bitter butter batter, gravel dust.
Parting words: 2012 is a vintage best known for its excellent reds in LMS and the northern Michigan AVAs. The whites I’ve had from 2012 have been inconsistent, even from large producers. I tasted this wine at the Dablon tasting room and I was pleasantly surprised.
Moraine Vineyards Chardonnay is unusual for Michigan. The unoaked ones tend to be round, fruity and mild but Moraine is boldly dry, even drier than its ABV would suggest. It’s more like a Chablis or Mâconnais than a typical Michigan Chard. Fatty fish or creamy cheese would be excellent pairings, but chicken and pork chops would work too. I really enjoyed this wine. Worth the money and then some. 2012 Moraine Vineyards Chardonnay is highly recommended.
Maker: Domaine Berrien, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Domaine Berrien estate, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Price: Forgotten (around $20)
Appearance: Dark ruby.
Nose: Black currant jelly, oak, clove.
Palate: Medium bodied, juicy, tart cherry, then moving to bitter oak.
Finish: Chewy and drying but with a squirt of blackberry juice.
Parting words: Syrah/Shiraz is a grape most closely associated with the Northern Rhone Valley and Australia. Southwest Michigan’s climate is closer to the Northern Rhone’s but the temperature is more extreme on the top and bottom ends, like that of the rest of the northeastern of the US. Domaine Berrien’s Syrah is in the cool climate category, but the high end temps push it toward the fruitier warm climate style.
This is one of the wines that I brought over from old Sipology HQ’s “cellar” in the corner of the laundry room to my current cellar. I’m glad I let it sit as long as I did, because it’s blossomed into a wonderful wine (although it had a good head start). It’s fruity but spicy and structured and goes well with food (like turkey) but just as good without. Syrah isn’t one of Michigan’s marquee grapes, but DB does a wonderful job with it. This is a wine worth seeking out. 2011 Domaine Berrien Syrah is recommended.
Lots of interesting things are going on in the Michigan wine scene right now. The latest big news is that as of 2017 Michigan will have a new AVA.
What’s an AVA, you ask? AVA stands for American Viticultural Area. The program was begun in the early 1980s as an answer to the French AOC appellation system and other European systems. The first AVAs were awarded in 1982, and they continued to roll in at a good clip through 1991. There are 238 total, with 138 (58%) of them in California. In addition to AVAs, a number of counties and all fifty states are allowed to put their names on a bottle as a legally defined place of origin. At least 85% of the grapes going into the wine have to be from the place in question. If the wine is bottled as a varietal (Old Mission Peninsula Riesling, for example), at least 75% of the grapes of that variety must come from the place on the bottle. Currently Michigan has four AVAs. By way of comparison, New York has nine and Virginia has seven. Indiana has one entirely to itself and shares another with Ohio and Kentucky. In Michigan, Leelanau Peninsula and Fennville were established in 1982, Lake Michigan Shore in 1983 and Old Mission Peninsula in 1987. The fifth, dubbed “Tip of the Mitt” will become official in 2017.
So this is a good thing, right? It’s certainly getting a lot of publicity, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, not all publicity is good publicity. I believe that the Tip of the Mitt AVA is unnecessary and may even end up hurting the reputation of Michigan wine overall. It’s too large to be meaningful and its inability to produce vinifera does not warrant the spotlight of AVA recognition. Recognition for a marginal (at best) area occupied by marginal winemakers drags down the reputation of Michigan wine as a whole.
AVAs don’t just fall from the sky, they’re the result of a long process that starts with a petition from winemakers in that particular area. In this case the Straits Area Grape Growers Association (SAGGA) petitioned the federal government for this designation. SAGGA is made up of wineries in the area included in Tip of the Mitt. All those wineries are also members of Michigan’s newest wine Trail, Bay View, named for the Chautauqua resort community near Petoskey, Michigan. Ironically, the Bay View community does not allow the consumption of alcohol in public spaces within its borders.
Granting an AVA to an area is a federal recognition of a geologically distinct region where wine grapes are grown. It gives the marketing advantage of having a name on the bottle that consumers can recognize and seek out. It comes with the added bonus of being able to use the “estate bottled” (the American equivalent of the French mise en bouteille au chateau) designation on the label if all the grapes that went into the wine were grown in vineyards owned by the winery.
All this is supposed to give a marketing advantage to wines produced within an AVA, but the marketing for TotM has been confused from the outset. The wine trail is Bay View, the AVA is Tip of the Mitt and the trade association is Straights Area. Three completely different names are being used for the same region. The name of the wine trail itself is confusing since its wineries are not only in Bay View but stretch across the region. Tip of the Mitt sounds silly and is only readily understood by Michiganders who are used to referring to the lower peninsula as “the mitten” because of its mitten-like shape. Michigan Straights or Mackinac Straits might have been a better name. In the short term, changing the name of the trail and the growers association might be a good fix, but that’s not the only problem TotM has.
Tip of the Mitt is huge, the largest AVA in the state by far. It stretches from Charlevoix to Alpena and north to Cheboygan, encompassing six counties and over 2,700 square miles. It is a little larger than the state of Delaware. Lake Michigan Shore is about 2,000 square miles, Leelanau is around 117, and Old Mission about 30. Fennville (which is entirely inside LMS) is tiny, but I can’t get a good number for its actual area. Online sources say 117 square miles, same as Leelanau, but that can’t be right. At any rate, there are many larger AVAs around the country, but they are either umbrella AVAs with many smaller ones within them (e.g. Central Coast in California or Finger Lakes in New York) or they are like the 6,000 square mile Mississippi Delta AVA which barely produces wine except a little from the Muscadine grapes, a pungent native species.
Like other far north areas (the 30,000 square mile Upper Mississippi Valley AVA for example) Tip of the Mitt is too cold to grow anything other than hybrid grape vines. Not even relatively cold hardy varieties like Riesling or Chardonnay will grow. As Cortney Casey writes in her excellent article on TotM in Hour Detroit Magazine:
In fact, the AVA is too cold to grow traditional vinifera grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and riesling, [Harvest Thyme Farm & Vineyards’ Brendan] Prewitt says. Instead, the area’s growers depend heavily on newer hybrid varieties like Marquette, La Crescent and frontenac gris “that can provide a full crop … in spite of low winter temperatures and short, cool growing seasons,” he says. “We want the Tip of the Mitt to convey the mastery of growing grapes in a challenging climate and the production of top-quality wines from these relatively new grape varieties.
Note how Prewitt avoids the H-word: “hybrid” and instead calls them “new grape varieties”. This is probably because hybrids have a bad reputation among wine enthusiasts.
Hybrids are crosses between two different species of grape, usually the European one (vitis vinifera or vinifera for short) and a North American species. The best known varieties of wine like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot et al are all different varieties of the vinifera species. Think of the differences between breeds of dogs. They’re all the same species, but they can vary a lot from each other.
Hybrid grapevines are grown because they are generally more disease resistant and are more reliable producers in marginal climates than vinifera. The tradeoff is that they usually don’t taste as good. I’m not anti-hybrid. I’ve had good wines made from hybrid grapes. Some, like Chardonel and Traminette, work well bottled as a varietal but I think most are best used in blends or special applications like sparkling or ice wines. The hybrid grapevines used in northern climates are mostly ones developed by the University of Minnesota like La Crescent, Marquette and Frontenac.
I’m all for bringing hybrids to respectability and using them for “the production of top quality wines” but that’s a long journey, one that none of the TotM producers seem to be taking at the moment. None of the wines from SAGGA members that I’ve tasted have conveyed a “mastery of growing grape in a challenging climate”. Many of them were made with grapes grown elsewhere, even the ones made with hybrid grapes. At best they’ve been boring wines. In fact, two of the worst wines I’ve ever had were from producers in TotM. One was an unintentionally sparkling Merlot that also tasted bad and another was a red hybrid blend of some sort that smelled like store brand bacon. Highlighting these wineries by giving them an AVA, at least as they are now, isn’t exactly putting Michigan’s best foot forward. A Michigan wine newcomer could get a poor impression of Michigan wines after drinking something from Tip of the Mitt.
There’s room in the Michigan wine world for table wines. I don’t object to unambitious, or unbalanced wines for weeknight dinner or porch sipping. If the AVA designation is to be meaningful it should denote a certain level of quality, though. Contrast TotM with the situation of winemakers in Southeast Michigan. Many of them are making very good wine, especially reds, but all they can do is put “Michigan” on their labels, with no AVA or estate grown designation. The value of an AVA is undermined when a marginal area receives one but an area producing high quality wine grapes has to soldier on without. AVAs should be granted to areas that are already producing quality wine as a recognition of the quality and distinctiveness of their area, not handed out to areas that might, under some circumstances, produce decent wine at some point in the future.
All this makes me wonder if the creation of the new AVA was for wine reasons or for tourism reasons. When the Bay View wine trail was created, I questioned the wisdom of creating a wine trail to promote wineries in a marginal area that were producing marginal wine. By “questioned” I mean that I made snarky remarks about it on Twitter. I called it the “tourist trap wine trail” because I think what motivated the creation of the Bay View wine trail and Tip of the Mitt was vitis envy. The Lake Michigan Shore and Northern Michigan are popular tourist areas. Leelanau Peninsula and Traverse City (home to the Old Mission Peninsula) have their own AVAs, as does the Lake Michigan Shore to the southwest. Charlevoix, Petoskey, Cheboygan and Boyne City to the north didn’t, even though tourism has been just as important there as it has been elsewhere in Northern Michigan. SAGGA may have wanted the AVA and wine trail to keep their tourists from driving south to spend their wine tourism dollars. The first paragraph of this article implies as much. A trail and AVA help in that regard but the quality of wine in the area needs to improve quickly or momentum and tourist dollars will be lost. As much as I snarked about the Bay View wine trail, a wine trail is an instrument for tourism. Its creation is appropriate for the goal of promoting wine tourism in the area. An AVA should be about the wine itself, not tourism.
What the Tip of the Mitt AVA has brought into focus for me is the need for Michigan winemakers and the state department of agriculture to work together to develop a unified strategy for increasing the number of AVAs in the state (among other things). Letting regional wine organizations like SAGGA go it alone will result in a crazy quilt of AVAs some of which will be TotMs types. Luckily a new organization has brought together winemakers, famers, retailers, tourism boards and others for support and cooperation. It is the called the Michigan Wine Collaborative. It has the potential to prevent such a and advance a unified strategy for Michigan’s expanding wine industry. Yours truly inquired about being on the board, but all the positions were already filled at the time. Also, taking care of a six-month old baby sucks up a lot of my time.
I already mentioned the need for an AVA or AVAs in Southeast Michigan but another possibility for expansion could the subdivision of existing AVAs. Lake Michigan Shore is big itself and is ripe for further division. Maybe an arrangement similar to the villages in Beaujolais or Cote de Rhone could be adopted. It would be great to see Baroda, Paw Paw and Coloma join Fennville as AVAs within LMS. Perhaps there could even be an LMS Villages designation for wines made from a combination of grapes from near those towns. Leelanau could benefit from a similar arrangement or it could be divided into three parts based on the Sleeping Bear, Northern and Grand Traverse Bay loops of the Leelanau Wine Trail. These subdivisions could also add another layer of interest to wines made by Michigan’s growing stable of garagiste style winemakers.
If Michigan wine is to continue to grow its regional and national reputation, its wine producers and the state need to be strategic and deliberate about adding AVAs and wine trails. It might even be a good idea for to meet with winemakers from Ontario and New York to come up with regional strategies as well. Then, hopefully, we avoid any more Tip of the Mitts. Or is it Tips of the Mitt?
Once a summer, our family has what we call Grandparent Camp. We send our daughter to Indianapolis for a week to spend time with the grandparents, all four of them. When we were thinking about what to do that week, returning to Lake Michigan Shore wine country was on the top of the list. The wrinkle was that we would have the baby with us, since he’s still too little for Grandparent Camp. As most parents can tell you, taking a baby along on trips is actually much easier than taking a toddler or an older child, though. The baby doesn’t complain about getting bored or knock over shelves or have temper tantrums. If the baby cries changing the diaper or feeding will usually do the trick.
Anyway, we wanted to visit some new places but also hit some old favorites in our limited two-night stay. On the way over, we stopped at Lawton Ridge in Kalamazoo for a tasty crepe supper and some wine tasting. The whites were good as was the service. Friendly, homey, neighborhood type place. The next day (Thursday) was our busy day. We started off with a visit to Fenn Valley in Fennville (north of the cluster of wineries around Baroda but worth the trip), got lunch at Crane’s Pie Pantry (good pie and cider but mediocre food otherwise) and then headed back south stopping at old favorites Domaine Berrien (great as always), neighboring Lemon Creek (cozy tasting room) and newbies Dablon with their beautiful hilltop tasting room.
I had wanted to do a “A Visit To…” profile on one of the LMS wineries and I thought Round
Barn would be the perfect choice. I had a nice conversation with winemaker Matt and then Brand Ambassador Bethany of Round Barn/Free Run Cellars at the Michigan Wine Showcase so I thought I’d send Bethany and email and ask if she’d be available to give us a tour for blogging purposes. A man named RJ replied that Bethany was no longer brand ambassador, but he was now and he’d be able to give us a tour. Unfortunately, he ended up having a conflict himself, and we got our tour from veteran tour guide Jessica.
Round Barn opened as a winery in 1992. It was founded by Rick Moersch, who was winemaker at nearby Tabor Hill at the time. He had owned vineyards since 1981, so he used them as the basis for his own winery which he named Heart of the Vineyard. In 1997 the round barn was purchased and moved from Rochester, Indiana to the property where it was reassembled by Amish builders. Rick intended it to serve as a home for a brandy distillery. In 2004 the winery was renamed after the remarkable building. The spirits and brewing program began then as well.
We arrived at Round Barn shortly after opening. The place has changed quite a bit since our first visit several years ago. When we last visited, the eponymous round barn was used for production and the tasting room was in the other barn. The round one has been beautifully remodeled and now serves as the tasting room. The bar runs in a circle around the interior with bottles on the wall opposite. The second level has another bar
and six compartments for small group tastings. The group tastings are a popular bachelorette party activity according to Jessica.
Our tasting was on ground level and went through the usual tasting procedure with a few add ons. The system has been in use since mid May. You can see the tasting menu and the format they use in the photo. The menu changes monthly. Nothing we tasted was bad, but the standouts were Vineyard Tears (dry Riesling/Pinot Gris/Chardonnay blend), Albariño (American, but estate grown grapes are in the mix), estate Merlot (we had a lot of Merlot on this trip!), Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (also estate). Farm Market Blueberry and the wine-based Black Walnut Crème were standouts in the dessert arena (also the name of my new gameshow). When I mentioned that I wanted to try the Farm Market Blueberry, Jessica and had a short discussion about fruit wines. We agreed that fruit wines are really their own category that shouldn’t be judged by the standards of wine grape wines.* As I put it, it would be silly to say that a Chardonnay was bad because it lacked hop character. It’s just as silly to dismiss fruit wines for tasting too much like fruit. That’s entirely the point.
According to another employee, Round Barn has eighteen acres of vines, plus an additional four used for Free Run cellars (see below). Another two acres are used for something else, but I forgot to write it down in my notes (fruit maybe?). The vineyards didn’t suffer much damage in the polar vortex, according to Jessica. The only losses were their black currants, which I thought were illegal in Michigan, but can be grown with a special license.
We also tasted their spirits. The rum and agave spirit (distilled from imported agave juice) are both unaged and of mixer quality (as you can see above, those spirits are offered in cocktail form in the tastings). The real standout was the bourbon which is a very pleasant surprise. It is of limited production and will be reviewed in the near future. They also produce an aged brandy and a “grappa” but those are under the Free Run label and not currently offered for sale at the Round Barn tasting room. They are available at the Public House (see below). According to Jessica, there are no plans to produce an aged rum or agave spirit. There is also a blended American Whiskey on the menu that is a blend of rye and bourbon, according to RJ. I did not taste it. An Applejack is in the works too, made using locally grown apples.
The roof of the round barn
Round Barn’s best known spirit is DeVine Vodka, made from grapes. As I’ve ranted about on Twitter a few times, I don’t understand the desire to take perfectly good fruit like grapes or apples and turn them into a spirit that is by nature flavorless. It’s always seemed like a waste, but as the saying goes, you can’t argue with success and DeVine Vodka has been a success. They recently followed up the success of DeVine with 269 Gin, named after their area code. It’s a basket infused gin made using the grape spirit used for the vodka and will be reviewed in the future as well.
The column on the still
After touring the upstairs, Jessica led us through a beautiful courtyard to the not-
roundbarn (built in 1907 on the property), now christened the Round Barn. Upstairs is a smallish bar and gift shop with seven Round Barn beers on tap and all their spirits behind the bar. It’s a decent size space with a good sized deck attached. It seems like it would have a good flow of people between the two spaces when busy (and warm). We tried a sample of Vanilla ‘Stache, a vanilla porter, there. The vanilla comes through but in a subdued way. I liked it.
Deck at the other barn with hop vine
Black Walnut tree
The next stop was the production facility. It’s a non-descript industrial building set several yards away from the barns. It houses the winemaking equipment, automated bottling line, still and oak barrels, (all French for the wine). Since 2014, all brewing has been located adjacent to the Round Barn Public House in downtown Baroda (such as it is). That was our next stop. RJ’s meeting was over so he was able to meet us there.
The Public House is a red building with a bar and a large seating area and a large covered patio. It once served as a tool and die shop, owned by RJ’s father, as a matter of fact. The food is limited but good. Sandwiches mostly. Our lunch (RJ comped us for this) was good. They exclusively serve their own beer and spirits. With my lunch (turkey Bahn Mi and a cup of chili) I ordered a pint of Escaped Goat, the Hef PA. It was good. I told RJ that I was a fan of wheats, so brought me a couple samples of their current wheats (Vacation wheat ale and Straw Beery Strawberry wheat ale, both good) plus a couple experiments. The first experiment was a Saison they had been working on. It was good, but was not as flavorful as I had hoped. The second was a dry, tannic cider with Balaton cherry juice added. It was really intriguing. The result was closer to a sour beer than a fruit cider. It was not ready for prime time, but it had a lot of potential that I hope is realized soon!
RB Public House & Brewery
Public House bar
The one aspect of Round Barn’s business that we didn’t get to see was Free Run Cellars. Free Run is a multifaceted project. The name comes from the juice produced from the initial pressing of the wine, called free run juice, but also from the Rick’s sons (Matt and Christian) being given “free run” in the Round Barn Cellars. All the wines under the Free Run label are from free run juice (appropriately), and are single vineyard, estate wines. Free Run also has its own facility (opening later this month) that will host four wine, four appetizer pairing tastings with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients.
Many businesses that try to do a lot of different things end up letting their ambition getting the best of them. They are mediocre at everything instead of being good at one or two things. Round Barn does not fall into this trap. Some products are better than others, obviously, and wine is what they do best, but their beers and spirits were good too, some of them very good. If anything maybe they to be more ambitious with their beers and spirits. An aged rum could be very good. Ramping up their production of brandy might be a good idea as well. Bourbon is hot right now, but rum is also popular and getting more so. Brandy is on the way up as well. Copper & Kings in Kentucky is getting a lot of attention for bottling and selling Michigan-made brandy. Michigan producers need to be getting that attention.
Beautiful grounds, well run facilities and delicious products. Round Barn does it all and does it well. A visit to Round Barn is highly recommended.
Note: I received a free lunch at the Public House and a 25% media discount on purchases on this visit.
*”Wine grape wines” may seem redundant but the phrasing is intentional. In my opinion, wine made from grapes like Concord, Niagara or table grape varieties belongs in the “fruit wine” category. While they are grapes, they are not grown for the express purpose of winemaking. The line gets fuzzy when it comes to some native North American grapes like Muscadine that are eaten as fruit but also have a long history of being made into wine. Maybe this discussion would make a good My Two Ounces post.
Palate- Full bodied and luscious. A little oxidation evident. Golden Delicious apple, winter savory, ginger, angelica.
Finish: White pepper, clove. Fades but leaves a subtle sweetness lingering behind.
Parting words: Domaine Berrien is best known for their reds but they produce some very good whites, like this one too. Traminette is one of the few hybrids grown on their estates, but it’s a good choice given the warmer climate and lower latitude of Lake Michigan Shore AVA. It’s a fairly new hybrid created in 1965 as a cross of Gewurztraminer with a Seyve hybrid at the University of Illinois. It’s been named the signature grape of Indiana as well.
This is described as a “German style” Traminette, which is odd since the grape is not widely grown in Germany, to my knowledge anyway. I think what they mean is that they were aiming for a wine in the style of late harvest Riesling or Gewurz from Germany. It certainly has the mouthfeel and many of the aromas of an aged Spatlese or Auslese. I almost found myself wishing that I had let it sit for another year or two, but I’m also afraid that the slight mustiness on the nose might erupt into full-blown mildew. Maybe I was right to open it when I did, then.
Anyway, Domaine Berrien Sweet Traminette, 2012 is recommended. It may be hard to find at this point, but the 2013 is kicking around.
WB= Witches Brew (Leelanau Cellars, Omena, Michigan, USA)
LR= Revenge of the Living Red (Sandhill Crane, Jackson, Michigan, USA)
HM: $8 (wine only)
WB: $8 (Hollywood Market, Madison Heights)
LR: $18 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)
HM & WB: About the same. Dark burgundy.
LR: Beet red, almost blood red.
HM: Sweet with cinnamon and orange.
WB: Big cinnamon with some cherry juice.
LR: More typical red wine. Dry.
HM: Tart orange. Tannic.
WB: Easy Drinking. Sweet cherries, cinnamon. Not much else.
LR: Spicy with a little orange zest and cherry.
HM: Chewy. A little sweet orange.
WB: Sweet & light.
LR: Spicy dried chillies. Ancho?
HM: Smells sweet but tastes dry. Good once you get used to it.
WB: Cinnamon bomb. Almost too sweet.
LR: Drier. Finish burns. Don’t like it too much.
HM: Don’t like it. Bad, bitter aftertaste.
WB: Like it better. Cinnamon is good!
LR: Like WB but drier. Like it the best.
Parting words: I had wanted to do a mulled wine tasting for a while, but having three bottles open at the same time is a bit much, even for me. Normally Mrs. Sipology Blog would help out but she’s currently very knocked up so I invited friends of the blog Amy and Pete over to help.
For the homemade mulled wine, I had used TJ’s Harvest Blend Herbal Tea for mulled cider back in the fall with very good results so I thought I’d try it with wine. I thought it was OK, but not as good as the two pre-mulled wines. I kept adding more sugar which made it better but still not good enough. Next fall maybe I’ll start work on perfecting a mulled wine recipe. My own creation is not recommended.
Witches Brew is a big seller for Leelanau Cellars (known for their seasonal table wines) and it floods into grocery stores statewide in September and lingers well into the winter. The Halloween theme has always been a little puzzling to me, since I associate mulled wine with the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Pete assured me that he and many other people do associate mulled wine with the fall hayride season. At any rate, cinnamon is the dominant flavor, but clove and nutmeg also go into the brew. It has it’s share of haters, but I think it’s a decent buy for the right price (<$8). It’s NV so beware of overly dusty bottles, but they drink fine at a year or a little more after hitting the shelves. Recommended.
Sandhill Crane’s goes with a hipper zombie theme. Their original spiced wine was Night of the Living Red ($17 from the winery). According to the website it’s made with “cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, orange peel… and essence of fresh-squeezed zombies!” Revenge is infused with all those (including the zombie juice) plus estate grown chiles. The chiles add a nice shot of heat to the wine and set it apart from products like Witches Brew. Some, like Amy, may find this off-putting but I loved it. It’s $10 or more than WB but the taste is worth it, plus $2 from every Living Red bottle sold goes toward the college fund of the artist who created the label. That’s added value. Revenge of the Living Red is recommended.
Finish: Chewy. Oak, alcohol, fruit of the forest, sautéed button mushrooms.
Parting words: Domaine Berrien was one of the first Michigan wineries to take the possibilities of Michigan reds seriously. Their care shows in impressive wines like this.
DB’s 2010 Pinot Noir is complex without being busy and gutsy without being belligerent. Its balance, intergration and complexity are head and shoulders above other Michigan Pinots, even the good ones. I’ve had Michigan Pinots from this vintage from Northern Michigan that had already fallen apart in early 2014, but this one is still going strong.
It did well a meal of pulled pork but it did clash a little with the tangy, mustardy BBQ sauce I used. Otherwise, it seems like it would go very well with turkey, pork, duck or flavorful chicken dishes.
At only $15.50, it punches well above its class. I’ll be seeking out the 2011 and 2012 vintages for sure. Domaine Berrien’s 2010 Pinot Noir is highly recommended.
Appearance/atmosphere: Although MBTB Tasting Room was voted best wine bar for 2014 in Hour Detroit Magazine, it doesn’t feel like a wine bar at all. It really does feel like a tasting room at a winery. The difference is that it is a tasting room for six different Michigan wineries at once!
The outside isn’t much to look at, just a store front in a suburban strip mall. The inside is a bit warmer, but still not fancy by any stretch. It’s bright and airy feeling with nice, ample seating and decorated in the MBTB color scheme. The bar isn’t anything fancy either but feels very much like the bar at a winery tasting room. It’s perfectly up to its task, though.
Service: The service was excellent. We sat at the bar and our server Krystal was quick and attentive. I recognized Shannon from the Michigan by the Bottle blog and I introduced myself. He seemed to remember me from our online interactions (or at least faked it very well) and made us feel very welcome in spite of being busy. Cortney briefly appeared but disappeared into the back before I could introduce myself to her. Maybe next time. Both Krystal and Shannon answered all our questions clearly and politely.
The tastings work as follows: The server places a paper placemat in front of each taster with circles numbered 1-6 for a full flight (mini-flights of three wines are also available). For the standard flight, each taster circles five regular selections on the menu. Glasses are poured in traditional tasting order (starting with dry whites, ending with dry reds). When a “tour” is purchased, two special pours (and bonus cashews) are included. These are usually dessert wines or at least they were when we were there.
Menu/Prices/Selection: The full menu is here. A full flight is $10 or $15 after six (with the extra $5 being applied toward a bottle purchase) with tasty Michigan-made snacks (cheese and chocolate) included. A mini flight is $5/$10. A tour is $17/$22 and a tour for two is double that. If you’re a fan of dessert wines like I am, I would recommend the tour, but if you don’t enjoy them, I would stick to the flight.
They partner with six Michigan wineries from around the state. Those wineries are Chateau Aeronautique, Sandhill Crane (both Pioneer Wine Trail), Chateau de Leelanau, Gill’s Pier (both Leelanau Peninsula AVA), Domaine Berrien (Lake Michigan Shore AVA) and Peninsula Cellars (Old Mission Peninsula AVA). I expected a broader selection of wines, but I think how they’ve done it works better than carrying something from everybody. They astutely included two wineries known for reds, Domaine Berrien and Chateau Aeronautique, to complement the fine whites Northern Michigan is known for. Cider and fruit wines are also included.
I didn’t love every wine I tried but that’s not really the point. I got to taste some things I would have had to drive several hours to taste and that’s great in itself. The best wines I had that afternoon were the 2012 Dry Riesling from Peninsula Cellars (not surprising given what an Old Mission fanboy I am) and the 2010 Domaine Berrien Pinot Noir. The most surprising selection was DB’s 2011 Marsanne. Michigan is not where one might expect to run into a grape from the northern Rhone valley but it was quite good. All the selections are also available by the bottle, and those prices are helpfully included on the tasting menu.
The prices for bottles are about standard and the tasting prices are reasonable considering the number of pours included and the quality and abundance of the snacks.
It should also be noted that, also like an actual winery, they have their own wine club. Information on that is here.
Transportation/Parking: Unless you’re up for a mile walk or bike ride from the nearest SMART stop on unfriendly roads, public transit isn’t really an option. There is a large parking lot at the shopping center where the tasting room is located, so parking is not a problem, and it’s close to Hall Road/M-59 so getting there is fairly easy. That said, it’s quite a hike out there unless you live in Macomb county. Google maps estimates a 30 minute drive from Sipology HQ and that’s just with good traffic which is a rare thing on Hall Road. Luckily for me and others living in Oakland Co. or Detroit, a Royal Oak location will be opening up on Woodward soon.
Parting Words: Overall a great experience was had. We went home with abundant leftover snacks and a few bottles of wine. Can’t wait for the Royal Oak location! It promises to be good for my tummy but probably bad for my bank account and limited cellar space. Michigan By the Bottle Tasting Room is recommended.