Maker: Free Run Cellars, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA (Round Barn)
Grape: Vidal Blanc.
Age: 8 y/o
Price: I forgot.
Note: At time of purchase, I received a complimentary tour, tasting, lunch, and discount on purchases. See my visit to Round Barn cellars here.
Appearance: Light copper.
Nose: Golden raisins, alcohol, oak, Juicy Fruit gum.
Palate: Light bodied and mild. Banana pudding with vanilla wafers.
Finish: Also mild. Alcohol, oak, fruit punch.
Parting words: Free Run was founded by Matt and Christian Moersch, sons of Round Barn founder (and former Tabor Hill winemaker) Rick Moersch. The name is a play on the “free run” juice of the initial grape crush and the brothers being given “free run” of the cellar by their father. Free Run began by specializing in estate, single vineyard wines, but has since branched out. Free Run’s “Epicurean” tasting room in Berrien Springs is more than the traditional “belly up to the bar” set up. It offers a culinary experience for groups (with paired wines of course) but it’s only open seasonally. Free Run’s Union Pier tasting room is more conventional.
At any rate, the label describes this brandy as “Cognac style” which it sort of is, though it would fall on the fruity and mild end of the Cognac spectrum, in spite of the high ABV. While I don’t like it as much as I liked the Free Run grappa (review here), it is an easy-drinking, even refreshing sipper that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend were it more readily available. I’m not sure if it’s made anymore, but if it isn’t I hope it gets put into production again but in bigger bottles and with wider distribuition. Free Run Cellars XO Brandy is recommended.
Maker: Lawton Ridge Winery, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA
Grape: Chardonnay (at least 85%)
Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Style: Oaked, malolatic fermented Chardonnay
Price: $15 (winery)
Appearance: Very pale gold.
Nose: Creamy, slightly bitter, French oak, lemon thyme.
Palate: Full-bodied and medium sweet. Oak, citrus peel, white peach, pineapple sage.
Finish: Clean and fruity with a hint of oak.
Parting words: Lawton Ridge winery is located west of Kalamazoo, Michigan, but thier vineyards (around 10 acres planted) are near Lawton, Michigan, south of Paw Paw. It has been in commercial operation since 2005 or so. According to their website, they pride themselves on producing terroir-focused food-friendly wines.
This Chardonnay was one of my favorites when we visited the tasting room last year. It’s a departure from their standard, all stainless Chard. According to the label, this wine is finished in oak barrels for three months immediately before bottling. It’s a good example of judicious use of oak in Chard. It has a hint of the brown butter aroma that California Chardonnay is known for, but it’s balanced by fruit and herbal aromas. It’s one of the best oaked Michigan Chards I’ve had and a steal at $15. 2013 Lawton Ridge Vintner’s Select Chardonnay is highly recommended.
St. Julian Lake Michigan Shore Reserve Late Harvest Riesling= SJ
Arcturos Old Mission Peninsula Late Harvest Riesling= Arc
SJ: St. Julian Winery, Paw Paw, Michigan, USA
Arc: Black Star Farms Old Mission, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Places of origin
SJ: Burgoyne Ridge vineyard, Berrien County, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Arc: Old Mission Peninsula, Traverse City, Michigan, USA.
VinSugar at Harvest (in brix)
Price (current vintages)
SJ: $13 (website, though I have seen it for under $10)
Arc: $17.50 (website)
SJ: Medium gold
Arc: Light gold, almost green.
SJ: Pear, orange juice
Arc: Kerosene (I was the only one who got this note), lemon thyme, peach.
SJ: Medium bodied but rich. Big pear. Like getting one stuffed up my nose, in a good way.
Arc: Fuller bodied but drier. Crisp apple, lime, candied lemon.
SJ: Sweet, almost sherry-like.
Arc: Cleaner. Bitter sage.
Liz: Preferred SJ. Found it more complex and fruitier.
Amy: Preferred SJ. Arc is for summer sipping by the lake. SJ is also for sipping by the lake, but fall is coming soon!
Pete: Preferred Arc. Found SJ too harsh.
The Panel: Liz and me.
Amy and Pete
Parting words: Michigan is known for Riesling. It’s the most planted wine grape in the state. It’s grown both in the “Up North” wine regions and in West Michigan. Riesling wine is made in a broad array of styles from bone-dry Austrian Smaragd to syrupy Mosel Trockenbeerenauslese. Michigan Rieslings don’t (yet) span that entire spectrum, but they have the middle of it well-covered. On the sweet end are Late Harvest Rieslings like these. The ripeness of the grapes used to make these wines is in the neighborhood of the grapes that would go into a German Spätlese.
I have been wanting to do something like this for a while. LMS vs OMP, West Coast vs Up North. It seemed like the best way to do that was to do it with two wines from two big producers in each area. Black Star Farms is the Up North titan with a winery in both Leelanau and Old Mission and there’s nobody in LMS (or the state) bigger and older than St. Julian. Also both of these wines are commonly found at bigger grocery stores in my area, often at discounted prices.
We all thought both wines were very good, but I was a little surprised at how much almost everyone (including myself) preferred St. Julian. While I didn’t find it as complex as Arcturos, it was richer and more enjoyable. Although St. Julian had less sugar (at harvest and residual) than Arcturos it tasted much sweeter and fruitier. Although the folks at the winery described it as “a bright, clean wine designed to be consumed shortly after release” here, it has held up very well, and probably even become richer. Arcturos held up well too. Both are good values, but St. Julian has the edge there too especially considering it’s a single vineyard wine (albeit a very large vineyard). 2012 St. Julian Lake Michigan Shore Reserve Late Harvest Riesling and 2012 Arcturos Old Mission Peninsula Late Harvest Riesling are recommended.
Place of origin: Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA
Price: $26 (Michigan by the Bottle Auburn Hills Sipper Club)
Appearance: Dark red, like cherry juice.
Nose: Cherry jam, touch of French oak, cedar.
Palate: Medium bodied, acidic with a little fruit and spice. Cherry juice, blueberry, black pepper.
Finish: Overdone blueberry pie.
Parting words: Burgdorf’s Winery is located in Haslett, Michigan, near Lansing. They’re known for their quality fruit wines and blends but they produce good varietals as well, most of which are not estate grown. This is one of their best. 2011 was an excellent vintage in Michigan overall, though some winemakers struggled with reds. No struggle here. I usually prefer softer Pinot Noir but the spice and oak here make it very food friendly. We had it with pizza margarita and BBQ chicken and it held its own with both. It tastes like its coming to the end of its life, though, so if you find this vintage, open and drink promptly!
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.