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Michigan: In Defense of B-List Wine Country

Michigan wine country is no Napa (far from it) but it does produce some wonderful bottlings. Throw in hyper-local restaurants and gorgeous vistas, and the result is a surprisingly satisfying travel experience.

When you grow up in the midwest, you come to hold certain truths as being self-evident: that the Big Ten is a better football conference than it's often given credit for; that a double bratwurst in a Sheboygan hard roll is one of man's great inventions; that the Minnesota State Fair may just be the eighth wonder of the world.

But when friends bragged about Michigan's wine country, my Midwestern skepticism kicked in. I have visited some of the planet's better wine regions—Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rioja—and the thought of putting the words great, wine and Michigan (or Missouri, or Ohio) in close proximity seemed like a stretch, a useful myth, like vegetarian bacon. It's not that I consider myself an aficionado (far from it), but just because all 50 states are capable of producing wine does not mean they all should.

Michigan

Courtesy of Northwoods Photography

But the more I heard friends gush about the wine country near Traverse City, Michigan, the more curious I became. So I began to investigate. I'd always thought Michigan too cold to grow grapes, but I learned that this part of the state lies near the 45th parallel, just like Bordeaux, Burgundy and Alsace. And the cooling effect of Lake Michigan creates ideal growing conditions for Riesling, the area's most widely planted grape. I decided that visiting what I deemed a B-list wine region would be a recession-friendly vacation for me and my fiancée, Kylie. Plus, I needed to find out for myself if my friends were justifiably proud or wildly delusional.

Michigan has 71 commercial wineries, many of the best on the two peninsulas that run north from either side of Traverse City into Grand Traverse Bay. Our plan of attack was simple. After arriving in town, we'd take a day to hit Old Mission, the smaller of the two peninsulas, and another to explore the Leelanau peninsula. In between, we'd check out Traverse City.

Terrific Wines & Recipes:

As we drove north through Old Mission, the road taking us over a series of rolling hills through forests, fruit orchards and vineyards, one thing became obvious: I had been undersold on the area's beauty. And our first destination, Two Lads Winery, made me rethink the assumption that we'd be visiting faux-château-style tasting rooms. Sitting atop a hill on 58 acres, the Two Lads building could have come right out of the pages of Dwell magazine, with its sleek lines, corrugated metal walls, poured concrete floors and massive windows overlooking East Traverse Bay. Since launching the winery two years ago, the eponymous lads—South African Cornel Olivier and Traverse City native Chris Baldyga—have concentrated on putting out big New World reds rather than Rieslings, as well as a small number of sparkling and white wines. As I sat at the bar, sampling Two Lads' much-praised Cabernet Franc, I couldn't help but wonder: Was I totally wrong about this Michigan wine thing? The inky red gave off aromas of anise and black cherry and tasted of rich blackberry, with hints of the French and American oak barrels it had been aged in. If I had found a couch and a way to watch Entourage, I might still be at Two Lads finishing off a bottle of that surprisingly complex Cab Franc.

Michigan

© Andy Clapham / Courtesy of Two Lads

But then we decided to make our way to Chateau Grand Traverse, a perfect juxtaposition of the quaint and the crass, Midwestern charm canoodling with gimlet-eyed commercialism. Chateau Grand Traverse is one of the region's oldest wineries and its tasting room was mobbed, which must be a regular occurrence in peak tourist season, given that there's a line taped to the floor marking where customers should (and, more importantly, should not) stand while waiting. The crowd certainly wasn't there for the winery's architectural charms. With its stucco exterior and Spanish tile roof, the place feels like someone's idea of what a Napa winery looks like. As I stood in line, waiting to try something called Cranberry Riesling, I realized that one's experience in any Middle America winery is almost always inversely proportional to the pretentiousness of the name. I'm calling it the Midwestern Winery Postulate.

I decided to test my theory at Peninsula Cellars, a winery with a straightforward name and a tasting room in a 110-year-old building that was once a one-room schoolhouse. There's no inn. No tours. No pony rides. Peninsula Cellars focuses on producing some of the area's best Rieslings. Kylie and I read the tasting notes written on blackboards along the wall and sampled six different Peninsula wines, gratis, ranging from the apricot-and-peach-scented Select Riesling to the cheekily named Detention, an easy-to-drink red blend of Baco Noir, Lemberger, Cabernet Franc and a little Merlot. I left the place feeling smug about having marshaled some actual evidence to prove my Postulate.

Michigan

© John Kroupa / Courtesy of Peninsula Cellars

Though much has been written over the last decade about the death of the small Midwestern town, Michiganders are more familiar with the problem than most. Traverse City, the hub of the wine region, feels like a response—if not a rebuke—to that trend. With its buzzing main street, its waterfront park and its beautifully restored 1940s theater (the venue for the Traverse City Film Festival, organized with help from local Michael Moore), this city feels undeniably alive. The food scene is also dynamic, embracing all things artisanal and farm-to-table. The two-year-old Cooks' House, for instance, is a tiny storefront restaurant that serves seasonal dishes worthy of an A-list wine country, like a slow-cooked pulled pork sandwich dressed in a sweet barbecue sauce and tucked into a crusty artisan roll.

I learned the next day, as we made our way to the Leelanau Peninsula, that I shouldn't have been so surprised by Traverse City's stellar restaurant scene. Michigan wine country, it turns out, is a secret haven for famous foodies, among them chocolatier Jacques Torres (who recently opened his first shop outside of Manhattan in Traverse City) and chef Mario Batali (who owns a lake house in Leelanau). A 30-minute drive took us to Fishtown, a collection of restored fishing shanties straight out of a Steinbeck novel. Batali often gives a shout out to Carlson's of Fishtown, an old-school fishery that still operates out of said shanties. Here we picked up a traditional local delicacy, whitefish pâté, and an untraditional one, smoked-fish sausage.

There are 17 wineries along the Leelanau peninsula wine trail, the best and most distinctive of which, in my opinion, is L. Mawby. Mawby subscribes to the notion that it's better to be good at one thing than mediocre at six. Since 1978, it has been producing sparkling wine exclusively, in two styles: méthode champenoise under the L. Mawby label, and cuve close method under the M. Lawrence label. The winery has won national recognition for its L. Mawby Cremant Classic, a yeasty, nutty brut made entirely with estate-grown Vignoles grapes. In its glorified basement of a tasting room, we tried the M. Lawrence Sandpiper, a pale, just-off-dry bubbly with soft fruit flavors. Why, I asked Kylie, would we need to continue on to more wineries? Ending our trip with excellent sparkling wine seemed appropriate. Plus, our visit to L. Mawby provided me with more evidence to support the Midwestern Winery Postulate. L. Mawby is named after founder Larry Mawby; can you get any less pretentious than naming something after a Larry? But Kylie reminded me that calling it quits would be a decidedly un-Midwestern thing to do.

There was just one item left on our agenda. We drove into the meaty shank of the peninsula until we came upon a big white barn with a tandem bicycle bolted to the front. Tandem Ciders feels like an homage to local agriculture as much as a place to score hard cider. Owner and former brewer Dan Young uses common local apple varieties, like Northern Spy, to create the ciders he dispenses from behind the bar in the two-year-old tasting room. The experience—the quality, the lack of affectation—is almost impossibly appealing, and it served as an appropriate wrap-up to the weekend.

We spent our final night at Black Star Farms, an eight-room bed-and-breakfast in Suttons Bay. A working horse farm, Black Star now seems to do some of everything: There's a winery, a distillery, a creamery. I was, of course, immediately suspicious of the whole operation. Though Black Star is a fairly unpretentious name, I was skeptical that anybody could do everything on offer here well. I can't even walk and return a text message at the same time; how can Black Star produce decent wine if the employees are also plumping pillows and making cheese?

My misgivings started to fade as I entered the tasting room. With its wood beams and high ceilings, the place just felt right. More important, the hyper-knowledgeable staff steered us toward unexpected choices, culminating in my decision to try Black Star's very own brandy. Perhaps there was more booze in my sample than I realized, because as we headed to our room for the night, I couldn't help but wonder why anybody would ever second-guess the decision to visit this area, even if they don't particularly like Cranberry Riesling.

Andrew Putz grew up in Minnesota and went to college in Wisconsin. He is now the editor in chief of Boston Magazine.

Published May 2010
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