Ugni Blanc in Michigan, Riesling by the Finger Lakes and What You'll Find at Manischewitz HQ
Turns out they do make wine in Michigan, and plenty of it, too.
Dan Dunn is taking an extensive road trip across America to research his forthcoming book, American Wino: A Story of Reds, Whites and One Writer’s Blues on the Winey Road to Redemption (Dey Street Books/HarperCollins). This is the fifth in a series of weekly dispatches chronicling his journey.
When you think wine, you think Michigan. (Given that the thought was, “They make wine in Michigan?”) This is a perfectly understandable thought, too, especially if you—like me, prior to this expedition—had never taken the time to visit or really get to know anything about Michigan. Turns out they do make wine in Michigan, and plenty of it, too. Just not all from grapes. Michigan is the foremost US state in the production of non-grape wines. These freaks make it from cherries, apples, oranges...basically whatever they can get their hands on to get them through that old bastard, winter.
Now that I have finally explored the Wolverine State, I can attest with some authority that they make damn good ice wine ’roundabouts Greater Traverse City. (Though I’m having a hard time remembering exactly where the hell that is. It’s been a long journey.) Ice wine, of course, is sweet wine made from grapes that have frozen on the vine. Try the stuff that’s chilly from Chateau Chantal and Brys Estate. The Vidal Blanc from the Paw Paw region ain’t too shabby either. Vidal, incidentally, is a hybrid of Ugni Blanc and Rayon d’Or that is widely used to make ice wine.
(Travel advisory: Do not to stop for gas, directions, food or anything else when driving through Detroit. Also, if at all possible, don’t drive through Detroit.)
For the best ice wine North America has to offer, venture due east from Michigan into Ontario, Canada, and the booming wine region around the charming town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. You’ll want to sample the wares at Inniskillin, Trius, Stratus and Kittling Ridge. And go see the Falls while you’re up there. They’re especially awe-inspiring when you’re ripped on ice wine.
Some people believe that the wines made near the Finger Lakes in New York rival the very best juice from Napa and Sonoma. Some people also believe the Jets will win the Super Bowl again one day and that paying $3,500 a month rent to live in a Manhattan closet is reasonable. Silly New Yorkers! Still, I go into everything with an open mind and, lo and behold, came across some lip-smacking Riesling produced around Seneca Lake, the so-called “middle finger” of the region. Standouts include the 2013 Reserve Dry Riesling from Hermann J. Wiemer, Wagner’s 2012 Semi-Dry Riesling and the 2012 Select Harvest Riesling from Glenora. They make delicious ice wine here, too. Check out the Vidal Ice from Standing Stone Vineyards, produced at an exceptional vineyard site first planted by the wine legends Charles Fournier and Guy DeVeaux in 1975.
If you’re looking to party hearty in Finger Lakes wine country, the place to be is Hazlitt in Hector, New York, on the east side of Seneca Lake, where the rock and roll is played at high volume and 20 bucks gets you not one, but two bottles of Red Cat. Red Cat is the Red Bull and vodka of crushed grape juice, which goes a long way toward explaining why Hazlitt is one of the liveliest tasting rooms in the US. Have dinner afterward down the street at Stonecat Café—the best cornmeal-crusted catfish east of the Mississippi.
(Travel advisory No. 2: Spending months on end touring wine country across the US is a leading cause of a condition known as paunch expansion. Trust me, I haven’t been able to see my toes since Walla Walla.)
When touring New York state wineries, you may want to visit Manischewitz, which has been making sweet Concord wine in Canandaigua, New York, since 1927. Feel free to ask them about their famous kosher liquid, but know that any questions about the Dead Milkmen (whose song “I Dream of Jesus,” from the album Not Richard, But Dick, tells the story of a family that finds Jesus Christ in a bottle of Manischewitz) may fall on deaf ears.
The state’s other major kosher winemaker is Mogen David, known better by its initials, MD. As in MD 20/20. Though no longer sold in 20 ounce bottles containing 20 percent alcohol (fun fact? Fun fact!), it should be noted that at today’s prices a bottle of Mad Dog costs more than that three buck Chuck down at Trader Joe’s (time to recalibrate that Classy-o-Meter, friends). Alas, I was unable to get anyone from the Wine Group (current owners of Mogen David and producers of Cupcake Vodka, among other delights) to comment on the record about the fine art of selling $5 wine that tastes like Jolly Ranchers.
Next week: Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. A.k.a. all the best parts of New England. Take that, New Hampshire!
For more on Dan’s journey, follow him on Twitter @TheImbiber