Disclosure statement: We received a free night in the guest house, and a complimentary wine tasting of just about everything on the menu during our visit.
Back in December of 2020, I received an email from Bill Schopf, owner of Dablon Vineyards (and the Music Box theater in Chicago and Music Box film distributors). He had seen my head-to-head review of Dablon’s 2016 Cabernet Franc and 2Lads’ 2016 Cab Franc and offered to host me in the winery guest house and show me around the place. December of 2020 being December of 2020, I told him I didn’t feel comfortable going there at that time, but I would email him back when I did feel comfortable.
By mid-May, Liz and I were both fully vaccinated, and things seemed to be settling down for the moment, so I emailed Bill again and took him up on his offer. We arranged to stay at the Dablon guest house for one night on July 5, as the opening night of our scaled-back 20th anniversary trip.
We arrived at the winery at around 2 pm on July 5. Bill was at the tasting bar when we arrived, and he promptly gave us a tour along with one other person, Magda, a friend of Bill’s. It was a very hot day by southwest Michigan standards, so we only visited the vineyards right outside of the tasting room, which happened to be planted with Pinot Noir. Later, Liz and I did have a chance to wander through the Cabnernet Sauvignon, though.
Bill stressed the importance of vine density in the vineyard. His Pinot Noir vines are planted about three feet apart, mirroring the density found in many French vineyards. This results in about 2,000 vines per acre, cropped to yield around 3 tons of fruit per acre. All Dablon’s grapes are harvested by hand, which can be a challenge, given the the tight harvest window here in the Wolverine state. That said, trimming and hedging are done mechanically for the Burgundian varieties. All wines produced under the Dablon label are estate grown. The nearly phased out Music Box label is used for wines from grapes that were purchased from elsewhere.
I asked Bill which clones he used for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Bill referred us to his winemaker/vineyard manager Rudy Shafer, who responded via email. Out of curiosity I asked about some other varieties as well. Here’s how it breaks down*: Four out of the five Pinot Noir clones used are from Cote d’Or in Burgundy. The other one (clone 23) is from Switzerland. For Chardonnay they use two clones from California, two from Dijon in Burgundy, and the remaining three are other French clones. For Riesling, Dablon uses all German clones: 3 from the Rheingau, 2 are from Pfalz, and one from the Mosel. All their Cab Franc and half of their Cab Sauv clones are French. The rest of the Sauvignon clones are from Mendoza in Argentina and one is from California.
It was a very hot day by Michigan standards so after showing us the Pinot Noir block, Bill quickly hustled us inside to take a look at his equipment, his winemaking equipment, that is. Bill said he loves technology, and I could tell by the pride in his voice when he ran down the vital stats on everything in the winery proper. He was especially proud of his new bottling machine.
For fermenting the whites, Dablon uses temperature-controlled, Italian-made jacket tanks. According to Rudy Shafer, Dablon has thirty of these tanks ranging from 1500 to 13,000 liters in campacity for a total capacity of 40,000 gallons. All Dablon wines are cold stabilized to reduce the amount of tartrate crystals in the finished product. Personally, I like wine crystals but I’m not in the business of selling wine. Different yeast strains are also used for different varieties.
Dablon almost exclusively uses French oak for their wines that spend time in wood. Bill estimated that less than 2% of their barrels are non-French. “Good for whiskey, not good for wine.” The exception is their forthcoming Tempranillo, with which they’ve been using American oak, since Bill thinks it works better with wines made from that grape.
The highlight of the tour was the wine library, a small room will racks covering the walls and high-top table and chairs in the middle. All the racks are made from the wood of a single ash tree from the property that was cut down shortly after Bill purchased the farm in 2008. It’s a beautiful room, and he said there had been many proposals made there. I assume he meant marriage, but he wasn’t specific.
We then headed back up to the tasting room for a tasting with wine club manager Cassondra Rudlaff. She grew up in the area and was able to give us some nice insights into the state of SW wine and agriculture in general. One issue that came out of my look at the Michigan Craft Beverage Council’s Small Fruit and Hops report back in May was the slow decline of juice grape farming in southwest Michigan. I asked her if she could see SW Michigan grape-growers shifting over the wine grapes entirely (or close to it). She noted that there are geological limits to where good quality wine grapes can be grown, wine juice types can be grown nearly anywhere. She also expressed pessimism on the future of the blueberry industry in the state, which is facing competition from the coasts.
The tasting room itself is beautiful with lots of glass and wood and an open, airy feel. Liz was instantly a fan because of the purse hooks underneath the bar.
Magda also joined us for the tasting. We started with dry white wines, as one does. Cassondra poured all three of us the 2017 unoaked Chardonnay to start and it ended up being everyone’s favorite of the whites. The other stand-outs in that category were the 2017 Eastate White Blend (75% Chardonnay), the 2017 Pinot Gris (oaked, unlike the Pinot Grigio), and of course the 2017 Dry (<1% residual sugar) Riesling.
Next were the 2018 Pinot Noir Rosé and 2018 sparkling Blanc de Blanc. The Rosé was strong, and according to Cassondra there are no plans to make any of other varieties. The Blanc de Blanc was even better. They make it themselves, and it is a money-losing proposition even at $50 a bottle, according to Bill. It’s a matter of “honor” for him, though. I’m with Bill on this. When you can grow Chard of this quality, producing a Blanc de Blanc is the right thing to do.
As good as their whites were, dry reds take up the most space on the Dablon tasting menu. At the time, it listed one Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and Carmenere (according to Bill, the Dablon estate is the only place in Michigan where this grape is being grown), two Cabernet Sauvignons, and three red blends. Petit Verdot and Tannat were available by the bottle but not for tastings and large format bottles of the 2016 Syrah and Cab Sauv Reserve are also available for purchase. Older varietal bottlings and an exclusive blend are available through the wine club. A Tempranillo blend was released earlier this year (2021) and a varietal Nebbiolo is planned for release sometime in the next few years, according to winemaker Rudy Shafer.
All of the dry reds we tasted were good. My favorites (earning the coveted ++ mark on my menu), were the 2016 Merlot, 2017 Cab Sauv, and the 2016 Estate Red blend. The Estate Red varies in its composition from year to year. In 2016 it was 59% Cab Sauv, 25% Merlot, 10% Malbec, and 6% Petit Verdot. The constituent wines spend one year in oak separately and then another year together. The 2016 Estate Red Blend sells for $50 a bottle at the winery.
The other dry red blends include Producer’s Cut and the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot. The producer’s cut also varies from year to year with regard to grapes and percentages of those grapes. The 2016 we tasted was 45% Cab Franc, 45% Merlot, and 10% Malbec. It sells for $36. The Cab Sauv/Merlot blend is always 50/50, had good acid, and also sells for $36 a bottle.
Dablon produces a limited number of sweet wines. The standouts in that category were the 2018 Traminette, and 2020 sweet Riesling. The only remaining Music Box wine still on the menu was the 2017 Matinee Red, made from the relatively new Arandell variety, a Seyval Blanc descendent created at Cornell University. The grapes were grown in the vineyards of the Nitz family, frequent St. Julian collaborators. Dablon does not produce any fruit or true dessert wines.
After the tasting Cassondra showed us to the guest house. It was a short three-minute walk away, but five to ten minutes by car. (They frown upon driving through the vineyards). I expected a tiny one-room cottage or trailer, but it’s a comfortable, fashionably decorated three-bedroom, three level house with a full kitchen, dining room, patio and a den in the basement. No food or WiFi was provided, but there was an extensive DVD collection (all Music Box films of course). I was too tired to cook anything at the end of the day, so we picked up some grocery store fried chicken and ate it in the dining room.
After a comfortable night’s sleep, we ate a light breakfast and decided to talk a walk along the forest trail next to the house. After a pleasant stroll among the cohosh and ferns, the trailed ended at the top of the huge (by lower Michigan standards) hill that is home to Bill’s Cabernet Sauvignon, a hill made even bigger by dirt excavated from what’s now the wine cellar. We wandered around the vines a bit, taking a few photos and enjoying the beauty of the scene before heading back to pack.
What sets Dablon apart from its peers? A couple things do, in my view. First, their Burgundian-type wines are very good, but Dablon’s overall strength is in age-worthy Bordeaux style reds. This puts them in relatively rare company in Michigan, but what sets them apart from even from the other winemakers that produce strong is their willingness to experiment with different varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are relatively rare in Michigan, but Malbec, Tannat, Tempranillo, and Petit Verdot are almost unheard of. Nebbiolo is only grown one other place in the state to my knowledge, and as noted above Carmenere is probably unique to Dablon. You’re not going to get to taste Michigan Carmenere anywhere other than at Dablon’s tasting room, and varietally bottled Michigan Malbec is nearly as rare.
Second, there’s an independent streak to Bill, and Dablon in general. The winery is not a part of the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail or the Michigan Wine Collaborative, so Dablon doesn’t appear on wine trail maps or participate in many Michigan wine events. They’re a little too big to be called a cult winery, but they do have a dedicated group of fans that have sought them out despite their rugged individualism and remain loyal year after year. After this visit, I think Liz and I consider ourselves a part of that group.
What’s the future have in store for Dablon? Besides new vintages of their current line-up, they’re very excited about the upcoming Tempranillo and Nebbiolo releases. According to Rudy, the 2020 unoaked Tempranillo was released in September, with the 2022 vintage due to be released in the summer of 2022. The 2019 Tempranillo blend may be released this November (2021). As for the Nebbiolo: “The 2021 Nebbiolo will be made as a 100% varietal and aged in French oak. We will taste it every few months to determine for how long we age it in oak. It could be as long as four years.”
Our visit to Dablon was a lot of fun and we appreciate Bill’s hospitality, Cassondra’s knowledge and Rudy’s willingness to take time out from harvest to answer my questions after we returned home. If you have to opportunity to take a tour, visit the tasting room or just buy a bottle of their Cab, I highly recommend it!
*Pinot Noir clones: 115, 667, 777, 828, 23. Chardonnay: 17, 96, 41, 76, 70, 69, 72. Riesling: 09, 21, 23, 17, 01, 12. Cab Franc: 12, 04, 214, 13, 11. Cab Sauv: 06, 04, 33, 337, 43, 05.