Now that our youngest is getting older, our regular trips to Kentucky have been slowly becoming regular again. Last April, friend, cocktail enthusiast, and StraightBourbon.com Bourbonian of the Year Bruce organized a couple of tours of Luxco’s new Lux Row distillery for all the SBers who had gathered in Bardstown that weekend.
The bourbon boom has seen a lot of activity around Bardstown and Louisville on the part of whiskey start-ups and even old players. One of those older players that is now making the transition from non-distiller producer (NDP) to distiller is Luxco. Luxco was known as the David Sherman Corporation for many years. It was founded in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1958 by…wait for it…David Sherman along with his partner Paul A. Lux. The Luxes gained control over the company over the years and it was renamed Luxco in 2006. The distillery is named Lux Row because it’s owned by Luxco and they, uh, like to arrange things in rows. No joke, that’s literally what our tour guide said.
Luxco/DSC has long been a large NDP in the bourbon business. Its brands currently include Ezra Brooks, Rebel Yell, Blood Oath, Yellowstone, and David Nicholson (infamous for its labels stating that it was distilled at DSP-KY 16 long after it actually was). Luxco is also now 50% owner of Limestone Branch distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky. Tightening of the bulk and contract markets companies like Luxco rely on for their brands has forced some to start distilling for themselves. Luxco’s plans are ambitious. They told us they were planning to build six warehouses on the Lux Row site (they had one completed when we were there), one being completed every six months. They planned to transition to filling their brands entirely with their own stock in a few short years. The numbers didn’t seem to add up, but math isn’t my strong suit and I don’t own stock in the company or anything so I don’t really care.
The distillery/visitor center is a pleasant, modern-looking building inside and out. After years of touring one hundred year old, industrial-style plants, it was eerie to tour this neat and clean new building. No drips, no rust, and no low-hanging pipes to hit my head on.
The distillery building and visitors’ center.
As with most distillery tours, this one started out with a look at the cookers and fermenters. Lux Row has two 4,000 gallon mash cookers and twelve 8,000 gallon fermenters. Four of the fermenters are uncovered and the rest are closed. They are only running two mashbills currently, a rye recipe bourbon (for Ezra Brooks and David Nicholson Reserve) and a wheat recipe bourbon (for Rebel Yell and David Nicholson 1848). Our guide told us they only run one at a time. He also said that the fermentation usually takes three to four days.
Fermenter from the bottom, I think
Pre-still storage tank
One of the four uncovered fermenters.
Next we got a look at the still, which was made by Vendome and is a beaut, as they say. The column is 43 feet tall with a 36 inch diameter. It has 19 copper plates inside. According to our guide, the distiller’s beer is added at the third plate from the top.
Doubler and column still.
Badge on column.
Column going up…
We then went on to the barrel filling room and saw the equipment and a few barrels there. 90% of their barrels come from Independent Stave and rest come from Speyside cooperage and a few others. A level 3 char is used. The bourbon enters the barrels at a whopping 124.5% alcohol by volume.
On to the warehouse. It’s beautiful on the inside with a large open entryway allowing visitors to see all six stories to the top. It’s an impressive sight. Less impressive is the nearly empty warehouse behind those barrels.
The march to the warehouse.
Warehouse under construction.
Front of the warehouse.
Back of the warehouse.
Bottling takes place at the Luxco bottling plant in Missouri, so our next stop was the tasting bar. As you can see it is decorated in the same slightly old-timey modern style. We tried just about everything they had. The standouts were David Nicholson Reserve and Blood Oath. Blood Oath was very good but not worth the high price tag in my opinion.
We exited through the gift shop, which was full of well-designed apparel and glassware.
The tour was quite good overall and our guide was knowledgable, more so than many of the walking automatons that pass for guides at other places. The worst part of the tour was the tasting, simply because most Luxco bourbons just aren’t very good. That’s not the fault of the guides and other staff at Lux Row though. The tour at Lux Row distillery is recommended. Big thanks to Bruce for organizing the tour!
The bourbon boom has been good to tourism in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s the largest city in bourbon country and home to its own cluster of distilleries. Louisville’s bourbon pedigree is second to none (except maybe Bardstown) so it’s in a great position to cash in. It started in 2013 with the opening the Evan Williams Experience downtown and continued in 2014 with the opening of Diageo’s historic Stitzel-Weller distillery in Shively Kentucky to the public as a home for the Bulleit brand. 2018 will see the long-awaited debut of Old Forester Main Street Distillery.
Unlike the above distilleries, Jim Beam doesn’t have any historical connections to Louisville. That hasn’t stopped them from joining their competitors, though. In 2014 the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse opened in Louisville’s Fourth Street Live! (sic) development, three blocks south of Main.
I have been to The Evan Williams Experience a couple times and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s Disneyesque, but it does a good job of balancing marketing, education and entertainment. I went into the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse expecting that sort of experience. I should have taken a hint from the name, though. Jim Beam’s Clermont gift shop and visitor’s center is called the Jim Beam American Stillhouse. That is the Urban Stillhouse’s closest parallel, not the other Louisville bourbon attractions.
The Urban Stillhouse is essentially a gift shop with a tasting bar and event space. There’s virtually no educational component and certainly nothing Disneyesque about it. That’s not to say it’s bad, not at all. It’s just not the Evan Williams Experience. This makes a lot of sense give its location in what’s essentially an outdoor mall. A long, intensive tourist attraction wouldn’t fit well with the chain restaurants and touristy nightclubs of Fourth Street Live! (sic).
Our crew (minus Liz who had a couple church things) stopped in on our way to Bardstown from Detroit. Parking was a little hard to find given the gridlock and our unfamiliarity with downtown Louisville, but we managed to find a garage. The interior is nicely decorated in a similar style to the American Stillhouse. The front part of the space is the gift shop and the back is taken up by a long tasting bar with a cocktail bar on the side. Tastings are $8 per person and include a succinct but largely accurate talk.
We received three samples at first. Ours were Jim Beam Black (now “extra aged”), JB Urban Stillhouse Select (essentially an exclusive version of Distiller’s Cut) , and JB Apple (which our guide correctly described as a liqueur). Our guide walked us through a tasting of the first two, which he said were about the same age. Telling us to hold off the Apple, he then poured us a sample of whatever we wanted from the back of the bar. That included the entire Jim Beam, Jim Beam flavored and Knob Creek lines plus Basil Hayden. I ordered JB Double Wood, which I liked. This extra sample was poured into a souvenir shot glass with Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, Louisville and the Louisville skyline etched into it. After that, we were instructed to try the Apple. I’m not much of a flavored whiskey guy, but it was fine. Would make a decent shot, substitute for apple pucker or addition to mulled cider.
In the gift shop portion of the space there is also a small still and bottling room where visitors can assemble their own custom version of Urban Stillhouse Select from bourbon at a variety of ages. We didn’t do that, so I’m a little fuzzy on the details of that process. I did purchase a full-sized bottle for myself and a 375 ml as a thank-you gift for our neighbors for babysitting our youngest one so we could get an early start on our trip. For the small one, I took advantage of the custom laser etching service available for $10 per bottle. I chose a short, simple message in a single font but in seemed like the folks ahead of me in line were getting the full text of Moby Dick inscribed into theirs in four different fonts. The etching looked nice but it did take a couple times through the machine to get that way.
The etching service is not just for visitors, though. When we were there, there were boxes of bottles inscribed for the Kentucky Derby Marathon, to be held the next day, sitting near the etching machine. There were also inscribed bottles for a political even being held upstairs later that day.
Here’s a review of Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse Select:
Maker: Jim Beam, Clermont/Boston, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)
Bottled: April 25, 2018.
Proof: 100 (50% ABV)
Note: Not chill-filtered.
Price: $46 (only available at the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse)
Appearance: Medium dark copper.
Nose: Alcohol, yeast, leather.
Palate: Full-bodied and medium dry. Tabasco, burnt marshmallows, caramel sauce on vanilla ice cream.
Finish: oak, grape soda.
Parting words: The price is high on JBUSS (vs Distiller’s Cut at $25, Knob Creek at $35, McKenna SB at $34), but one buys a bottle like this as a souvenir, not a value sipper. Both the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse and Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse Select are recommended.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week, I posted part 1 of my photos of the Castle & Key distillery, FKA The Old Taylor Distillery. The photos were of the World’s Longest Rickhouse and some other buildings on the site that were not yet restored. This week, the photos will be of the distillery itself (and associated buildings), the springhouse and the the dam.
For further reading on this building and Castle & Key check out what friend-of-the-blog Chuck Cowdery has had to say about Old Taylor/Castle & Key here, and posts on Old Taylor’s sister distillery, Old Crow here and here.
Other friend-of-the-blog Fred Minnick takes better pictures than I do. He’s been to OT/C&K several times. Here’s his visits from 2015, and 2013, just before the current owners purchased the property.
Also check out the Lipmans’ piece about Old Taylor and Old Crow from 1999 (with a 2015 update).
Back when I first started going on annual/semi-annual pilgrimages to Kentucky, I heard tale of two abandoned distilleries on McCracken Pike, near Frankfort Kentucky and even nearer to the Woodford Reserve (aka Labrot & Graham, aka Oscar Pepper) distillery. To get there, you turned left out of the Woodford reserve parking lot and kept going until you thought you were lost in the woods and needed to turn around. Then you went around a bend and a giant castle-like building virtually lept out of the woods at you. That was the Old Taylor Distillery (shuttered in 1972). Just a little down the road was the Old Crow distillery which was also interesting in its own right, but not nearly as impressive as the Castle, as it was called. You could park across the road at the collapsed office building if you wanted to take a look at the castle, but you had to look out for The Guy in the Red Truck, who was guarding the place. The Guy in the Red Truck was not a monster, though, and you could reason with him and he might let you get close and take pictures. He would also show you the grave of a Revolutionary soldier that he preserved nearby.
The Castle was wild looking and a little sad and occasionally spooky like in this picture I took on a rainy day in 2010. “Legit” whiskey bloggers (i.e. actual journalists) would occasionally get a chance to wander around and take pictures. At the time, we bourbon lovers all wondered what it would take to restore the building. The conventional wisdom was that the building would be too expensive to ever restore, let alone reuse.
We were wrong. The Old Taylor Castle is now being restored, thanks to the partners who own what is now called the Castle and Key (after the key shaped spring house) Distillery. In 2014 it was purchased for less than a million dollars from an Atlanta investor group that was selling the distillery buildings for scrap. The destruction was stopped and restoration was begun. The invester group managed to snag Marianne Barnes, rising star at Brown-Forman (makers of Old Forester, Early Times, Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniels), to be their master distiller. The intention is to produce gin, vodka, rye and bourbon. The Bourbon, at least, is going to be released as a mature, bottled-in-bond product.
In late April of this year (2017) a group of folks from StraightBourbon.com including yours truly, Mrs. Sipology Blog and friends of the blog Amy and Pete were graciously allowed a tour of the campus, even though it’s not open to the public yet. Here are some pictures I took. I hope you like them.
Have you ever selected your own barrel of bourbon? I have a few times. Well, me along with a dozen or two of my drinking buddies. I’m a member of the Georgia Bourbon Society, a group that selects a barrel or two of bourbon for ourselves once or twice a year. No, you don’t have to be from Georgia to be a member, obviously. It’s just a group of friends from all over the country, organized by two men who live in Atlanta.
There are dozens of groups like the GBS around the country. Some are ad hoc groups, some are loose affiliations like us and some are organized clubs with rules and membership rolls and whatnot. This sort of thing has been going on for a long time, but it has become much more common as bourbon’s popularity has taken off.
GBS has made the rounds over the years. Our first selections were of Elijah Craig and Elijah Craig barrel strength. Our next one was Elmer T. Lee, then two barrels from Four Roses, then a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel from Wild Turkey. Last weekend we selected a barrel of Knob Creek Single Barrel at Jim Beam. It was a great experience.
We gathered at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse (aka the gift shop) in Clermont, Kentucky at 10 AM that morning. First on the agenda was, of course, the tasting and selection. We gathered in Warehouse K amongst the barrels.
There were tables set up with four glasses each, one with a red band, one with a green band, one with a blue band and one with no band at all. A glass water bottle was on each table too. Three barrels had been rolled out for us to choose from, each one corresponding to a colored band. Red was first, green second and blue third. We sniffed and tasted all three in turn and then over again and then took a secret ballot. Just one vote separated the first and second places so we considered a taste off, but in the end we just went with the first place finisher. I thought it tasted and smelled like snickerdoodle cookies. It was a very good barrel of bourbon.
The winning barrel was then rolled on to a truck and driven over to the distillery for dumping. Some of our members had the privilege of aiding in the dumping process. We then all watched and waited to see how much bourbon was going to come out of that barrel. About 33 gallons is the answer (that’s about 20 gallons lost to evaporation over the ten years of the bourbon’s life).
After a delicious complimentary bbq lunch, we got a full tour and then the unheard of (at least unheard of by me) experience of actually watching our barrel get bottled and packed. We were able to follow the bottles all the way down the line to the end, where we got to pack them into cases ourselves.
We then had the opportunity to buy a bottle then and there through the gift shop, at a higher price, of course. There were five bottles left over after all the cases were filled, so five of us stepped up to buy one. My friend Amy, also a GBS member, had requested a bottle so the one I purchased was on her behalf. Those of us buying bottles then had the opportunity to apply the wax seal to the bottles ourselves! Waxing is a multi-step process. The following four pictures were taken by S. Ivancic.
The whole experience was wonderful and far exceeded my expectations. Some of the participants thought it was all a little too long but I loved every minute of it. We picked a damned good barrel too. I can’t wait until I get my bottles!
If you have an opportunity to select a barrel from Beam, I highly recommend it.
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!