By Darin Pemberton and Holly L. Smith
Ten days before the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail Tour, Duane asked if I would attend in his stead. I agreed and that simple agreement lead to a fundamental change in my views of Michigan wines.
I am getting ahead of myself.
As the event drew closer, the good people at Volkswagen agreed to loan me a 2014 Jetta Hybrid, and Holly Smith – who is co-writing this piece – graciously agreed to co-pilot the weekend.
Pointing the Jetta north by northwest, Holly and I drove the 275 miles to Leland, Michigan. This was my first time driving a hybrid. For most of the first part of the weekend, I didn’t exactly ‘get’ what I was supposed to do with the car. I simply drove it without much thought. While the brakes took awhile to get used to, I eventually found my groove. The brake pressure would increase at times, regardless of the pressure-applied. The Jetta felt composed and I could initiate lift-throttle over-steer on off-ramps; as the car would push, a light lift of the throttle induced just enough rear rotation to help navigate the sweeper. Engine power was beyond expectations, as the car would easily merge with traffic – Detroit area traffic at that. With short on-ramps in this area the Jetta reached 80mph with ease. Never did the car feel underpowered. Stumbling a bit at some take-offs, once underway the Jetta performed fantastically. By the end of our trip I was actively finding the best MPG thanks to the neat little graphics on the dash. As a self-described car guy, with multiple track days under my belt, I am fully on-board with hybrids now.
About 5 hours after leaving Southeast Michigan, we arrived in Northwest Michigan. All-told the Jetta achieved about 42mpg. Holly’s only complaint, and mine, was the condition of our back-sides. As much as I respect VW interiors, the front seats of this Jetta seemed designed for commuting. I felt soreness in my kidney area – while her posterior felt as if she had been sitting atop a wooden bench.
Arriving at the Leland Lodge, Cara greeted us upon check-in. Cara – with an infectious smile and great enthusiasm made us feel like returning old friends rather than first-time guests. In fact, at no time during our stay did Cara present anything but friendliness; taking the time to say Hello with each passing.
A fantastic night’s sleep on wonderful beds chock-full of perfect pillows refreshed us from our travels. Making our way downstairs, Chef Nikki made the most-incredible breakfast taco – chorizo with scrambled eggs, peppers, sautéed onions and topped with Greek yogurt. Holly debated a marriage proposal to the taco – but decided against it due to the fact she wanted to eat it.
Our server, Elaine, is the sort of person out-of-towners NEED to meet when on a “vacation” like this. A local, Elaine knows the ins and outs of the area. Beyond that, Elaine proved a great conversation over breakfast, while attending to our needs. Thank you Nikki and Elaine!
Paul Hamlin – from the Leelanau Wine Trail board – opened the event with a welcome and introduction to the history of wine in the region. The Leelanau wine trail is the largest trail in the Midwest with 25 wineries; the first opening back in 1976. The wineries along the trail mean business – with 14 peninsula wineries awarded ‘best of class’ and earning 52 medals overall in 2013 competitions.
Following Paul, and breaking into smaller tour groups, Lorri Hathaway introduced a book she co-wrote detailing the history of wine in Michigan with The History of Michigan Wines: 150 Years of Winemaking Along the Great Lakes. Using the Detroit River used as a bootleg highway of sorts this region’s wine survived Prohibition in the 1900s, saving an industry dating back to the 1800s. Situated latitude-wise in line with France’s Bordeaux and Italy’s Piedmont regions, Michigan features flourishing vineyards between the forty-first and fort-seventh parallels. Upon repeal of prohibition, winemakers in Canada brought to Michigan old-world techniques pushing out 1,000,000 cases of wine! Since the 1960s and 1970s, however, Michigan has been working to re-create national excitement about the state’s wine.
With the stage set, Holly and I set out with others for our tour.
Starting at Good Harbor Vineyards near Lake Leelanau. Taylor Simpson runs the vineyard and winery with her mother and brother. The trio leads a winery averaging approximately 22,000 cases every twelve months. The scale of production lends itself to a line favourited by Taylor, and noted by her late father “(wine is) just fermented grape juice, I don’t know what the hype is about!” – referring to people intimidated by drinking wine. Of the wines I tried – ranging from their Cabernet (called LABernet, after the resident black Labrador retriever dog, to their Pino Noir and their Cherry wine. Cherry wine. Oh yes I did. Initially considering the wine a gimmick, the glass Taylor poured surprised me to no end. I took a sip and thought for a second – waiting to decide. “Holy cow. That’s actually pretty good!” – I thought. The wine is not pretty good as a wine, but it’s very good as something to drink. In fact, Good Harbor’s belief is “(People) should be able to have wine with friends every night – without breaking the bank!”
Without insinuation of anything shady, Bozkydel winery is the ‘GodFather’ of the area’s wine, having planted in 1970. The small winery – situated on just 25 acres – is family-run, and the patriarch, Bernie Rinks inspires two of his five(!) sons to produce small quantities – 95% of the wine is sold only through their tasting room, and mostly to repeat customers. The winery showed its age with cobwebs and dust on the frames of scores of memories affixed to the walls. A wood-burning stove filled the area with a welcoming scent as the cherry-wood burned within. Bernie recalls working on a vineyard as a child in the 1930s, so he worked his sons – and the vineyard remains a tribute to his wife and sons – until they were too tired to get in trouble. Bernie’s son Andy manned the tasting duties for the morning, and gave us a tour of the facility, stopping to answer every question thrown his way. Bernie states his winery is a tribute to an obliging wife and five reliable sons. to This winery is about subdued enjoyment of wine, but that is not to say there was no excitement – their semi-sweet table wine was my favourite – proving to be just-about the perfect go-to wine for a relaxing dinner with friends.
Approaching the winery L. Mawby we knew something was different. The tasting room was full of young people, and music was loud. This place secreted energy unlike any winery I’ve before visited. While the winery’s namesake, Larry Mawby takes his craft seriously, Larry can work a crowd with aplomb ensuring each person with whom he chats feels relevant. L. Mawby wines are sparkling – much like Larry’s personality. Featuring his most-popular label “Sex”, Larry ensures “Nobody leaves a tasting without having sex.” When talking to the rose-colour of the Sex wine, Larry says “What other color could sex be, it has to be pink”.
This wine is about having fun. Larry produces wine for the person, not for a panel of judges – that is not to say his wine is immature or lacking, but each bottle carries a little atmosphere with it. Larry is proud of his Green label – using recycled glass in the bottle-making. True story – the Green label tasted strong of vegetal notes; I was shocked. I really had the impression of being in –and maybe chewing on – a field of tall grass. Not unpleasant, just unexpected.
Larry’s oldest vines started in 1976 – Vinole – and the youngest, but planted a lot of Pinot Noir at the tasting room site. Two years after the vines were planted, the company started selling wine. As time passed Larry added on to the winery – going so far as living in a house on the property for twenty years. Upon marrying in 1998 Larry speaks to the shocking experience of at the end of the work day not simply walking upstairs to bed, but getting in his car and driving to a different location.
More than fun and celebration, Larry gave us a primer on grape growing – mentioning grapes’ desire to take over the land, shooting up the top of trees to get the sunlight. Allowed to grow unrestrained the plants will not fruit – grape growers must persuade the plant it will soon die. With this motivation, the plant wants to make the grape as best it can so it is taken away by an animal and drop the seeds elsewhere. The stress for the plants is similar to how parents or employers stress children or employees to motivate good behavior. The romantic notion of beautiful calm joyful vine-tending is misleading, and flies in the face a bit of the hard work required to ensure a good product.
Our last stop for the day was Lelanau Cellars’s tasting room in Omena, Michigan. Greeted immediately by the staff, General Manager and Alabama native Tim Curry Tony Lentych introduced us to the facility and gave the story of the winery, with its first tasting room opening in 1977.
As far as case sales and variety, Tony told us the company is doing about 140,000 cases out the door – with this year’s production of about 180,000 cases.
Their Fall special – Witches Brew – sells so up to 30,000 cases alone, as it’s geared for the Holloween season, yet is starting to sell full time.
Leelanau’s vision stems around being the introductory point to wine – to be the People’s Winery. Tony shares the company’s position of being comfortable with a stepping-stone into wine, with easy-to-drink fruit-forward wines and even featuring higher end wines as the drinker’s pallete develops.
The wine distributes to Michigan, Ohio, South Dakota, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucy and Wyoming.
Holly’s Tasting Notes:
2012 Pino: Fantastic! Very smooth, light, comfortable wine.
Labernet: Only sold in the tasting room…which is too bad because this was one of my favorites of the day! Fantastic bold red, very smooth with bold warm fruit taste.
Harbor Red: Order this!
Cherry Wine: Do not give up on this wine! My first impression was bitter…blah….but the second taste completely changed my mind! This would be a great start for a Sangria, in fact, the recipe was shared! Great drink to serve at a Wedding or Shower.
Lacking curb appeal….however there was a lovely view of the vineyard overlooking the water
Berny looks like a kind old man from a west coast fishing villiage…great “CHARACTER”. Humble and sweet, what a story teller. I wanted to go up and squeeze him so hard.
First Taste: Semisweet Table Wine, smooth and easy to drnk, drkin, drink!
In this small tasting room and I mean a tiny room, there is history and family oozing from the cinder block walls. From the squiggly had written “employees must wash their hands” sign in the single bathroom to the family photos which cover nearly every wall, this operation has a warm and rustic feel. Add the smell from the wood burning stove and…burn my bags, I’m HOME! Reading the hand made signs just written on old cardboard just added to the charm and authenticity of this business.
HUMOR: Sings on the wall include “No browsing allowed. Buy something expensive and get out” and
First Taste: Sandpiper
Notes of pear and apple. Sparkling wine, uber bubbly….but bitter after taste.
Green: Apple and green pepper, very bitter. Clearly I am not a fan of the sparkling wines. Although, I do love that the Green wine is ‘green’, made from REUSED, not RECYCLED bottles. They are completely cleaned and sanitized and then re-corked. Cool!!
Blanc de Blanc is 100 percent Chardonnay from the Peninsula.
Detroit…just like champagne. First sparkling wine I enjoyed. Demi-sec (semi dry).
Sex is good…sweet and light and what a great idea this would be for a wedding favor at $153 per case! . This is sold under the M. Lawrence brand.
Sex is the biggest seller, with Detroit as number two. Interesting fact, Detroit is only for sale in Detroit but is sold under different names in other areas i.e. GR in Grand Rapids and KZoo in Kalamazoo.
First Taste Black Noir: Strong scent of pepper does not translate to the flavor…very light and simple and somewhat flat. Reminded me too much of a wine cooler.
Autumn Harvest: Again, very flat grape juice taste.
Merit Age: Bolder red…a bit more flavor than the previous two but again, very flat.
Port: Liquid Candy!! With a bite of chocolate (see Photo), this was also one of my favorites of the day. Just a sipping wine or a nice after dinner drink! Taste that lasts! (Darin left with two bottles in tow).