Wine: Splashdown

Michigan wine is getting noticed in New York City — and beyond

If you happen to find yourself dining at New York City’s Hearth this September — or meeting someone at one of the city’s three Terroir wine bars — you might see something familiar on the wine list: 2011 Left Foot Charley Dry Riesling from northern Michigan.

The small, 550-cases-a-year winery in Traverse City is featured in an ongoing event dubbed “Summer of Riesling.” Left Foot Charley’s owner and winemaker Bryan Ulbrich calls the selection of his wines “humbling and exhilarating …a splash like this is a great recognition.”

Left Foot Charley’s appearance in the Big Apple is certainly not the first for a Michigan wine. But it might be the smallest and most “boutique” Michigan winery to do so.

What’s more interesting is what the New York journey seems to signal: Our growing industry is spreading its wings into other states. Many wineries are no longer content to limit sales solely to their tasting rooms or to other local outlets.

For decades, Chicago has been an exception: It’s been a natural outlet because it’s so close to many Michigan wineries; closer, in fact, than Detroit. Several wineries have been represented in Chicago restaurants for years. But even that trade involves just minuscule amounts of Michigan wine.

We now have 101 officially bonded and licensed wineries, and more are on the way. Michigan has moved up to be either the fourth- or fifth-largest wine-grape-growing state, depending on who’s counting. So now it’s California, New York, Washington, Oregon, and Michigan.

Certainly, the “big guns” in Michigan — among them St. Julian in Paw Paw and Chateau Grand Traverse in Old Mission Peninsula — have targeted national distribution for several years. Other operations, such as Brys Estate, Fenn Valley Vineyards, and L. Mawby, have more recently crossed state lines to make appearances in retail stores and restaurants in major cities across America.

For any Michigan winery, the route to a New York or Los Angeles restaurant wine list is long and hard, mostly because it involves establishing credibility. And for more than a decade, Michigan wines have been doing just that — with rieslings in particular. They’ve won hundreds of gold, silver, and bronze medals in wine competitions.

“Many wineries are no longer content to limit sales solely to their tasting rooms.”

And many Michigan wines have been served and recognized out-of-state at food and wine conferences and special events.

While restaurants in other cities are recognizing Michigan wines with increasing frequency, finding them in our own eateries here — other than up around Traverse City — is still a bit spotty, in my experience. And that’s too bad.

Where is our Summer of Riesling?

Someone once suggested that Michiganians have an inferiority complex about making or doing anything well, except for cars. That might’ve been true about wine in the past, but not anymore. The surge in sales over the years and the growth of the industry has been mostly inside Michigan. Now it’s a $300 million a year business.

If restaurants in New York are selling enough Michigan wine — and people are trying and enjoying them there — maybe that will prompt the remaining doubters to open their eyes and realize that Michigan does indeed produce excellent wines.

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