Talk of the Town

Michigan wineries talk news and new vintages at local showcase

Local winery representatives were talking past, present, and future during the trade portion of the Michigan Wines Showcase at The Rattlesnake Club in Detroit April 20.

Conversation topics ranged from the second consecutive brutal winter to new releases on the horizon. Here are a few bits and pieces.


Despite being clearly weary of the topic that just won’t die, winery reps gamely fielded questions about the latest vine-battering winter season.

Brian Lesperance, winemaker at Fenn Valley Vineyards & Wine Cellar in Fennville, says the brutal winter seemed marginally better than last, but Fenn Valley’s Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurz, and Merlot are “going to take a pretty good beating.”

A lot of wineries are lucky to still be living off the “giant 2013,” when many experienced a bumper crop, he says.

With spring getting a slow start, Mark Johnson, winemaker at Chateau Chantal on Old Mission Peninsula, says the extent of the damage still isn’t fully known. Recent vineyard tests suggests 43 percent live buds, “but my gut says it’s not that high,” he concedes.

Last year, the winery had 25 percent of its usual crop, and “I’ll be happy if we have that this year,” he says. Regardless, it’s unlikely Chateau Chantal will have any Gewürztraminer or Merlot whatsoever. “We’ve never had this much uncertainty.”


Many Michigan wineries are leaning more heavily on cold-hardy hybrids to fill the gap left by winter-ravaged vinifera. That means providing more education to guests and getting them up to speed on grapes that are often less familiar to the general population than the usual suspects like Cabernet Franc and Riesling, says Channing Sutton, tasting room manager at Forty-Five North Vineyard & Winery.

Among Forty-Five North’s hybrid-containing wines is a newer bubbly called Fandango, which blends Frontenac Gris and La Crescent. Available only at its Lake Leelanau tasting room, the dry rosé sparkler “is like strawberry cream soda in your face,” Sutton says.

While Fandango wasn’t in the rotation for the showcase, Sutton was pouring the newly released 45 White, which also incorporates La Crescent, along with Vidal Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Riesling.


Debbie Simpson, co-owner of Good Harbor Vineyards on the Leelanau Peninsula, was debuting new wine labels sporting a modernized Good Harbor logo. It’s not the only new development at Good Harbor. Simpson says they recently hired Drew Perry, formerly of Left Foot Charley and Bonobo Winery, as their winemaker. Simpson’s son, Sam, who previously served as Good Harbor’s winemaker, will be focusing more on his vineyard management business and assisting at neighboring Aurora Cellars — where his sister, Taylor, handles marketing. Perry is also making the wine there now.


Go green, go white! And red. And rosé. Deborah Burgdorf told visitors at the Burgdorf’s Winery booth that her family’s Haslett-based operation is expanding its popular Spartan line of wines, which are made partially from grapes harvested from Michigan State University’s campus. Their Spartan White has been around for several years, but the series now includes Spartan Red, currently in its second vintage. Soon to come is Spartan Blush, a blend of Niagara, Concord, Catawba, Chancellor, Pinot Noir, and Marechal Foch.


Leelanau-based Laurentide Winery has become synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc over its few years of operation, so it’s no surprise that co-owner Susan Braymer was pouring the winery’s brand-new vintage during the showcase. The 2014 Sauvignon Blanc is “a little bit more New Zealand than Sancerre” when compared to the previous vintage, she says. “It’s very true to the grape.”


Verterra Winery’s Paul Hamelin had a cooler’s worth of jewel-toned beverages on hand for the showcase: a preview of the Leland-based winery’s soon-to-be-bottled Chaos Ciders. Available previously only on tap at the tasting room, the cider flavors include blackberry, peach, raspberry, cherry, and “just apple.” Hamelin anticipates the ciders will be available for purchase in bottles by late spring.


At the Chateau Grand Traverse booth, Rhonda Riebow was touting a new line of custom-label wines benefiting the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The sweet white (Waters), semi-dry white (Picnic), and sweet red (Woods) will be available soon throughout the state. CGT will donate a portion of proceeds from sales of the collection to the MDNR to improve state parks, trails, and waterways.


Over at the Hawthorne Vineyards booth, tasting room manager Jan Van Maanen was sampling the Old Mission Peninsula winery’s new 2012 Reserve Merlot — a wine that almost never was.

Winemaker Brian Hosmer says the Merlot — the “virgin” Merlot harvest from this particular vineyard — originally was intended for Hawthorne’s Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend, but the berries were so tiny and dense, with a favorable skin-to-juice ratio, that the team reconsidered. They opted to make the Reserve Merlot instead, producing a mere 65 cases of the coveted wine.

Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier and co-founder of, a website and online community that promotes the entire Michigan wine industry. She’s also co-owner of Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room, joint offsite tasting rooms in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township and Royal Oak. Contact her at