Wine: Grape Gripes

We need to put a cork on degrading Michigan-made wines, because many are on par with those from other states

Going negative is not the best approach. But, in this case, starting there does much to illustrate the truth that lies at the other end of the scale.

At a recent dinner in the city, the discussion turned to wine. Michigan was mentioned, and someone at the table announced: “Michigan wines are really terrible.”

When the person was asked to name the terrible wines, there was no answer. Nobody challenged the statement. The subject was simply dropped.

This misperception of Michigan wines occurs often, and seems to be particularly prevalent within the southeast area, especially in metro Detroit.

By contrast, in Chicago, Michigan wines are listed on many restaurant wine lists, and anecdotally, at least, winery owners and staffs in west Michigan say that Chicagoans seem to know and appreciate Michigan wines more than Detroiters, and visit Michigan wineries in large numbers.

Why? There are a couple of reasons.

Sometimes Michigan doesn’t want to believe that it can do something well. It’s a kind of post declining auto industry malaise.

And the comment at dinner also reflects an opinion about 30 years out of date, from a time when this state had 10 or 12 wineries and, yes, some of those made bad wines. But that’s so far in the past that it has no relevance today.

Michigan now has 83 wineries that account for an estimated $790 million in economic value to the state. All but a small number of our wines have become nothing short of superb. Even those that aren’t up there certainly aren’t terrible.

Our reputation is so high among other wine-producing states and in the broader wine industry that Michigan is regarded as one of the top three or four producers of cold-climate white wines, especially rieslings and gewürztraminers. We rate up there with New York, Washington, and Oregon. We constantly beat out California riesling and gewürztraminer, and we’re now making huge inroads against all states in chardonnay, pinot grigio, and especially our pinot blancs. Michigan red wines are also coming along.

Just look at the competition results around the country. In the International Eastern Wine Competition in Santa Rosa, Calif., this year, in which about 1,800 from around the world were entered, a 2010 Tabor Hill Winery (Buchanan, Mich.) traminette was named best white wine, while a 2010 Fenn Valley Vineyards (Fenville, Mich.) wine won the best riesling class.

Michigan sparkling winemaker Larry Mawby makes several champagne-style wines that consistently win top honors in competitions, sometimes against their French cousins.

So, it was heartening recently to see the positive reaction when one of the state’s newest wineries, Old Shore Vineyards, which, in wine terms, is barely out of diapers, showcased its first reds: three vintages of pinot noir, along with a pinot blanc.

The wines were made by South African-trained winemaker Cornel Olivier for Old Shore owner-partners Dannielle Alphonse and David Maki. The winery is in Buchanan, in Berrien County, and currently it makes only those two wines. Olivier, formerly winemaker at Château Grand Traverse, is also a partner and winemaker at Two Lads Winery on the Old Mission Peninsula. While each of Olivier’s pinot noirs — from 2008 to 2010 — were radically different, they were also dead-on as far as the characteristics of pinot noir — the balance, depth, and intensity that pinot noir should have.

As Dick Scheer, owner of Ann Arbor’s famed Village Corner wine shop, remarked to 30 dinner guests assembled for a dinner at Vinology to show the wines, pinot noir is not a grape you expect much from until its fifth season and beyond. Yet, here it was, just three crops into being and as good as many pinots from mature vines and from easy growing seasons. They showed strikingly well.

What many at the showing were left wondering was, good as these wine are right now, what can we expect down the road? An awful lot, I would say.

If you enjoy the monthly content in Hour Detroit, “Like” us on Facebook and/or follow us on Twitter for more frequent updates.