Lies, and The Lying Producers That Tell Them

liar
A liar

The last time Liz and I were on Leelanau Peninsula we visited a winery we had long wanted to visit but hadn’t yet. We got a chatty, but professional pourer. I didn’t mention my blog, as usual. I usually don’t mention it at the beginning of a tasting because 1. I don’t want to get special treatment and 2. Nobody knows or cares who I am.

We were tasting through the menu and we came across a wine that had no appellation visible on the label. I asked our pourer whether the wine was American or Michigan or Leelanau. Our pourer replied by kindly asking me if I knew how to read a wine label. I said, yes, I asked because I didn’t see an apellation on the label. Pourer’s response was, “If you know how to read a wine label, then you already know the answer. Don’t make me lie.”

I was taken aback. Our pourer went on to explain how in 2014 and 2015 that winery, like many others in Michigan, did not have enough local grapes (due to the dreaded Polar Vortex) to produce their usual array of varietals and blends, so they had to buy out-of-state grapes to stay afloat. The owner of the winery felt weird about this, apparently, and so omitted any statement of origin on those labels at all. This is in contrast to most wine makers who put “American” on the label in the same place where the usual appellation appeared, since most bought grapes from Oregon.

That is annoying, but what our pourer told us next was shocking. They said that the owner had told them to lie about the wine’s origin to tasting room visitors who asked. “I wish I didn’t have to lie. I wish I worked for Charlie Edson. He’s very honest.”

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The true view from Bel Lago, Charlie Edson’s winery. 

Why would a winery want its employees to lie about the origin of its wines? One reason may be marketing. Many Michigan wineries, large and small, use local-ness as a large part of their marketing. If their grapes aren’t locally grown, that could be embarrassing. That said, many Michigan wineries aren’t embarrassed about that at all. Black Star Farms, Round Barn, Brys Estate, Mackinaw Trail and many others have regular offerings that use out-of-state grapes. I don’t have any data to back it up, but I don’t believe most Michigan wine customers care either. Personally, I’m less likely to buy a wine from a Michigan winery if it’s “American”, but I don’t think any less of wineries that do.

The lying and obfuscation in the realm of Michigan wine will probably die down with the recent run of two (and probably three) good, warm vintages in a row (2016, 2017, 2018?). With rising demand for Michigan wine and the inevitability of a few bad vintages every decade, the temptation to lie will rear its ugly head again, though.

Lying about place of origin is not confined to the wine world, of course. It’s quite common in whiskey, especially in the shady world of sourced “craft” whiskey. One of the most common ways of lying, or at least obfuscation, is for the bottler to “forget” to put the state of distillation on the label, as is required by law. A surprising number of producers make this mistake. When confronted about this they usually either ignore the warning or hide behind the fact that the label has been approved by the TTB. Approval by the TTB doesn’t mean the label is correct, though, as producers know. Like many other government agencies under the austerity regimes of the last thirty years, the TTB is understaffed and underfunded. It relies on consumers and the producers themselves for policing. There’s also this little bit on the bottom of the COLA (Certificate Of Label Approval) form:

Under the penalties of perjury, I declare; that all statements appearing on this application are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief; and, that the representations on the labels attached to this form, including supplemental documents, truly and correctly represent the content of the containers to which these labels will be applied. I also certify that I have read, understood and complied with the conditions and instructions which are attached to an original TTB F 5100.31, Certificate/Exemption of Label/Bottle Approval.

More egregious than that is the phenomenon of Japanese whisky that’s not actually made in Japan. Margarett Waterbury at The Whiskey Wash breaks it down here. Due to limited stocks and the unfriendly duopoly of Japanese whisky, Japanese distillers frequently import whisky from Scotland and Canada to stretch their stocks.

Why do whiskey producers lie? The reasons are not very different from why wine producers lie. It has to do with marketing. Some distillers do market themselves as local, even using a local place-name while buying their local product from elsewhere. It only takes a second or two of boredom for a consumer to look at the back label and see that their local hero was actually born and raised in Indiana. The “craft” aspect of craft spirits is also vulnerable to accurate labeling. Articles like this one from the Daily Beast have been drifting around the internet for a few years, explaining how many craft producers buy their product from MGP’s distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. While these articles did blow the lid off of this practice for the general public, it may have made distillers even more afraid of producing accurate labels than they were before.

What can be done about this? One thing we can do as consumers is to warn and report whiskey label violators. Universally beloved* Texas bourbon enthusiast and blogger Wade Woodard has made it his personal quest to file complaints of whiskey labeling regulations. He’s been making progress, but many still ignore regulations. With so whiskey booming and so many new labels hitting the market every year, it’s hard to keep up.

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People questioning what they are told.

Regarding wine obfuscators, I think it’s important to always ask where the grapes come from if no appellation is listed on the label. lf at a tasting room, ask your way up the chain of command. If not, call or send an email and ask. If you get lied to, then press the owners or managers in person, or on social media. Business owners who are unrepentant liars should be shamed.

It’s important that this is done responsibly, though. It’s counterproductive and just plain shitty to do so in a way that gets someone fired or punished at work. Tasting room employees aren’t responsible for marketing or labeling of the wines they pour. That’s why I haven’t named the winery in question. It would take a minimal amount of snooping around on social media and going over work schedules to figure out who our pourer was once I disclosed the winery.

What should producers do to avoid being reported or shamed? Pay close attention to what I’m about to say, folks: TELL THE TRUTH. Disclose what you’re supposed to disclose. Disclose even more than you have to even. If truth-telling and disclosure interfere with your marketing strategy, change your marketing strategy. Being truthful to your customers should always come first. Most people don’t like to give money to people they don’t trust.

As for me and this blog, even though I did buy some bottles at the winery, I will not be reviewing any of those bottles here anytime soon. Maybe I will if the winery in question shows that they have changed their ways when the next bad vintage rolls around, but without a change in ownership, I’m not holding my breath.

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Chateau Grand Traverse Late Harvest Chardonnay, 2013

Maker: Chateau Grand Traverse, Traverse City, Michigan, USA20180706_164834.jpg

Grape: Chardonnay (at least 85% by law)

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

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 10.5%

Purchased for $12 (Meijer)

Appearance: Medium gold.

Nose: Sweet cream butter, papaya, mango, orange com? con? cow? (notes unclear)

Palate: Medium sweet. Butter, golden apple.

Finish: Pineapple, butter.

Parting words: Chateau Grand Traverse has a history of producing uncommon wines along with quality grocery-store varietals. This is one of the former, obviously. Before this bottle, I’d had late harvest Gewürztraminer and Riesling, obviously, but I had never even heard of late harvest Chard.

The result is very nice. It’s fuller-bodied than the usual style of Chard with big tropical fruit drenched in butter. I expected it to be sweeter than it was, but that may be due to the cool vintage. I’m eager to try a 2016 CGT Late Harvest Chard. Pick me up a bottle if you see one. 2013 Chateau Grand Traverse Late Harvest Chardonnay 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 started his own business operating out of Brengman Brothers winery were he worked at the time. Last year, he purchased the Raftshol Vineyard 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 Roses 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 a Master somm), 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 (~$250), Ridge Monte Bello (~$250), and Jos. Phelps Insignia (~$190), all of the 2012 vintage. 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. 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!

Cody Kresta Peach

Maker: Cody Kresta, Mattawan, Michigan.20180509_202720.jpg

Fruit: Peach (100%)

Vintage: 2016 (!)

ABV: 11%

Purchased for $16 from Michigan by the Bottle.

Appearance: Light orange.

Nose: Big, overripe peach.

Palate: Medium-bodied, semi-sweet. Squishy, nearly rotten peach.

Finish: Sweet, fade quickly.

Parting words: Peaches are usually associated with Georgia, but California actually produces the most peaches of any state. New Jersey, Washington and New York also rank in the top ten. Those three states are also major cool-climate wine producers, like Michigan. While Michigan isn’t a major peach producer nationally, its climate is great for growing peaches. There are few things I love more than a perfectly ripe Michigan peach in the late summer.

When I first tasted this peach wine at MBTB, that’s what I tasted. It was a beautiful experience and I took a bottle home with me. That was in September 2017. I had a few fruit wines in the cue ahead of this one, so I didn’t get around to opening it until earlier this week. That was a mistake. I love fruit wines, but they usually don’t reward cellaring.

2016 Cody Kresta Peach is tasty and recommended. It has lost some of its freshness, though, so I also recommend drinking it promptly after release!

 

Sandhill Crane Vidal Blanc, 2014

Maker: Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Jackson, Michigan, USA.20180425_094301.jpg

Grape: Vidal Blanc

Place of origin: Michigan (At least 75% Michigan Vidal by law)

Vintage: 2014

Style: Semi-sweet.

ABV: 12.5%

Price: $16 (current vintage on website)

Appearance: Pale yellow.

Nose: Peach, mango, papaya, wet limestone.

Palate: Full-bodied. Like pineapple syrup and mango nectar, but not cloying.

Finish: Clean, slightly tangy.

Parting words: Vidal is one of the best-known hybrid grape varieities in this part of the world. It’s most famous for its use in Canadian Ice wine, and is grown as far north as Nova Scotia and Sweden for that purpose. As you might have guessed from that last sentence, Vidal is cold-hardy and was able to produce good wine like this even in a Polar Vortex year like 2014. It’s grown fairly widely in Michigan, often for use in dessert wines, but not always, as in this case.

This Sandhill Crane Vidal is heavy on tropical fruit, but not overly sweet, which makes for nice porch sipping and pairs well with pork and chicken. $16 is a fair price, but much more would be pushing it for a non-AVA hybrid wine, even one of this quality. 2014 Sandhill Crane Vidal Blanc is recommended.

Hawthorne Lemberger, 2013

Maker: Hawthorne Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Grape: Lemberger/Blaufränkisch

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

ABV: 13%

Purchased for $35 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Auburn Hills)

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Cherry jam, bubble gum, cedar.

Palate: Medium-bodied. Blackberry jam, cherry juice, grows tannic as it hangs around in the mouth.

Finish: Tart, then cheek-filling tannins.

Parting words: Despite my lack of enthusiasm over this increasingly popular grape, I am continuing to drink and review wines made with Lemberger/Blaufränkisch. My thinking is that if I never actually like them, I can at least understand them and appreciate how they should taste.

I expected this wine to be another exercise in “understanding” but to my surprise, I actually enjoyed it! It had the same rustic, tannic character as the other Lembergers I’ve tasted, but this time balanced with acid, which made all the difference. I didn’t even have to chill it. I don’t know if it was the cooler vintage, the terroir, vineyard management, or the skill of the winemaker, but this Lemberger transcends its peasant heritage and becomes a sophisticated, balanced wine even Blau-skeptics like me can enjoy. Hawthorne Vineyards’ 2013 Lemberger is recommended!

30 Year Vineyard Anniversary Reserve Chardonnay

Maker: Chateau Chantal, Traverse City, Michigan, USA20180314_214642.jpg

Grape: Chardonnay

Place of origin: Chateau Chantal estate, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Style: Oaked Chardonnay

ABV: 13.6%

Purchased for $30 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Auburn Hills).

Appearance: Medium gold.

Nose: Oak, roux.

Palate: Buttered toast with marmalade and a slice of melon on the side.

Finish: Sage, lemon zest. Fruit fades, but butter lingers.

Parting words: Last week I reviewed Chateau Chantal’s 30 Year Vineyard Anniversary Reserve Riesling, so this week it’s the Chard’s turn. I usually like to review wines that have spent more time in the bottle than these, but since they’re special releases that will likely sell out quickly, I thought I should go ahead and review both.

It helps that they’re both very good! The Riesling, while good now, is a year or more away from its peak as I said in my review last week. This Chardonnay is firing on all cylinders right now. I’m sure it would hold up fine with another year or two in a cellar, but why wait? It’s already delicious. For me to enjoy an oaked Chard, there have to be other things going on besides oak and butter. Oak and malo flavors are in the foreground here without question, but there is enough fruit and acid to round things out. More than that, this is one of the best examples of this style in Michigan.

Like the Riesling, the only place to get this wine is at the Chateau or at the Auburn Hills location of Michigan by the Bottle. Unlike the Riesling, the 30 year Chard is on the menu, so I would guess that more of it was produced, but why wait? Go out and buy some now. Chateau Chantal 30 Year Anniversary Reserve Chardonnay is highly recommended.

Chateau Chantal 30 Year Vineyard Anniversary Reserve Riesling

Maker: Chateau Chantal, Traverse City, Michigan, USA20180306_193716.jpg

Grape: Riesling (100%)

Place of origin: Chateau Chantal estate, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2016

ABV: 13%

Notes: .2% residual sugar, 3.1 pH

Thanks to Cortney for tracking down additional information for me!

Purchased for $30 (Michigan by the Bottle, Auburn Hills)

Appearance: Medium gold.

Nose: Lychee, lemonade, limestone.

Palate: Medium-bodied and quite dry. Fresh picked pears, medium-tart apple, sage, gravel dust.

Finish: Long and drying. Lemon thyme.

Parting words: Chateau Chantal is one of the oldest estates on the Old Mission Peninsula and in Northern Michigan wine country. Founded in 1983 by Nadine and Robert Begin (a former nun and former priest respectively) as Begin Orchards, it was incorporated as a winery in 1991 and named after their daughter Marie-Chantal (now the winery CEO).

The vineyard this wine and its sister wine the 30 Year Vineyard Anniversary Reserve Chardonnay, come from a vineyard on the estate planted in 1986. Luckily for the Chateau, the 2016 vintage was a stellar one, so the anniversary can be celebrated properly with two (or more?) wonderful wines.

Thirty-year-old vines are pretty old for Michigan, due to the climate and youth of the wine industry in the state. This wine shows the characteristics one would hope for in an old vine selection. It has complexity, depth and a surprising intensity. It tastes great now, especially with food, but with another year or two in the cellar the flavors should intergrate a little better to make a truly great wine.

So drink now or cellar? Yes. Head up to Chateau Chantal or to the Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room in Auburn Hills (the only two places to find this wine) and grab yourself two or more bottles. Hurry though, this wine was produced in very limited quantities! Chateau Chantal 30 Year Vineyard Anniversary Reserve Riesling is recommended.

Look for a review of the Chardonnay in the near future.

Bowers Harbor Medium Sweet Riesling, 2013

Maker: Bowers Harbor Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA20180125_120014.jpg

Grape: Riesling (at least 85%)

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

Style: Semi-sweet Riesling

ABV: 12%

Price: $16 (2016 vintage, winery)

Note: Received a media discount and reduced price tour at time of purchase.

Appearance: Pale gold.

Nose: Very ripe peach, gravel road, sage, grapefruit.

Palate: Full-bodied. Orange push pop, pineapple juice.

Finish: Long and tart.

Parting words: Practically everybody in Michigan grows Riesling. For some wineries in Michigan, Riesling is a part of their identity. Bowers Harbor is one of those. I reviewed BHV’s 2013 Block II dry Riesling a few weeks ago and the 2010 Block II a while back.

This wine has almost all the same aromas as those wines, but with the sweetness dialed up. It reminds me of a relatively dry German Kabinett, but with the signature characteristics of OMP Riesling.

Pairs well with spicey food and the price is very good for a wine of this quality. There should still be a few 2013s lurking on shelves around Michigan, but if you can’t find any, pick up a bottle or twelve of the 2016 Medium Dry Riesling. Bowers Harbor Medium Sweet Riesling is recommended.

Blind Gamay head to head: Beaujolais vs. Old Mission

Yes, it’s another head to head! This time I decided to pit a 2014 Gamay Noir from Chateau 20180131_170642.jpgGrand Traverse on Old Mission Peninsula against a 2014 Beaujolais-Villages from Joseph Drouhin, one of Burgundy’s biggest négociants (wine buyers/blenders/bottlers). I enlisted the help of friends of the blog Amy and Pete to help us out (last seen here). Just to make sure we were tasting the wine and not our biases, we tasted these two wines blind. I’ll review them that way too, revealing which is which (and price and ABV) at the end. I’ll integrate the co-taster’s notes into my own, noting if they differ from mine.

Appearance

A: Dark rose.

B: Similar, but a little darker

Nose

A: Fruity, berries specifically. I also smelled pepper and a drop of balsamic vinegar (in a good way)

B: Very similar, maybe a little more oak and a little less balsamic.

Palate

A: Light bodied. Strawberry, blackberry, oak.

B: Same flavor palette, but a little drier, chewier and more intense. That said, none of us knew if I could tell these two apart in a wider tasting. They both grew tart as they warmed, shifting into raspberry.

Finish

A: Drying. Balsamic, oak.

B: Similar but drier and longer.

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I forgot to take pictures of the Gamay tasting, so here’s Amy & Pete tasting Riesling.

THE REVEAL

A= Joseph Drouhin Beaujolais-Villages, 2014. 12.5% ABV. $16 (Holiday Market)

B= Chateau Grand Traverse Gamay Noir, 2014 (Old Mission Peninsula AVA). 12% ABV. $15 (Holiday Market)

The CGT Gamay Noir performed slightly better, but as I wrote above, the wines were virtually identical. Both were delicious and paired well with the chocolate and cheese we nibbled on during the tasting. They’d both do well with grilled or roasted chicken, salmon or pork. Both are recommended, but why not save yourself a buck while supporting the Mitten state and pick up a bottle of CGT Gamay Noir the next time you buy wine!