Did you know that Governor Granholm issued a Certificate of Proclamation for Michigan Wine Month this April? So that's how they get their own month. Michigan, I learned recently, has a long history of grape and wine production, pre-dating the Civil War. The main wine production in the US shifted to southeast Michigan and along Lake Erie after disease destroyed what had been the largest wine producing region along the Ohio River near Cincinnati. Apparently the American settlers did the first wine tours near Cincinnati, in wagons rather than stretch limos, before the chili days.
After early successes, almost all of Michigan's first wineries closed during Prohibition (St. Julian is the only one still in existence). But when Temperance advocate Dr. Thomas Welch introduced "unfermented wine" (aka grape juice) the production of grapes in Michigan went crazy. Then, and still now, southwest Michigan had some of the largest plantings of Concord grapes in the US. And most of the fruit is still bottled into the eponymous Welch's grape juice.
Today, Michigan is the 4th largest producer of grapes in the nation with almost 15,000 acres. But how often have you eaten Michigan grapes? They're still pre-dominantly used for white and purple grape juice and we don't usually get them on our tables. Only about 1800 of the 15000 of Michigan's total grape acreage are wine grapes, making Michigan 8th in the production of wine grapes in the US. Some of those wine grapes are growing close to Ann Arbor I recently found out. Michigan Wine Month seemed like the perfect time to finally stop at a couple of the wineries closest to us.
A couple of weeks ago we visited the Lone Oak Vineyard Estate just off I-94 in Grass Lake. It's kind of a fancy name for not a fancy place, but I was totally charmed by the owners Kip and Dennise Barber. They are one of the few wineries in SE Michigan that make their wine from the European varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc.) of grapes they grow themselves. That's what the "Vineyard Estate" thing is about. Several of the other wineries in our area get most of their fruit from across the state and/or grow the native hybridized grapes.
Everything we learned from Kip reflected their single-minded pursuit of growing the highest quality grapes to make the best wine in the greatest of the European styles. I think B. and I were both surprised at how much we liked Lone Oak's wine. And here's the shocker - especially the reds. The Cabernet Sauvignon in particular was rich with dark blackberry-ish fruit and had an unusual smokiness that was great with our first steak on the grill this year. We ended up buying a case of wine from Lone Oak and it's going fast.
The next weekend, as I was driving with some friends up to the Sandhill Crane Vineyard near Jackson we saw a sandhill crane standing out in a marsh nearby. Was it a statue put there to appease the marsh gods? Then someone saw it move. The Sandhill Crane experience was almost the opposite of the Lone Oak experience. Sandhill Crane has put their money into a very nice tasting room that has a well appointed bar with tables and food for sale.
They have apparently won a lot of "bling" for their wine (the medals are on display), but the wines all seem to be made in a fruity, sweeter style that I really loved back in my early 20s. My favorite of their wines was their raspberry dessert wine - pure raspberry in a glass. Really yummy. D. was totally wrong when she said "This tastes like cough syrup." My advice with Sandhill Crane wines is to stick with the ones that are supposed to be sweet - they are generally pretty good, assuming you're into dessert sipping wines. Or are in your early 20s.
With those Michigan winery experiences under my belt, I wondered what someone with more expertise would say about Michigan wine. I remembered seeing that Vinology was hosting 2 events featuring Michigan wine this month, so when Faye agreed to go along, I signed up for one. For $25, it was one of the best food/wine events I've been to.
Kristen Jonna led a really excellent and informative tasting of 8 Michigan wines, split between Leelanau and the southwest lakeshore vineyards. We tasted some really nice wines, more whites than reds, and several with fantastic food pairings. A memorable pairing was the spicy, dry 2005 Bel Lago Gewurztraminer with a goat cheese tart. Mmmm.
I loved how enthusiastic Kristen was about these wines and about Michigan agriculture in general. She gave a really good talk on the history of wine in Michigan and on how Michigan's geography and climate give our wines some unique characteristics. For example, in Michigan there is a typical acidity that remains in the ripe fruit. In hotter hotter climates that refreshing tartness tends to dissipate into "flabbiness." Oooof. That's why Michigan is good for Reislings. The surprise of the evening for me was the last wine, a 2005 Late Harvest Vignoles from Fennville. It had sweet, figgy nose, but tasted like cocoa with some coffee notes. Really unusual in a white wine. But it was delicious.
On May 1st, Vinology is having a special winemaker dinner and seminar event hosting Lee Lutes of Blackstar Farms. They say they're serving 4 courses of Michigan inspired food along with Blackstar's Michigan wines. According to Jonna, Vinology is planning some menu changes in the same vein as Arbor Brewing Company's menu changes, focusing on incorporating local and seasonal foods. Something else to look forward to.
Before I forget, the Pioneer Wine Trail (the one just minutes from Ann Arbor) is having their Michigan Wine Celebration this weekend, April 19-20. I'm sorry to say that I think the tickets are sold out already. But, for next year remember:
"Each winery along the trail will feature an appetizer or dessert prepared by a local chef and paired with their featured wine. The ticket price also includes a tasting glass, along with a recipe card with the featured recipe at each winery.
The food and wine pairings include:
- Cherry Creek Cellars (Parma) - Pulled Pork marinated in Hot Pepper Jelly with Cherry BBQ Sauce & Balsamic Vinegar with Enigma
- Cherry Creek Cellars (Cement City) - Mushroom & Leek Tartlets with Chardonnay
- Lone Oak Vineyard Estates - Zesty BBQ Seafood Kebab with Vineyard Rose'
- Pentamere Winery - Mango Chicken with Pinot Gris
- St. Julian (Dundee) - Chicken Salad with Grapes, Hummus & Pita Chips & Homemade Bread with Parmesan & Basil Oil with Braganini Reserve Traminette
- St. Julian (Parma) - Ham & Pineapple Mini Shish Kebab with St. J Blush
- Sandhill Crane Vineyards - Michigan Wild Mushroom Soup or Michigan White Bean Soup and Mill Pond Bakery Breadsticks & Grassfields Cheese with Dry Vignoles or Staccato
The next Pioneer Wine Trail event is The Big Grape Tour on November 1-2. It's $149 and here's what they say:
Join us for a day of Wine, Food, and Fun as we travel by Motorcoach from one Wine Trail Winery to another, five in all, plus a stop at the Dexter Cider Mill. Each Winery will be featuring one of their best wines paired with food. Following the wine and food pairings, we will check into the Marriott at Eagle Crest in Ypsilanti followed by Dinner and Dancing. This is one event you won’t want to miss.
Eat close to home. Drink close to home. Especially in Michigan, you could say they go hand in glove. Or mitten.