Wednesday’s Visits – I won’t use the word stunned or even surprised, but the quality of Michigan wines has caught me off guard.

I visited four different wineries, Traverse City up into the Leelanau area and tasted my way to Omena where I spent the night.

Along the way I tasted the best Riesling I’ve ever enjoyed, with Germany’s J.J. Prum being a possible exception. I’ve never been a big Cab Franc fan, but this cool growing climate, produces a lighter Cab Franc with a beautiful finish. I tasted 4-5 yesterday that were simply great.

The secret of Michigan wine, and particularly Northern Michigan, isn’t going to last long once people get a taste.

I’m going to be doing a story for Palate Press on Michigan wine, more blog entries and a newspaper column or two in the near future. So this is sort of an overview of the stops. I’m also trying to figure out a way to put up a series of entries about each winery, what they make, and notes on the ones I’ve tasted. I have linked each winery here so you can check them out.

I started at Left Foot Charley, an interesting operation in The Village on Traverse City’s west side. The Village is a series of very large old buildings that previously was a 3,000 patient mental health facility. The winery has a very modern and urban appearance once inside.

I tasted two memorable wines there, a very dry Pinot Blanc that has been honored time and again in numerous competitions. And a reserve Riesling that was simply the best American-made Riesling I’ve ever tasted. Most Michigan wine is very reasonably priced. That Riesling was $35 and that’s going to be a challenge when you can pick up the iconic German versions in the same price range.

My fist scheduled stop was at Shady Lane Cellars just off the Grand Traverse Bay coast to visit with winemaker Adam Satchwell. Adam is one of the area’s stars and its easy to see why. He worked as a winemaker under several California labels includes Steele Wines. He speaks passionately about Michigan’s cool climate potential for great wines.

Adam makes a strong point these aren’t big in-your-face wines, but nuanced and better for food pairing.

His Pinot Noir reminded me of Oregon Pinot. They’re lighter in style, elegant if you will, but still very interesting with strong fruit characteristics. I hate the cliché but many would consider them Burgundian.

Satchwell thinks Michigan is hitting its stride in quality. Not everyone up here thinks pushing the wine to other states is necessary. But Adam is a guy who wants the world to know they’re making world-class Riesling and Pinot Noir.

After tasting his wine, and two more stops after that, I couldn’t argue.

Black Star Farms is a unique operation driven by a business model that makes tons of sense. Don Coe, a former top executive for Hiram Walker, started the agritourism winery, inn, restaurant, creamery, and stables as a destination stop. It is stunning from Highway 22 which runs along the coast line – that’s assuming you can look to the left instead of the right and beautiful Grand Traverse Bay.

Don is a state agriculture commissioner and frequent spokesperson for Michigan wines. His real passion though is growing his business and watching others grow their wineries. He has interesting insights into agriculture, the business side of wine and tourism, and the quality of Michigan wine.

His wines were very consistent across the board from light Chardonnays to another stunning and elegant Pinot Noir. His winemaker, Lee Lutes, has even been playing with a wine he found in South Africa – a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Sounds odd, I know. I tasted it and found it a little flat. But, it’s going to be interesting to see where he goes with it.

The diversity of his operation makes it an exciting place to visit. One wall of the tasting room is all glass and you can watch the cheese operation – Leelanau Cheese. The cheese made in French and Swiss styles was wonderful.

His operation is also largely self sustaining. They grow fruit, tons of cherries and many of the other commodities used in the operation.

Coe has one of the most impressive destination wineries you’ll ever come across in the U.S. It’s impressive!

The final stop of the day had a tie-in to work for me. I had a great time with Leelanau Cellars’ General Manager Tony Lentych. His winery will produce nearly 140,000 cases of wine this year making it Michigan’s biggest.

The business model is very different. Leelanau Cellars has a lower price point than many but it has very serious wine.

Tony manages the operation and talked about the company’s explosive growth and the opportunities for Michigan wineries to get their products into the surrounding states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

I have a lot more coming on all of these places. NOTE: I didn’t have internet access Wednesday night so this blog got up late Thursday. I hope to have an overview up later tonight on today’

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

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