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

Leorie Vineyard Merlot/Cabernet Franc, 2012

Maker: Black Star Farms, Suttons Bay, Michigan, USA.

Grapes: 73% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Franc

Place of origin: Leorie Vineyard, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2012

ABV: 13%

Purchased for $46 (Holiday Market)

Note: for more information on this wine and vineyard, read this post on Black Star Farms’ Blog.

Appearance: Dark red.

Nose: Cedar, black currant jam, clove, smoke.

Palate: Juicy but structured. Full bodied. Black currant, cherry juice, blueberry pie.

Finish: A little chewy, with some acid.

Parting words: Leorie Vineyard is in an old gravel pit on Old Mission Peninsula that has become one of Black Star Farms’ finest vineyards, especially for reds. It consistently produces ripe (a challenge for Merlot in Northern Michigan), disease-free Merlot that finds its home under this label year after year.

I’m afraid my notes don’t really do this wine justice. It’s fruity for sure but nicely balanced with spice and tannins producing an elegant but not austere red worthy of the Right Bank of the Gironde. It cellars well too, obviously. I’m looking forward to cracking my other bottle of Leorie in 2022 or sometime after that. $46 is expensive by Michigan standards, but that’s a good price for a quality Merlot blend from one of Michigan’s finest vineyards made by one of Michigan’s finest wineries. 2012 Leorie Vineyard Merlot/Cabernet Franc is recommended.

St. Julian Grüner Veltliner, 2018

Maker: St. Julian, Paw Paw, Michigan, USA

Grape: Grüner Veltliner (at least 75%)

Place of origin: Oxley Estate vineyard, Michigan, USA.

Vintage: 2018

ABV: 12%

Price: $22 (Tasting Room)

Appearance: Light gold.

Nose: Cut orange, butter, peach.

Palate: Medium-bodied. More peach, navel orange.

Finish: Dry. Peach cobbler.

Parting words: Grüner Veltliner is a wine most closely with Austria. Like Austrian Riesling, GruV is usually made in a dry, austere, style. Most domestic ones are made in the same style, or at least close to it.

This Grüner is different, though. If Austrian GruV is Chablis, this one is Sonoma. It has those dry-ish fruit notes, but there’s buttery and biscuity aromas as well. Maybe there was some lees contact or less than neutral oak used in making this wine, I’m not sure. Whatever it was, the result is surprising but pleasant.

It’s not the summertime quaffer I expected, but maybe this is a better style for the fall. 2018 St. Julian Grüner Veltliner is recommended.

Mari Vineyards: Row 7

Maker: Mari Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USA20191016_155851.jpg

Grapes: Unknown

Place of origin: Jamieson Vineyard, Mari Estate, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City, Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2013

Style: Red field blend

ABV: 13.9%

Purchased for $60 (winery, -media discount)

Appearance: Dark red.

Nose: Subtle. Toasted oak, black currant jam, blueberry, sweet cherry.

Palate: Well-balanced and elegant. White mulberry, blackberry, leather, clove, nutmeg, white pepper.

Finish: Fruity and a little chewy with a pinch of spice.

Parting words: Row 7 comes from a mishap when Jamieson vineyard was being planted. An unknown assortment of red wine vines were planted in Row 7. Instead of figuring out what they were and moving them accordingly, the vines were left in place and used to create this wonderful field blend, one of Mari’s most popular wines.

I’m not going to try and guess what varietals are in this wine, but it tastes like a Rhone or a lighter Bordeaux blend. It has a firm tannic backbone, but shows a lot of acid, fruit and a little baking spice. Row 7 is expensive for a Michigan red, but I think the quality justifies the price. Maybe it goes without saying in Mari’s price range, but this wine is one that you should cellar for a few years after purchasing. It tastes good right out of the box, don’t get me wrong, but when you’re spending this much on one bottle of wine, it’s wise to get the most out of your investment. This one could probably go another year or two even! Mari Vineyards Row 7, 2013 is recommended.

 

Cave Spring Vineyard Riesling, 2013

Maker: Cave Spring Cellars, Jordan, Ontario, Canada.20171228_181501.jpg

Place of origin: Cave Spring Vineyard, Cave Spring Estate, Beamsville Bench VQA, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario, Canada.

Grape: Riesling

Style: Off dry

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $17 from Red Wagon Wine Shoppe, Rochester, Michigan. $18 Canadian from the LCBO.

Appearance: Medium gold.

Nose: Fresh thyme, sage, orange-flavored spring water.

Palate: Minerals, marjoram, peach skins, lime juice, car wheels on a gravel road.

Finish: Tart but slightly herbal.

Parting words: Not many Ontario wineries get distribution in Michigan. Luckily one of them is Cave Spring. Cave Spring is famous for Gamay and most of all for its world class Rieslings. The estate bottled Cave Spring Wineyard Riesling is consistantly one of their best and best values. The herbs and fruit and acid are all in perfect counterpoint like a JS Bach concerto. Cave Spring’s 2013 Cave Spring Vineyard Riesling is highly recommended.

 

 

Wyncroft Avonlea Chardonnay 2011

Maker: Wyncroft/Marland, Pullman, Michigan, USA20170502_111830

Place of origin: Avonlea vineyard, Lake Michigan Shore AVA, Michigan, USA

ABV: Unknown.

Price: $35 (Michigan by the Bottle, Auburn Hills)

Appearance: Medium gold with a thin robe.

Nose: Rancio, golden raisins.

Palate: Full bodied and medium sweet. Sherry, gruyere cheese, sweet butter, hint of oak.

Finish: Sweet. Apricot, croissants.

Parting words: Wyncroft/Marland is a very limited production, estate winery in the Southwestern Michigan co-owned by winemaker Jim Lester. Jim was one of the earliest boutique winemakers in Michigan, as he frequently reminds people. He’s one of the rare big talkers who lives up to his own hype, though.  The Wyncroft label is used for limited production estate wines with Marland used for their line of more affordable wines from vineyards they don’t own. I’m very fond of his reds, but I haven’t always liked his whites. It’s not that they’re inconsistent, it’s that I haven’t always enjoyed the style in which they’ve been made. No accounting for taste, as they say.

Avonlea vineyard is Wyncroft’s flagship, planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling. Avonlea was hit hard by the Polar Vortex in 2014 with substantial loss of Chardonnay vines, according to Wyncroft’s website. The surviving Chardonnay vines had their fruit devoured by a murder of crows shortly before harvest. The damaged area has been replanted. In the meantime the 2011, 2012 and 2013 vintages are available.

This heavy, buttery style of chardonnay is not my favorite, especially not when from Michigan. Avonlea Chardonnay was pleasant but heavy handed  when first opened. As it opened up, it became even more unbalanced and took on unpleasant oxidized and burnt butter flavors. Even Mrs. Sipology, who normally enjoys oaky chards, didn’t like it. I can’t say I liked it either. I don’t know if this wine is flawed or tainted (I don’t think it’s the latter) or what, but I really can’t recommend it, especially not at $35.

Rivers-Marie Occidental Ridge Pinot Noir

Maker: Rivers-Marie, Yountville, California, USAwp-1475111484518.png

Place of origin: Occidental Ridge Vineyard, Sonoma Coast AVA, California, USA

Vintage: 2012

ABV: 13.8%

Price: $50 (winery)

We received a complimentary tasting and tour of the winery at the time of purchase.

Appearance: Dark ruby.

Nose: Dynamic. Red raspberry, crushed blueberry, wet oak, smoke.

Palate: Pomegranate, tart cherry juice, old oak, leather, morel mushrooms.

Finish: Mixed fruit jam, crimini mushrooms, custard, oak. Softly lingers f0r a moderate length of time.

Parting words: This wine is from our (Mrs. Sipology’s and mine) trip to NoCal a couple years ago. I wrote up the trip here. Rivers-Marie produces (or at least produced in 2012) two single vineyard Sunoma Pinots, Occidental Ridge and Summa ( the latter owned by one of the co-owners of R-M) as well as a general Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.

Four years in the bottle have turned a good wine into a great one. Rivers-Marie makes some of the best Pinot in California. It’s fruity, earthy and bold without being too aggressive and killing the beautiful character of the grape. If you can find some, buy it. Recommended.

 

Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc, 2013

Maker: Left Foot Charley, Traverse City, Michigan, USA20160203_155824.jpg

Place of origin: Island View Vineyard, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan, USA

ABV: 13.5%

Other information: 21.4° brix at harvest, harvested 10/19/2013, 6 g/l residual sugar.

Purchased for $24

Appearance: Pale straw

Nose: Mild lychee, lemon thyme, mineral water

Palate: Tangerine, Meyer lemon, sage, pear, peach, thyme.

Finish: Overripe Bartlett pear, mandarin orange, tannin.

Parting words: Pinot Blanc is a funny wine. In Europe, it’s associated with Alsace, but Alsatian Pinot Blanc is really just a white wine blend made with white wines from grapes in the Pinot family. In Alsace, Pinot Blanc (the variety) and Auxerrois (a very close sibling to Chardonnay) are the most common components. Sometimes Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir (vinified white) are blended in as well. Comparing an Alsatian Pinot Blanc to an American varietal Pinot Blanc is not really a fair comparison because of that.

I had intended to compare this wine to an Alsatian I had in my cellar, Emile Beyer’s Tradition Pinot Blanc. I didn’t end up doing that comparison because it just didn’t seem fair to compare the two for the reasons above, but also because Tradition is $10 cheaper and is not single vineyard. That said, I did drink them in close proximity and the LFC Pinot Blanc held up well, for what it’s worth.

Pinot Blanc is a grape variety that has come up as a potential “signature grape” for Michigan. I’ve ranted about this on Twitter at least twice. When the marketeers who love the idea of signature grapes talk about Pinot Blanc they use buzzwords like “crisp”, “clean” and “quaffable”. Those words always translate to “boring”. The idea is to grab Pinot Grigio drinkers who are looking for book club type wines that are easy to pound down and don’t require much contemplation. I think this is the wrong approach because I don’t want to see Michigan tying its fortunes to a dull grape and being perceived as a dull wine state, instead of one producing robust, complex white wines on par with anywhere else in the world.

Most Michigan Pinot Blancs I’ve had have indeed been boring. They have very little going on other than acidity. The ones that aren’t boring have been bad. Left Foot Charley’s 2013 Pinot Blanc is the exception. It’s complex and fruity, but with plenty of acidity to keep things moving along. $24 puts it on the high side for Michigan whites, but it’s worth it. If all Michigan Pinot Blancs could be like this, I might change my mind about the grape. Left Foot Charley 2013 Pinot Blanc is recommended.

Bower’s Harbor Vineyards Block II Riesling, 2010

Maker: Bower’s Harbor Vineyards, Traverse City, Michigan, USAwpid-20150811_152025.jpg

Place of origin: Block II, Bower’s Harbor Vineyards, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Traverse City Michigan, USA

Vintage: 2010

ABV: 12%

Purchased for $22 (Holiday Market)

Appearance: Medium gold.

Nose: Gravel, jarred applesauce, lychee nut, bottled lemon juice.

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!