Head to Head: Charbay No. 89 vs No. 83

Distiller: Charbay, Ukiah, Mendocino Co, California, USA (Karakasevic family)20190207_205341.jpg

Note: Samples provided by Charbay Distillery.

Grapes

83: Folle Branche (100%)

89: Pinot Noir (74%), Sauvignon Blanc (26%)

Place of origin

83: Mendocino Co, California, USA

89: California, USA

Age

83: 27 y/o (distilled 1983, released 2010)

89: 24 y/o (distilled 1989, released 2013)

ABV

83: 40%

89: 46%

MSRP

83: $475

89: $240

Appearance

83: Medium copper.

89: Light copper

Nose

83: Leather, Parmesan cheese, cola, lavender, ghost pepper.

89: Leather, woodruff, dried flowers, vanilla custard.

Palate

83: Dry and light bodied. Butterscotch, tarragon, oregano, old oak.

89: Mild. Dried flowers, lemon meringue, oak, crushed coriander seed.

Finish

83: Cola, burn, raisins.

89: Leather, Meyer lemon, burn.

Parting words: The Charbay Distillery is one of the oldest micro-distilleries in the US. It’s best known product is its distinctive line of whiskeys distilled from drinkable ( as opposed to distiller’s) beer sourced from local brewers with hops also usually added after distillation. As one might expect, they’re pretty weird. They are also very expensive, even by micro-distiller standards. The flagship expressions are the 6 y/o Charbay Releases I-V (brewed from a pilsner with hops also added after distillation). Release III sells for $375 per 750 ml bottle at K&L Wine Merchants in Southern California, with IV listed at $500 and V for $650 (the latter two are listed as out of stock). There is also the R5 made from Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA (1 y/o, $75) and Whiskey S made from Bear Republic’s Big Bear Stout (2 y/o, $90). They also produce a line of infused vodkas.

I’ve had a couple of the Releases and I didn’t care for them. Long time readers will know that I’m not a fan of funky hops or young, expensive whiskey, so that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. On November 9, 2018 I saw some folks on Twitter talking about Charbay whiskey and I rattled off a snarky tweet in response: “Charbay is gross, there I said it.” It got a little interaction but I didn’t really think about it much afterwards.

Then on January 13, 2019 I got a response from the distillery asking if I was interested in trying any of their other products since I obviously didn’t like the whiskey. After some back and forth on the tl and in the dms, Jenni of Charbay kindly sent me samples of their two brandies, the Nos. 83 and 89.

No. 83, coincidentally distilled in 1983, was the first thing to ever come out of Charbay’s still. It was distilled twice and aged in Limousin oak for 27 years. It seems to fall into the quirky house style, but I’ll admit that I haven’t had enough 27 y/o brandies to truly make a fair comparison. It’s the most Cognac-like of the two, which should come as no surprise since it’s made from Folle Blanche grapes, one of the historic grape varieties of Cognac. Wood is prominent, but there’s enough herbs and spices to keep No. 83 from being one-dimensional.

No. 89 is a different animal altogether. It was distilled in 1989 from two popular wine grapes, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir brandies are rare but not completely unknown, with fellow Ukiah distiller Germain-Robin producing a celebrated one. Sauvignon Blanc is more rare, but is still not completely unheard of as a source material for brandy. There’s slightly more fruit in 83 than in 89, but there’s still not a lot. What is there is a citric acidity that cuts through the oak to make for an enjoyable special occasion sipper.

I’m not going to do the thing I typically do in the final paragraph of a review and evaluate these on price. These are both special, one of a kind brandies and their prices reflect that. Both are outside of my price-range for any spirits, although I could see myself paying $240 for something exceptional if my wife got a big bonus or promotion or when we become empty-nesters. Nos. 83 and 89 are important pieces of micro-distilling history. If you get a chance to taste them, jump on it! You’ll never taste anything like them again.

One pairing suggestion: If you do pay full price for these bottles or over $50 for a pour in a bar, maybe make a matching donation to your favorite charity or local DSA chapter.

A Visit to WaterFire Vineyards

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A panoramic photo from the WaterFire parking lot. Tasting room/winery on left, vineyards and apple trees center and right.

I first met Chantal Lefebvre at the 2015 Michigan Wine Showcase. Since it’s the only Michigan wine industry event I get invited to, I try to make the most of it when I’m there. I seek out new wineries or at least ones I haven’t heard of to try. WaterFire was located near the center of the room with the food, so I strolled on over. The table wasn’t crowded so I was able to strike up a conversation with Chantal who was there pouring herself. Chantal is an introvert but not shy, if that makes any sense. As soon as I started asking her questions about the vineyards her passion for sustainable viticulture and winemaking poured out.

Like Mari Vineyards, WaterFire is a relatively new winery but, aside from both having great winemakers making great wine, the two operations couldn’t be more different. There’s no big money behind WaterFire, just Chantal’s (and husband Mike Newman’s) dream and skill. The property was purchased in 2008, planted in 2009 and the first vintage was 2012. The tasting room opened memorial day weekend of 2017, just a few weeks before we visited! They looked for property on Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas but land was too expensive. They eventually found a cherry orachard in Antrim county that was promising and purchased it. It’s located between Torch Lake (WaterFire? get it?) and the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay, opposite Old Mission Peninsula, north of Elk Rapids. Chantal has heard rumors of other properties being purchased for in the county but has no idea who or where they are.

Before starting her own winery, Chantal worked at many wineries across Michigan, including Left Foot Charley and Bower’s Harbor. WaterFire only has one other employee, also a woman. This makes it the only winery in Michigan with a 100% female workforce! She informed me that the dogs are male, however.

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The winery/tasting room building with dogs greeting us.

In the tasting room they currently offer five selections for tasting, including one wine they don’t make themselves, a Williamette Valley Pinot Noir (for any “I don’t like white wine” types that may straggle in). The estate wines are Rieslings from 2013 and 2014 respectively, a 2012 Grüner Veltliner and a Sauvignon Blanc from 2013. As you may have noticed, WaterFire only produces white wines. Why? White wine grapes do best at this site and in Northern Michigan in general. Why waste time with a fussy grape when you’re just starting out?

Waterfire also produces a hard cider, made from feral apple trees of on the estate and accross the road. The cider is very well balanced with some chewy tannins. It’s only available out of the tap at the tasting room, so bring a growler if you want to take some home.

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Chantal in the tasting room. Photo courtesy of WaterFire Vineyards.

As I alluded to earlier, Chantal’s passion is growing grapes and doing so in a sustainable way. WaterFire has two Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) certifications, for cropping and farmstead practices. Chantal uses no herbicides and only one pesticide, a natural, fermented product to control beetles. She has considered getting an organic certification for WaterFire, but the pesticide does not qualify as an organic. Chantal thinks the organic certification process is a pain and could stand to be simplified.

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Two rows of Sauvignon Blanc in the front with Riesling behind. Yes, they’re weedy, but Chantal doesn’t care. “Plants have many kinds of relationships, why focus only on competition?”
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Baby Sauv Blanc.
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Chantal and her grapes (Sauv Blanc?). Photo courtesy of WaterFire Vineyards.
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The back block planted with Sauvignon Blanc. Feral apple trees in the midground. 

Chantal’s immediate plans are to put in another vineyard block in front of the tasting room, probably with a (not fussy) red variety, possibly “something Austrian”. Lemberger is grown in Michigan and would be the obvious choice, but Zweigelt is grown widely in Ontario and might also be a possibility. If she asked me, I would suggest Gamay. It’s not Austrian, of course, but it is a grape that does very well in Northern Michigan but is not grown nearly enough.

Something I would also like to see is an East Grand Traverse Bay AVA (or something like that) in that area, if more vineyards do go in. If WaterFire’s vineyards are typical of the terroir there, it’s deserving of AVA status.

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Future home of the next block of vines, possibly red wine grapes.

We didn’t take a look around the winery itself because we were short on time, but we had a lovely visit and conversation with Chantal. I love her wine and I love her committment to growing grapes in a sustainable way. We’re grateful that she was able to spend time talking to us for my little dog and pony show. The next time you’re in the area, stop into WaterFire and try some of the best white wines in Michigan. Then take home a few. Look for reviews of the wines we brought home over the next few weeks.

For more on the beginnings of WaterFire, check out this interview with Chantal and Mike from 2013 by Michigan By The Bottle.

The Pass Sauvignon Blanc

Maker: Unknownwpid-2015-02-11-16.39.46.jpg.jpeg

Place of origin: Marlborough, New Zealand.

Vintage: 2013

ABV: 13%

Note: Reviewed 22 hours after opening

Purchased for $9

Appearance: Pale gold.

Nose: White grapefruit, pineapple, lemon juice. Whiff of acetone.

Palate: Bland on entry, but soon turns grassy and acerbic. Like having a pineapple spear shoved into one’s sinuses.

Finish: Harsh. Citrus pith. Leaves the mouth feeling like one has eaten too much fresh pineapple.

Parting words: Believe it or not, The Pass was even worse when I first opened it. After some time breathing in the fridge it is almost approaching drinkability. 2013 was supposed to be a good vintage for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but you’d never know it from this.

The Pass is is a special label for Trader Joe’s from a New Zealand producer with American ownership (maybe something from the Foley group). I can taste why they wouldn’t want this wine under the label of one of their known brands. I enjoy grapefruit notes in NZ Sauvignon Blanc, but this wine is totally out of balance and is more like an assault on the senses than a crisp summertime sipper. My recommendation is that you take a…wait for it…PASS on The Pass.

Josh Cellars Sauvignon Blanc

Maker: Joseph Carr, Healdsburg, California, USA

Place of Origin: Sonoma County, California, USA

Vintage: 2012

ABV: 13.5%

Purchased for: $14Josh SB

Appearance: Light straw with

Nose: Apricot, pear, mandarin orange, pineapple.

On the palate: Medium dry and mild. Unripe pear, not much else other than a little sweetness and an herbal touch as the wine warms up.

Finish: Sweet, fruity and mild. a little sweetness lingers in the cheeks for a while and then slowly fades.

Parting words: When I saw the Josh Cellars display at a local grocery store, I thought “Well, it looks like it will be pretty dull, but I have to buy some and post notes, right?” Right.

 Sauvignon Blanc is a grape I have grown to appreciate after having some really tasty New Zealand ones. I’ve had some good California SBs too, but most of them have been very dull. This one falls into the dull category. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, and it has a very nice nose, but it falls flat on the palate and it has no finish to speak of. It works best well-chilled with poultry or mild seafood.

The price is not good, but if you can find it for closer to $10 it might be worth a try. Otherwise, grab a Joel Gott or one of the cheaper brands from NZ.  Josh Sauvignon Blanc is mildly recommend.

Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc

Maker: Joel Gott, Napa, California, USA

Grape: Sauvignon Blanc

Region: California, USA

Vintage: 2010

ABV: 13%

Appearance: Pale gold with slow, thick legs.

Nose: Tangerine, Clementine, apricot, basil.

On the palate: Medium-bodied. Slightly sweet, grapefruit, peach, orange, delicately dry.

Finish: Orange, lemon, dry, fading into pleasant grapefruit bitterness.

Parting words: I bought this wine because it was the cheapest one on a list a of great California Sauvignon Blanc. I was a bit reluctant, since I generally only drink New Zealand Sauv Blanc. This one did not disappoint, and has all the citrus notes I love in New Zealanders. That said, the Joel Gott Sauv Blanc is no transplanted Marlbourgh. The herbal notes are much more subdued here and the grapefruit is more present in the finish than in the mouth. Lots of orange (and relatives) and apricot. An all around delicious wine with or without food. This would also be a good turkey (or tofurky) wine. Highly recommended.