A Visit to Wyncroft/Marland Winery

Back in June of 2021, as Liz and I were planning our visit to Dablon Winery and Vineyards in Southwest Michigan (read the account of our visit here), I sent an email to James Lester of the nearby Wyncroft/Marland winery in Fennville asking if we could pay him a visit while we were out there. He obliged and we arranged a date and time to visit.

Why the two names? Wyncroft is the main, flagship label for higher-end single vineyard wines, and Marland is the one used for the more affordable line of wines from grapes sourced from other vineyards in the region. James made a point of saying that he only buys grapes from vineyards that adhere to his precise viticultural standards. I will be using Wycroft to refer to the winery for the rest of this post to avoid repeated slashes. There are only two full-time employees at Wyncroft, James, and his partner Daun Page.

Wyncroft is only open by appointment (no walk-in tourists!), but that appointment includes a personal tasting of at least five wines with James at the winery. It’s not free though. Tastings are $25 per person and no discounts are given. The tastings are scheduled for two hours but two hours with James can easily turn into four or more, especially as the wine and conversation start flowing.

On the afternoon of our appointment, I got an email from James reminding us of the tasting charge and that he does not give freebies or engage in quid pro quo arrangements with writers. As you know, dear readers, I never ask for or expect freebies, although when I visit wineries in my “official” Sipology Blog capacity, I do usually get complimentary tastings and occasionally get media discounts which I always disclose. I emailed him back and told him that we understood and that was perfectly fine.

We showed up to the front gate on time, even though Liz wasn’t sure if it was the right place since there is no sign (to deter the dreaded walk-in tourists). We were in the right place, I assured her, and I pushed the buzzer at the gate. After a few minutes with no response, I did it again. Still not response. I walked around the gate, wondering if we were supposed to just park there and walk. The winery buildings weren’t visible from there, so that was unlikely. I then checked the first email I received from James, and, of course, it contained his phone number and instructions to call him when we arrived so he could open the gate. I did so, he answered on the second or third ring and opened the gate for us to drive through. We drove up the short (by car) driveway up to the winery and parked in the precise spot James directed us to. We got out, greeted our hosts, and got the visit underway.

The Winery

 Unfortunately, the only notebook I brought was a large, ringed binder that was a little difficult to jot notes onto while standing. I think I did fairly well under the circumstances, and I have a pretty good memory when it comes to wine. That said, our conversation with him during our visit was wide ranging, and James frequently tossed tangential anecdotes and nuggets of knowledge our way. It was engaging conversation but it made note-taking difficult. To make this post readable, I’ve had to arrange most of my notes topically, rather than according to the flow of the conversation.

Trying to keep up with James!

The first part of our visit was a tour of the property and its vineyards. As James told me, “You can do a lot in the cellar, but flavor begins in the vineyard.” The circular end of the drive is flanked by two buildings, the winery and James and Daun’s home. Surrounding them is ninety-four acres, most, but not all, of which is vineyard, which they’ve named LePage, a combination of their last names. Other Wyncroft-owned vineyards are nearby. The vineyard is technically in the Fennville Sub-AVA, making Wyncroft one of only two Michigan wineries to use Fennville on their labels. The other one, unsurprisingly, is Fenn Valley.

James also grows apples and pears on the estate, with plenty of room left over for prairie land, multiple ponds and twenty acres of forest. The forest includes the trees that ring the property, acting as a wind break and snow fence. Before James purchased the property it was a private arboretum. Many of the trees from that era are still standing and healthy, including several rare Asian conifers. The woods do attract deer, unfortunately, so James will occasionally drive through the vineyards while firing off a shotgun to scare them away.

We didn’t tromp over the entire ninety-four acres, but we did visit a few blocks of Merlot and Pinot Noir. Aside from those, he also grows Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Semillon on site. The rows are three feet apart, like in France (and at Dablon). James says this makes cropping easier, and that he crops in the sub-Grand Cru range, ten to fifteen clusters per vine. The rows are kept in a natural state, and clippings from the mower are left in place to act as a natural weed-blocker.

Ironically, a large north-facing slope is the warmest part of the vineyard, so that’s where he puts the Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. James claims the slope is so warm, his Pinot can overripen if care is not taken, a relatively rare problem for Michigan. He uses early-ripening, loose clustered Dijon clones for his Pinot Noir. He believes that Michigan is much better suited to Pinot Noir cultivation than warmer climates like California, because of how closely Burgundy’s and Michigan’s climates resemble each other. He believes that varieties are adapted to particular climates and that it’s foolish to attempt to grow them in a different one. It was hard not to think of some other Michigan vineyards after hearing that comment. “So it would be foolish to try to grow something like Tempranillo?” I asked. He gave a thoughtful smirk, then told me that Tempranillo is grown in the highlands in Spain, so it can actually be grown well in Michigan.

I’m a big fan of Michigan Merlot, and James makes some of the very best. He has five different clones planted, including two from Pomerol, one Northern Italian, and one Inglenook California clone. I know that only adds up to four, but I couldn’t find the fifth one in my notes. James says that Merlot is just as fussy as Pinot Noir, but it’s easier to grow, so it’s often grown in bad sites, which is to blame for its bad reputation in some quarters. He says his Merlot tastes like Pomerol, and I can’t disagree.

Lester’s business model is a bit different from that of his neighbors’, even wineries like Dablon or Domaine Berrien. James is the founder, winemaker, and vineyard manager and Wyncroft.  Daun handles most of the business end of the business. As I noted above, they are the only full time winery employees, although part-time seasonal help is used. He uses distributors in Chicago (his biggest single market) and in Michigan. Wyncroft and Marland wines can be found at better wine shops in Southeast and Southwest Michigan, and, of course at Friends-of-the-Blog Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, specifically the one in Auburn Hills, Michigan. In the early days, though, he self-distributed, but the job quickly became too big, especially in Chicago.

James was raised in a Seventh Day Adventist family (West Michigan is a big center of that denomination) and never had a glass of wine until he was twenty-nine years old. He made his first wine as a hobbiest in 1983 becoming interested in aged Burgundy and Bordeaux, and reading books on the topic. His first wine was a Pinot Noir, and he liked it a lot. He sent samples around to friends and people in the wine industry and they all enjoyed it as well, so he kept at it. He counts Willy Frank of Constantin Frank winery in New York and Leonard Olson of nearby Tabor Hill as mentors.

James’s business philosophy is to make wines he likes, and then to find customers for them. The wines he likes are for the most part traditional, French-style wines. He describes his style as classic, full flavored “wow” wine, that is an expression of its terroir.

To be fair, a lot of winemakers say things like that, but what sets Wyncroft apart is James Lester himself. He cuts a dashing figure with long gray hair, an open lapel, and a full, well-groomed beard. James is one of those rare people who talks a lot about himself and his business but is able to back up every word with excellent product. His wines are as much an expression of his unique personality as they are of Wyncroft’s beautiful vineyards.

Wyncroft isn’t a part of any official wine trails or Michigan winemaking organizations, partially to prevent tourists from showing up unannounced, but also because James has reservations about the way those organizations operate. He takes grape-growing and winemaking very seriously and is concerned that not all wineries take it as seriously as he does. Why should wineries like his and tourist-oriented ones making plonk from bulk grapes get the same benefits for the same fees? James doesn’t think that makes much sense.

Most of James’ red wines, in both lines, are classic red Bordeaux blends in various configurations. Cab Franc/Merlot, Merlot/Cab Fran/Cab Sauv, etc. Their ability to age varies with the varieties in question (as well as the label they’re bottled under), but all should have at least a full four years on them before drinking.

The crown jewel of his Red Bordeaux blends is Shou (pronounced “show”) from a Chinese word meaning longevity. In 2019 it was 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Cabernet Franc, and 13% Merlot. As the name suggests, this is a wine made for an extended time in the cellar. As the percentage of grapes suggests, it is intended to be James’ take on a Left Bank red Bordeaux blend. When our tour finally got to the cellar, I was able to taste some of the wines that would go into the 2020 vintage. The Cab Franc was chewy and dark with lots of berry flavors. The Merlot was deep purple and tasted like blackberry pie. The Cab Sauv was brick red and tasted like fruit of the forest pie. When I remarked on how little sulphur I tasted in the barrel samples, he was very proud of the fact. “Too much sulphur in a barrel sample is a sign of bad winemaking.”

A pair of Shous

The Wyncroft LePage Pinot Noir ages very well and should also be at least four years old before drinking, but the Marland Pinot Noir can be consumed early with no loss of flavor. They’re both elegant, but easy drinking, in fine Burgundy style. Aside from the usual suspects, James also makes a Blaufränkisch (aka Lemberger) under the Marland label. The grape has been increasingly popular with winemakers in recent years, since it grows so well in Michigan and produces very flavorful red and pink wines. Despite my early skepticism about the grape, I am now all in on Blaufränkisch, and James is too. When I asked him if Blaufränkisch had a future in Michigan, his answer was an enthusiastic “Yes!”

 James Lester’s reds are probably his best-known wines, but his whites should not be slept on either, as the kids say. We tasted the Wren Song Vineyard dry Riesling which was close in style to dries from Alsace and Oregon. James regularly makes Riesling Ice-wine as well. The Wyncroft website shows a Marland Late Harvest Riesling, but I don’t recall ever tasting it.

James produces two Chardonnays, the single vineyard Wycroft Chard with oak, and the Marland Chardonnay “Non Affecte”sur liewithout. When he discussed Wyncroft Chard with me, he compared it to a picture in a frame. The oak acts as a frame, supporting and drawing attention to the aromas and flavors of the grape, like a frame supports and draws attention to a picture. It’s not an attraction in itself. “Nobody cares about the frame.” I had a taste of Chardonnay (Wyncroft I think, the samples were coming fast and furious) in the cellars and enjoyed it quite a bit even at that early stage. It had lemon, a little butter, and tropical fruit. He also produces an Auxerrois, with grapes from Bel Lago’s Moreno vineyard.

The white wines he seems most proud of are his Semillion/Sauvignon Blanc blends, aged in acacia wood barrels, like in Bordeaux. He sells two, the Wyncroft Shou Blanc and the Marland Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends. The website also lists a Marland Pinot Grigio, which I think I may have tasted at one point, but I don’t recall when or where.

Wyncroft produces only one pink wine, Marland rosé of Cabernet Franc. I asked why he doesn’t make a Pinot Noir or Blaufränkisch rosé, and he replied that he thought Cab Franc made the best rosé of the varieties he uses (to which I agreed), and he didn’t find it necessary to make more than one pink wine. I asked about orange wine and he smirked. “I’ve never had an orange wine that wouldn’t have tasted better as a white,” he replied. It’s intended to be consumed promptly, but I think quality rosé is at its best the spring or summer after its first birthday.

After the vineyard tour (and before going into the cellar), James led us to a small table that he or Daun had set up outside the winery for the more formal tasting portion of the visit. We tasted through most of what he had in stock. It was all good. We also had a nice long discussion about my blog and James said some very kind things, and that he would, after all, give us a media discount, and throw in a few “freebies” for tasting purposes. We ended up leaving with six bottles after originally thinking we would only buy three (due to price). The strange thing was that when we received our receipt via email a few days later, no discounts of any kind had been applied. I contacted James and he was apologetic and said they would get it sorted out and adjust the bill accordingly. That hasn’t happened yet.

I have an enormous amount of respect for James and Daun and all they’ve accomplished. I only mention this because I feel obliged to be transparent to my readers about the discounts that I may or may not receive. As I said above, I never demand or expect discounts or free product from any winery, distillery or anywhere else when visiting. If I ever do receive any, I always disclose what I received in the post about the visit and in any subsequent reviews. So I feel like I need to disclose all this, in the event that we do end up getting the media discount at some point.

Discount or not, James’s wines are worth every penny we paid for them. We got a great tour, and bought some great wine. A visit to Wyncroft/Marland is highly recommended. It’s a beautiful estate and James Lester is one of the best conversationalists in Michigan wine. Call and arrange your visit today!

Note: All photos by Liz Wright

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.