Maker: Cave Spring Cellars, Jordan, Ontario, Canada.
Place of origin: Niagara Peninsula VQA, Ontario, Canada (approx. 75% from estate & family vineyards)
Price: C$16/$12 USD (LCBO)
Appearance: Pale gold.
Nose: Mild. Lemon, orange zest.
Palate: Medium bodied, semi-dry. Lemon/lime soda, limestone, thyme.
Finish: Light. Underripe pear.
Parting words: I got this bottle a few months ago when I made a run to the border to pick up some Canadian whisky and wine. The whisky selection was as expected, but the selection of Canadian wine was very disappointing. Luckily they had a few bottles from some better known producers like Jackson Triggs and Cave Spring so I grabbed some of those.
I was first turned on to Cave Spring after tasting their Dry Riesling at the City of Riesling event in Traverse City in the summer of 2015. The geology of the Niagara region is special and it shows in this bright and refreshing, but not dull, Riesling. It’s well worth the price. I look forward to exploring more from them in the near future! I hope they ship to Michigan or maybe I can convince my wife to take a Niagara getaway next summer.
Chateau Grand Traverse (Traverse City, Michigan, USA)= CGT
Gill’s Pier (Traverse City, Michigan, USA)= GP Now defunct.
Place of origin
CGT: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
GP: Leelanau Peninsula AVA, Leelanau County, Michigan, USA (estate)
CGT: Medium gold.
GP: Pale gold
CGT: Rich. Slightly musty, old Riesling aroma when first opened, then peachy all the way through.
GP: Crisp yellow apple, Meyer lemon, lemon thyme.
CGT: Full-bodied, old Riesling feel. Mandarin orange, sage.
GT: Bracing, but still sweet. Tangerine, bottled lemon juice.
CGT: Dry, with a little bitterness.
GP: Cheek-filling tartness. Fades slowly.
Parting words: I got the idea for this head to head when I pulled a wine out of our liquor cabinet to put in our china cabinet for near term-consumption (we have an overly complex three-part staging system for wine in our house). I pulled out the CGT Semi-dry Riesling and then went to move up the bottle below it and noticed it was the Gill’s Pier Semi-dry of the same vintage. I’ve done a lot spirits head to heads, but not many wine ones so I thought this was the perfect opportunity.
I didn’t expect there to be much of a difference between these two, honestly. I was quite surprised at the contrast between two wines made from grapes grown a few miles apart in the same style and year. It’s a testimony to the varied terroir of northwest Michigan and the flexibility of Riesling. CGT is lush and decadent where Gill’s Pier is focused and elegant. If I had to choose one over the other, I would probably opt for Gill’s Pier, but just by a hair. Both are recommended. Unfortunately, Gill’s Pier estate is now an alpaca farm, but Chateau Grand Traverse is still going strong and readily available all over Michigan.
Maker: Forty-Five North, Lake Leelanau, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA
Purchased for $19 (Hills, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan)
Appearance: Medium gold.
Nose: Dry and flinty. Lychee, water chestnut, Bartlett pear, dried savory, epazote.
Palate: Peach, tangerine, ruby red grapefruit, mineral water, dried chicory.
Finish: Medium length. Dry, herbal with a slight bitterness.
Parting words: Having had an odd experience when I visited Forty-Five North last summer, I had been put off from reviewing any more of their stuff. I’m very glad I reviewed this one, though. I found it languishing on a shelf at store at which I usually buy Scotch and decided to pick it up earlier this year, even though I was unsure if it would still hold up.
Held up it did. This wine was wonderful. It’s one of the driest Michigan Rieslings I’ve had. I ate it with a couple different meals, including a cheese tart, made with Raclette from Leelanau Chesse (it’s all they make). It did well with everything. It’s drinking very well now, obviously, but it will probably still be good a year or more from now. $18 was the original MRSP but it’s easily worth $19-$20 or more. 2011 is still showing very well for Michigan whites. Forty-Five North’s 2011 Dry Riesling is highly recommended.
Maker: Black Star Farms, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Leorie, Montague Estate, Capella vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Price: $19 (website, 2013 vintage)
Appearance: medium gold
Nose: Canned peach syrup, freshly opened can of mandarin oranges, almonds, dried herbs de Provence.
Palate: Very mild. Faint tang then abruptly shifts to a bitter herbal taste, like ripped sage leaves.
Finish: Similar to the palate, but even fainter. Fades quickly.
Parting words: This is a cautionary tale, my friends. According to Cellartracker, I bought this wine last June at the winery. I don’t remember going to Black Star Farms last June, but I was in northern Michigan last summer so it’s entirely possible that I did. I wish I had opened it that summer instead of waiting until today. The 2012 vintage was not a consistently good one for Michigan Riesling and dry Rieslings often don’t age as well as late harvest ones. Those two combined with possible poor storage on my part may have doomed this poor wine. It’s not undrinkable, mind you, just fallen apart. I’m sure it was better a year ago, but as it is right now, Arcturos Dry Riesling, 2012 is not recommended.
Maker: Peninsula Cellars, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Style: Unintentionally sparkling late harvest Riesling
Price: $14 (website)
Appearance: Light gold with a huge fizzy head and big ongoing effervescence.
Nose: Cut ripe pear, mineral water, apple juice.
Palate: Very fizzy with stone fruit notes and some oregano on the back end.
Finish: Sweet and apple-y with a pebble of minerality.
Parting words: Everybody makes mistakes, even winemakers as skilled as those at Peninsula Cellars. A few months ago Peninsula Cellars released only a few cases of their 2014 late harvest Riesling to the public. A couple pallets of that wine were released to Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Rooms and offered to wine club members like yours truly. I love Peninsula Cellars and I love Riesling, so I jumped at the chance and bought two bottles. Shortly after picking them up, I received an email that the wine had effectively been recalled. The wine in one of the pallets had undergone an expected and undesired secondary fermentation in the bottle, turning it into a sparkling wine. This created a lot of pressure in the standard Riesling bottles the wine was in and some of the corks had started popping out, rather forcefully in some cases. Anyone who bought it was asked to return the wine to the store for a store credit or drink immediately. I returned one of my bottles but took my life into my hands by keeping the other one in my cellar. It leaked a bit, but never exploded. The leaking began to get worse last week so I brought it up into the fridge at that time.
This wine is delicious but disappointing to me in a couple ways. First, I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to taste the 2014 Peninsula Cellars LHR as the winemakers intended. Second, I’m disappointed that Peninsula isn’t regularly making a sparkling Late Harvest Riesling because this is so good. Sadly, these sparkling bottles are probably all gone by now but if you happen to find one, I highly recommend you purchase it.
Purchased for $13 (Hollywood Market, Madison Heights)
Other information: Residual sugar: 36.1 g/ltr. Harvested at 23.1 Brix.
Appearance: Golden straw with thick, even legs and a few crystals.
Nose: Thyme, cut white peach, Bartlett pear, lychee, whiff of gasoline.
Palate: Full bodied. Lychee, oregano, Meyer lemon, mango, orange marmalade.
Finish: Peachy and sweet. Lasts a long time before fading into herbal flavors.
Parting words: I was pleasantly surprised by this wine. The last Pelee Island wine I had was the crummy Pinot Noir I reviewed a few months ago. This wine was on sale and from a good white vintage in Michigan, so I figured it was probably a good one in Ontario too so it was worth a try.
It’s an Ontario VQA (as opposed to Pelee Island) so one probably wouldn’t expect much in the way of terroir influence, but there is some broad terroir character. The time in the bottle has benefited it greatly as well. It is rich and sweet but still carries a lot of typically dry flavors and aromas. This is a very good wine for a reasonable price. Pelee Island Winery Late Harvest Riesling, 2011 is recommended.
Maker: Chateau Aeronautique, Jackson, Michigan, USA
Place of origin: Michigan, USA
Style: Semi-sweet Riesling
Price: $18 (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)
Nose: Mild. Touch of alcohol, smidgen of Riesling wine.
Palate: Apple juice that wasn’t refrigerated after opening.
Finish: Apple juice and maybe a little pineapple.
Parting words: A fellow Michigan wine blogger who I have a lot of respect for once told me I was brave to post reviews. My first thought was “Yeah, that or I’m just an ass.” There are times when I think I’m too easy on Michigan wines. I wonder if I’ve become a “homer” as it were and let my locovore sympathies get the best of me. I usually start questioning myself after hanging out with wine bloggers who aren’t interested in Michigan wines. Then there are some times when I taste something sub-par and I regain confidence in my palate. This is one of those times.
Chateau Aeronautique, like its founder, is eccentric. Lorenzo Lizarralde is a Texas-born MK (missionary kid) who currently works as a commercial pilot based in Detroit. Many wineries have turned themselves into agricultural attractions with U-pick produce, farm to table restaurants and the like. Chateau Aeronautique is an aeronautical attraction. He houses his vintage Cessna on site, and the winery itself is in a hanger.
CA’s wine portfolio is unusual too, including a Cabernet Sauvignon passito and a stab at Sauternes dubbed Chateau Blanc. Their strongest wines are two in the Aviatrix series: Crimson (a Merlot heavy red blend) and Rouge (a Cabernet Sauvignon heavy red blend). Each is a big, bold 787 of a wine, but quite enjoyable. There is also a cranberry infused red wine called Aviatrix Passion, which I haven’t had.
The website describes this wine as “Inviting Tropical Nose, Liquid Sunshine with a Smoldering Kiss of Sweetness”. I would describe it as dull. There’s really very little going on here other than sweetness and a relatively high ABV. No minerals, herbs or flowers and very little in the way of fruit on the nose or anywhere else.
I expect this sort of profile out of a cheap grocery store selection, but not out of a boutique winery known for its bold wines. $18 is not too expensive in the grand scheme of things, but more flavorful options are available for half the price. 2012 Chateau Aeronautique Riesling is not recommended.
Palate: Dry and medium bodied. Meyer lemon and mineral water.
Finish: Short, clean and dry. A little bitterness and minerality with a spritz of acid.
Parting words: I had the privilege of wandering around the famous Block II a couple weeks ago with three of my best friends. It’s a noble, old stand of Riesling with soil is so sandy that I felt like setting up a volleyball net. As our guide told us, the sand is very important. It retains very little water, so the vines are forced to send their roots deep. This stresses the plant, and leads the plant to focus more on reproduction (fruit) than producing leaves and stems. Many also believe that greater root depth leads to more complex wine, since the roots are drawing minerals from a greater volume of soil.
Whatever the role of terroir, this is a very tasty dry Riesling that is still drinking well given its age. There’s not a lot of fruit or flowers left here, but what there is keeps the acidity and minerality from overrunning the glass. The few reviews I was able to find of this wine were from 2012 and there seems to have been a lot more going on back then.
Even with the lack of complexity, this is still a good dry Riesling at this price. 2010 Bower’s Harbor Vineyards Block II Riesling recommended. If you have one in your cellar, drink now, with food or without!
The Night of 100 Rieslings event was at the pavilion at Clinch Park, an easy walk from our hotel. Apparently last year it rained and the ground turned to mud, so this year it was in a paved area near what normally functions as a snack bar. Additional tables were put on the lawn adjacent to the paved section. To one side was a boat dock and to the other was a beach. The location made for a pleasantly surreal experience, sipping world class wine while hairy, tattooed men in trunks, women in bikinis and sunburnt children with water wings frolicked in the water a few yards away. Wine writer and co-organizer Stuart Pigott seemed especially tickled by the beachgoers. Music was provided by the Go-Rounds, a local favorite rock band that was quite good, although the volume wasn’t conducive to conversation. They did a good job of keeping the energy high through the evening, though.
The event began at 6 pm Sunday night so we decided to make it dinner. Each attendee was given thirteen pink wine tickets and two food vouchers. One food voucher got a person either one sausage plate with accompaniments, one cheese plate (one cow, one goat, one sheep) or two oysters. The sausages were supplied by Corridor Sausage in Detroit, a favorite of ours. The oysters were not local, obviously. They were very popular and the people serving the oysters had trouble keeping up with demand. The uncharacteristically hot day (high of 91° F) didn’t help either. I don’t remember the “varietal” names of the oysters, but one was west coast and one was east. The west coast one was all coastal funk, while the eastern one had a nice brininess and a bit of citrus. Both paired well with the wines.
It was also a challenge keeping the wines chilled in the heat but they held up very well. I even learned to appreciate warm Riesling that weekend. As you can see in the picture, there were Rieslings from all over the world. Three continents, nine countries, six U.S. states, twenty-two German producers from seven different regions and twenty Michigan producers from three AVAs were all represented, all served by certified professional sommeliers, including Detroit wine star Madeline Triffon, the first American woman to pass the master sommelier exam.
The evening was a bit of a fog so, forgive me if I can’t remember all the great wines I had, but based on my notes, some standouts were Schloss Schonborn Ausleses from 1994 and 1997, wines from Villa Wolf, G.D. Vrja (Piedmont!), Chateau Fontaine, O’Brien Vineyards Late Harvest Dry (no, that’s not an oxymoron; from OMP), Bellweather (Finger Lakes), Pacific Rim, and the Chateau Ste. Michelle/Loosen Eroica, which I’m embarrassed to say I had never tried before. I also had the opportunity to talk with and card Barry O’Brien (CEO of Select Fine Wine Imports and O’Brien vineyard owner, who wasn’t pouring his own wine for some reason), Chip Davis (Michigan manager for Chateau Ste Michelle) and Nicholas Quillé, chief winemaker for Vinmotion Wines (Pacific Rim among others).
The wines were international, but the crowd was less so. Stuart Pigott is an Englishman who lives in Berlin and spends a lot of time in the U.S., so he’s pretty international in and of himself. The only German whose presence I was aware of was Dominik Sona of Koehler-Ruprecht in the Pfalz, who participated in the Salon Riesling sessions. It seemed strange to have such a low number of Germans at an international Riesling event. North America was very well represented with Quillé and Chris Williams of Brooks Winery in Oregon (easy to spot because of his infamous “If you don’t like Riesling you’re a fucking idiot” t-shirt) and a number of others from the U.S. and Canada, including the strong Michigan contingent. Speaking of that contingent, we ran into Courtney and Shannon from Michigan by the bottle and had a short conversation. They informed me that that had already found a replacement for Gill’s Pier in their Royal Oak line up, but it’s staying under wraps for now. I’ll admit that I’m privately rooting for a couple of my favorites, but it’s hard to go wrong with any winery from one of Michigan’s AVAs.
Unfortunately, the industry people did not do much of socializing with non-industry people who were present. Nametags were issued to attendees in the trade but not everyone wore theirs and they often became turned around so that the person’s name was no longer visable. Some people were easy to spot, like co-organizer Sean O’Keefe with his long flowing locks or Pigott with his flamboyant attire and tall, thin frame, but I had trouble picking anyone else out. I didn’t have a nametag myself because I went ahead and bought tickets for our group before I knew that I could get a trade ticket. Not that I ever had the urge to shout “Don’t you know who I am?!” but I had hoped to connect with more industry people and a nametag might have helped break the ice with a few of them.Not to say the night was a disappointment, not at all. It was a lot of fun and more than worth the price of admition.
The crowd started to thin out after eight o’clock, so it became easier to move around and ask the sommeliers questions about what they were pouring. Some of them stopped paying attention to tickets (I don’t think Triffon ever did) at a certain point so we all ended up getting more than thirteen pours. Around that time a few of the sommeliers ordered a pizza for themselves and passed it around. Someone broke out some red wine, too. It was very conspicuous. The red wine blazed out of the glass like lighthouse beacon in a sea of Riesling or a tongue of fire floating waist high bouncing here and there all over the patio, as if it were independent of any hand. Anyhow, The Night of 100 Rieslings was a great time. I learned a lot and had fun. If you can make it to the next one, I highly recommend it. We didn’t take any pictures that night, but Courtney and Shannon did. Their pictures can be found in their Instagram account here: https://instagram.com/michbythebottle There are also some great ones on the City of Riesling Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/cityofriesling
After the event we walked back to the hotel to get a snack. Unfortunately we had to order a pizza because the hotel bar’s kitchen had already closed. We ate our snack, watched some dumb TV and went to sleep.
We all got up fairly early and walked to what was basically a French themed Panera Bread. We had a nice meal there, then split up. Amy and Pete went to the beach and Liz and I went back to the hotel. She showered and got herself put together while I recorded some audio notes. I’m at my most rambling when I’m talking to myself so I quickly lost track of time and left the hotel five or ten minutes after I had intended to. I rushed over as quickly as my rheumatic joints could carry me. I arrived two or three minutes before the first session was supposed to start but luckily, it hadn’t started yet. As Amy later reminded me, Traverse City is on “Up North Time”. Glasses were still being distributed and attendees were still drifting in. Feeling a bit like a kid on the first day of school (I get weirdly anxious at things like this), I looked for people whose faces I recognized and found Courtney and Shannon, who graciously let me sit next to them. Our “Michigan bloggers’ row” was up front and stage left and we were joined in our row by master sommelier Claudia Tyagi (formerly of the Marais restaurant in Grosse Pointe) and occasionally Madeline Triffon. Pigott was behind me and Karel Bush of the Michigan Wine Council was somewhere behind me too. Very good company!
The first session was on Rieslings of the Great Lakes and was moderated by Madeline. The panel was Angelo Pavan (Cave Spring Cellars, Ontario), Meaghan Frank (Dr. Frank, Finger Lakes), Brian Ulbrich (Left Foot Charley, Old Mission), Adam Satchwell (Shady Lane, Leelanau) and Bruce Murray (Boundary Breaks, Finger Lakes). We tasted ten Rieslings from around the Great Lakes, starting with three from Niagara, three from Northern Michigan, and three from the Finger Lakes. They were all excellent. The biggest surprise to me was the outstanding 2012 Charles Baker Riesling made at Stratus Winery in the Niagara Escarpment region. It was truly outstanding and yet another reason to make a booze run to Ontario in the near future.
More of an informational panel than a discussion, the winemakers discussed what their regions had in common with one another and what made them unique. Overall, what they all have in common (even the Finger Lakes) is the lake effect, which makes them essentially a “continental maritime” climate. In a normal growing season, the lake is the winemaker’s friend. It insulates the vineyard and lengthens the growing season on both ends. It moderates the continental extremes that winemakers in northeastern North American have to deal with. On the other hand, a frozen lake is lake effect gone bad. It sucks all the heat out of the surrounding areas and drags temperatures down which can damage or even kill vines. The glaciers that formed the Great (and Finger) Lakes also dumped a lot of “glacial garbage” around them, making for widely varied soil types, in turn making for interesting wines, particularly with varieties like Riesling.
The first session ended late so co-organizer Amanda Danielson and her hard-working assistants had to rush to get everything set up for the second session so that the schedule wouldn’t be thrown off any more than it already was. I exited the room to give them more room to work. I went to the hallway to fiddle with my phone and ran into Sean O’Keefe and Stuart Pigott. I introduced myself and we managed to have exchange a few sentences before going back to the session room.
The second session was entitled “I Say ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, You Say ‘How About Dry Riesling?’: Propelling Dry Riesling to the level of ubiquity Sauvignon Blanc enjoys among consumers.” The question was a fairly simple one. How can dry Riesling become as popular as Sauvignon Blanc? The answer is not so simple. The moderator for this one was Barry O’Brien. The panelists were Eduard Seitan (One Off Hospitality, Chicago), Eric Crane (Empire Distributors, Atlanta), Mick DeCamps (Red Wagon Wine Shoppes, Metro Detroit), Lee Lutes (Black Star Farms) and Angelo Pavan (Cave Spring Cellars, Niagara).
Twelve wines were poured for this session. The first was Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, the most popular and easiest to find New Zealand Sauv Blanc in the U.S. Then followed dry Rieslings from Germany, Washington, the Finger Lakes, Old Mission, New Zealand and Australia. Another Sauvignon Blanc, Frog’s Leap from Napa, hopped into the lineup at number eight and was followed by some largely very dry dry Rieslings from New Zealand, Austria and Alsace. The last one was an oddball Riesling from Napa. We’ll get back to that one later.
The discussion was a very lively one. The moderator began by asking the panelists to describe the differences between Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. The descriptions ran the gamut and were contradictory at points. Sauv Blanc was described as aggressive, loud, banal, “quenchy”, chuggable, expected and seafood friendly. Riesling was described as complex, contemplative, mercurial, scary, not chuggable, and undiscovered. One panelist described Sauvignon Blanc as cleats and Riesling as figure skates. I’m still trying to figure out what he meant by that.
After the initial more or less trashing of Sauvignon Blanc (Loire Valley Sauv Blanc was explicitly excluded from said trashing), the discussion moved to consumer impressions of Riesling. The consensus was that many consumers perceive Riesling as sweet and they don’t think they like sweet wines. This point of view is prevalent among restaurant servers, too, the sommeliers said. One panelist said that he has even heard it from local tasting room employees as they were pouring for visitors! This perception is wrong in a couple of ways. First, as my dear readers know, Riesling can be made in a wide variety of styles. Second, and this was new to me, consumers say they don’t like sweet wines but their buying habits often tell another story. Many of the top selling white wines in the U.S. actually have high levels of residual sugar. It’s just that consumers don’t taste the sweetness in them. This could be to Riesling’s advantage, some of the panelists thought, because Riesling’s acidity has the ability to mask the sort of sweetness that consumers think they don’t like. The role that distributors play in influencing restaurant wine lists and the weird phenomenon of people looking down on wine from their own state were also discussed. As Sean O’Keefe has frequently said, Chicago is a much better market for Michigan wine than Detroit.
So how does one overcome this bias? By educating consumers. How does one do that? By educating those who touch the consumer. No, not anti-sexual harassment training, although the panelists would no doubt agree that’s important. What they meant was educating servers and store employees so that they can educate consumers. Sell dry Riesling by the glass. Put Rieslings on special or put them near the front of the wine list. In some cases simply including more than one on the list would be a giant leap! There was no discussion of the role that social media can play in this education process. Of course, I could have raised the issue myself but by the time the conversation started getting close to that, we were already running over and we still had a few wines to go.
I did get a word in eventually. After tasting a bone dry 2013 Domaine Wachau (Austria) and the very dry and very good Domaine Weinbach Personal Reserve (Alsace) we tasted a Riesling made by an old family winery in the Spring Mountain area of Napa. I thought it tasted like those awful buttered popcorn jelly beans that used to come in the Jelly Belly variety packs. Barry had us taste it and asked what we thought. There were a few seconds of silence then I piped up. “I thought it was awful. Didn’t like it at all,” then I gave my jelly bean note. Eric Crane got a quizzical look on his face and said something like “That’s surprising” and sniffed the wine a couple times. Brian Ulbrich piped up and told a story about a great experience he had working at that winery and others mentioned how great the family was and how great it was that they gave prime Napa vineyard space to Riesling. Karel then said that stories like those are the ones we need to tell to consumers to change perceptions. None of them said anything about how the wine actually tasted, though. The standout wines (in a good way) from that session were the Ravines Dry Riesling (Finger Lakes), O’Brien Vineyards and Domaine Weinbach, although I thought all the Rieslings except for the Californian were very good. The Frog’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t even half bad.
The session was then ended (Barry looked in my direction and grinned as if about to chuckle as he got up). It was around 1 pm already and my group had already eaten, but the kind folks at the Franklin allowed them to get me a pork sandwich to go (which was really good). The trip back was quick and painless. My wife and I carried back 16 bottles of wine, of which five were Rieslings.
As a whole, the weekend was a blast. Our winery visits went smoothly with no problems beyond the occasional wrong turn on a winding road. There wasn’t even much in the way of bickering in the car, which is a minor miracle given how much time we spent in the car and what I grouch I can be sometimes. Even when we didn’t like the wines somewhere, our service was great. The highlight of the winery visits was the tour and tasting at Bower’s Harbor. It was a really wonderful educational experience. Talking with a winegrower (as he called himself) in the vineyard and watching him pull off laterals and discuss viticulture in front of actual vines is as good as it gets. The talks I had with Charlie Edson at Bel Lago and Paul Hamelin at Verterra were very illuminating. The official City of Riesling events were great too. Event creators Amanda Danielson (of Trattoria Stella), Sean O’Keefe and Stuart Pigott have a lot to be proud of. The wine selection was excellent all weekend and while Michigan Riesling was well represented, the wines were truly global.
Events like this are exactly what Michigan Riesling, and Michighan wines in general, need. In order for Michigan wines to achieve global respectability, they need to be presented in a global context. We Michigan wine lovers know that Michigan Riesling (and Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Lemburger, Cab Franc and maybe soon Pinot Noir) can hold its own against any other Riesling of comparable style anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t know this yet. It’s always a great thing when Jancis Robinson or another famous wine person writes up a Michigan Riesling but we here in Michigan need to be contextualizing our own wines instead of waiting for others to do it for us. The City of Riesling, in both of its official aspects, did a great job of that.
We in Michigan also need to realize that we are in the same boat with New York, Ontario and other winemakers in this part of North America. Our climates are similar and the challenges we face are similar. I saw a lot of Northeastern wine collegiality that weekend. Not just in the first Salon Riesling session where one might expect it but in the second and the Night of 100 Rieslings. If Michigan Riesling is to take a place on the world stage, both contextualization and extended camaraderie need to happen and City of Riesling did an excellent job of promoting both.
Like any event in its second year, there was room for improvement. All of the problems I noticed were ones that will most likely work themselves out as the event gets bigger and better known. The sessions I attended were very heavy on sommeliers and wine business people and light on consumers and people from other aspects of the wine world. This was not so much the case on the panels themselves, which were perfectly in tune with the subject matters being addressed, but in the audience in general. The perspectives of the people whose jobs are to sell wine are very important and a vital part of any well rounded discussion like those in the Salon Riesling sessions but more perspectives are needed. As I mentioned above, the Sauv Blanc vs Riesling discussion focused a lot on the point of sale in restaurants and very little on the role of media (social or otherwise). There was a lot of guessing and reference to research on consumer behavior but no opinions from consumers themselves. I’m not sure how to remedy that, but better communication with potential attendees about the event might be a place to start. Maybe a Salon Riesling panel on Riesling in social media might be interesting, too.
The biggest area for improvement was communication prior to the event, as I touched on in the paragraph above. The website wasn’t updated until a few weeks before the event and even then it was hard for me to figure out how to buy tickets to the Salon Riesling sessions. Facebook posts were pretty regular starting in June, but unfortunately they got buried in my feed. On Twitter, where there is an extensive wine community, posts were few and far between. I don’t remember anything in local print or broadcast media about the event, either. Maybe more was done in the northern part of the state or Chicago but nothing in metro Detroit that I was aware of. Amanda and Sean both have day jobs with lots of responsibilities and Stuart is a very busy man so they probably didn’t have the time or budget to engage the media as much as they would have liked to. Engaging a volunteer to handle social media might help communication for next year, as would an increased budget for radio commercials or promoted social media posts. Hopefully as the festival continues to gain traction in its third year, a bigger budget for media engagement will follow.
The Night of 100 Rieslings was a great success, I thought. My (minor) critiques of it are outlined above. Something as simple as double sided name tags could help improve socializing and as the event becomes better known, the number of international attendees will likely increase. Having the music at a lower decibel level or having longer breaks between sets of songs might have made chatting easier too.
City of Riesling was a lot of fun and it is a very good thing for the wine world, and for Michigan wine in particular! The organizers should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished with this event. I am eagerly looking forward to next year. City of Riesling is highly recommended!
The next morning we promptly checked out (as promptly as we could anyway) and headed for TC. We found a wonderful French themed place called Patisserie Amie and ate breakfast there. I’m not sure how authentic it was, but it was delicious. Amy and I got a house made sausage patty on a bed of sautéed spinach, topped with a poached egg and covered in pork gravy. Pete got a riff on eggs benedict that swapped out the Canadian bacon for a bone in pork chop. Liz got a much more sensible wild mushroom scramble. Ridiculous amount of food but we thought of it as an early brunch.
In planning our Old Mission Peninsula visit, we took two factors into account. The first was what time the tasting room opened and the second was how recently we had visited it. Favorites like 2 Lads, Chateau Grand Traverse and Black Star Farms were skipped in favor of ones we hadn’t been to in years: Peninsula, Brys, Bower’s Harbor and relative newcomer Hawthorne.
Peninsula Cellars was our first stop. As we drove from TC up the peninsula, we passed a large construction site on the left, building a very large, European looking building. We later learned that it is to be the winery and tasting room for Mari Vineyards, the newest comer to Old Mission. Their winemaker is City of Riesling co-organizer Sean O’Keefe, formerly of Chateau Grand Traverse, and they’re doing a lot of things that other Northern Michigan wineries are not. They’re having a cave dug on the property for barrel aging and using hoop house technology to extend the growing season and make it possible to grow exotic (for Michigan) grapes like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Syrah and Malbec. Sean has stated that he will be growing Riesling there too. He is an O’Keefe after all. It will be interesting to see how that all pans out.
Anyhow, to Peninsula! Peninsula’s tasting room is one of the coolest on Old Mission. It’s a converted one room schoolhouse built in the 1890s and used through the 1950s. Don’t let the cheesy-label table wines (which are themselves good) give you the wrong impression. Peninsula makes seriously good Riesling and Gewürztraminer, some of the best on OMP. They’re also producing apple cider now. I tasted the apple wine (the difference between apple cider and wine is the higher ABV for the latter) at the tasting room and it was quite good. I also enjoyed the Mélange fortified cherry wine. The biggest surprise was the impressive 2012 Hog’s Back Vineyard Merlot/Cab Franc. We got a bottle and plan on letting it sleep in our cellar for another three or more years. We also picked up a bottle of Manigold Vineyard Gewürztraminer, a perennial favorite.
Hawthorne was another early opener, so we headed over there after Peninsula. I had chatted with Hawthorne’s founder Brian and tasting room manager Jan at the Michigan Wine Showcase back in April and I was interested in getting another chance to taste their wines. Neither of them were there when we tasted but we did get good service from Nan. The beautiful modern tasting room is up on a hill and has a great view of their vineyards and both sides of Grand Traverse Bay. It also has a beautiful outdoor seating area with a fireplace and a patio that makes a great picture taking point. I liked their 2012 Pinot Grigio (on sale to make room for the 2013) and barrel aged Chardonnay which was oaked but balanced. They did charge for tastings, like almost of them did, but the tastings pay for themselves if bottles are purchased.
Brys (rhymes with eyes) Estate was next. I thought I hadn’t been there before, but as soon as we entered the tasting room I realized that I had. The tasting room had a very upscale feel and was run very effeciently. Shortly after we arrived two party busses pulled up and emptied their cargo of party people into the tasting room. Things got pretty loud but we still got good service. When we mentioned that we were headed to Bower’s Harbor next, our server mentioned that she knew a “gentleman” who worked there, although she hadn’t talked to him in a week. We should ask for him and say hi, she said.
The tasting scheme at Brys is unusual. One can purchase 4 tastings for $5 or 6 for $7. Wines in the reserve section count as 2 tastings though. Liz and I shared a 6 wine tasting, using two of those to try the 2012 Cabernet Franc. It was wonderful so we bought a bottle. It was also $50 so that was the only bottle we bought at that stop. Most of the wines there were good, the rosé being the other standout. They also had two wines available for tasting from their newly revived line of table wines under the Wally’s label. I didn’t taste either of those but they did have cocktails made using them at the upper deck tasting bar available for free tastings. I tried them both and they were refreshing. The highlight of the upper deck is the “Walk Above the Vines” that juts out above the plot of Chardonnay vines that runs along the tasting room. Yes, it sounds a little corny but it’s a cool feeling, like being a vineyard ghost hovering just above the vines. Makes for a nice photo op too.
Bower’s Harbor was our last stop that day. We had scheduled a special tasting and tour that was being offered in honor of City of Riesling weekend. Our guide was Tom Petzold, longtime employee of Bower’s
Harbor and candidate for Most Interesting Man in the World (see his bio in the box on this page: http://www.bowersharbor.com/estate). He started us off with two sparkling wines, both made in the traditional method, a blanc de blancs and a pinot noir rosé. Our party was split as to which was their favorite (I liked the white one the best), but everyone thought both were good.
We then got a tour of some of BH’s vineyards, including the famous Block II, while sipping chilled Riesling that Tom would occasionally whip out of a cooler he had slung over his shoulder. All three of the wines we sampled in the vineyard were wonderful, but I don’t remember what they were, unfortunately. We started out in a section of Chardonnay, but quickly moved on to Riesling and wrapped up with a largely untended section of Pinot Noir. I’ve read about many viticultural topics like the stages of bud and grape development, vine pruning and training, rootstocks and so on, but my eyes always started to glaze over after a couple minutes. Hearing Tom talk about these topics and techniques in the vineyard itself, and in some cases watching him actually do it, really made the subject come alive and I was about to understand how it all worked in a much clearer way. Tom knows what he’s talking about and has a knack for answering questions in a clear, direct way.
One of the questions I asked was about the 2014 vintage, which led into a discussion about recent vintages. Tom said that, in Northern Michigan, 2011 & 2013 were Riesling years, 2012 was a red year and 2014 was a “nothing year.” That pretty much sums it up. He backed that up with some shocking stats from BHV and his personal vineyard. Harvest was down to 40-25% of average yields and vine loss was high. Overall, Tom (and other OMP producers) seemed slightly more optimistic about the 2015 vintage than those on Leelanau. Like every winery on the two peninsulas, Bower’s Harbor will be using Washington grapes to fill in the gaps in its supply left by the Arctic Vortex. Normally they would look to New York for grapes after a harsh winter, but New York got hit as hard as Michigan did, he said. Tom said that the tasting room employees have been instructed to not mention the out of state grapes unless they were asked. If they are asked, they should answer honestly, of course, but not dwell on it. Tom said that he talks about it anyway.
The tour finished up with a vertical tasting (literally) of BHV semi-sweet (purple label) Riesling from three different years, 2007, 2011 and 2013. The purple label was originally called semi-dry (the 2007 bottle still had that on the label) but Tom said he convinced them to change the name to semi-sweet since that was a more accurate descriptor. The 2007 was an outlier in another respect. It was made using grapes from two different vineyards while the other two were made using grapes from those same two vineyards plus another (the same other). As one might expect, the 2007 was over the hill and rolling down it. It still drank ok, though. The 2011 was very good with a good balance of sweetness, fruit and acid. The 2013 was young and acidic, but just as good as the 2011 and will probably be even better in a year or so. The experience was great and worth every penny of the $25 we paid per person (I was given a complementary ticket as a media attendee of City of Riesling). The tour also included a 10% discount on Rieslings. We bought a 2013 Block II and a 2013 Semi-sweet.
As a final note, dogs have been a part of BHV for a long time. Golden lab Otis was the original winery dog, followed by Cooper, a laid back Bernese mountain dog who warmly greeted tasting room visitors for many years. Cooper’s successor was Brix, also a Bernese. All three have their own BHV wines. When we asked about the absence of a dog at the tasting room Tom told us that Brix had gone to a better place, the lake (permanently?). According to Tom, Brix didn’t share Cooper’s easy going personality and that the health department was not big on the idea of a dog wandering around the tasting room. One final note, Liz was able find the “gentleman” our Brys server mentioned. Liz told him that she had told us to ask for him and that she hadn’t talked to him in a week. He rolled his eyes and said, “That sounds like her.” So there’s the canine and Old Mission singles’ scene updates.
After all that walking and drinking, we were in need of a snack, so after we cashed out, we found ourselves another boat launch on Bower’s Harbor (the harbor) that had a tiny sandy beach. We sat down and had some mild raclette and crackers, paired with tiny bags of nacho cheese Doritos and water. Amy and I had a nice wade in the cool, clear water while watching people put their boats in and out of the water. The disadvantages of owning a boat but not having lakefront property were discussed. Then we drove back to Traverse City, enjoying the beautiful views of the bay along the way.
We checked into the Park Place Hotel in downtown Traverse City around four. It was pricy but the proximity to the events of Sunday and Monday made it worth the money and it helped the budget that the MCM Grand was so cheap. It is a tall, clean, modern hotel that has a wonderful view and a nice bar and restaurant on the first floor. My wife and I didn’t make it to the pool but Pete and Amy gave it high marks. It’s also within walking distance of the beach at Clinch Park.
I hadn’t spent much time in downtown Traverse City before then. It was a pleasant surprise. Other Northern Michigan “cities” I’ve been to like Charlevoix, Petoskey, and Boyne City were fine, but had a very small town feel to them. Cutesy shops (the same ones usually) and small buildings are the rule. Downtown Traverse City felt like an actual city. Its permanent population is small (15,000 or so) but the downtown has an urban feel. Not Detroit, Chicago or New York urban, but Louisville Urban. Relatively small downtown with big buildings, good bars and restaurants and real retail shops and cultural attractions, as opposed to the trinket shops and tourist traps of cities like Charlevoix.
Next episode- Part 3-The Night of 100 Rieslings and Salon Riesling!