By Debi Lander
If you stand on the 45th Parallel, an imaginary line halfway between the equator and the pole, you’re standing at the same latitude as Minneapolis- St. Paul, a spot in Yellowstone National Park, Venice, Italy, the wine region of Bordeaux, the deserts of Mongolia, and the snowy northern tip of the Japanese islands. Rather amazing! What do these regions have in common? The fact that every day the sun shines down on each place at exactly the same angle.
The Old Mission Peninsula in Michigan, too, lies on the 45th parallel and is fast becoming known for their fine wine production. The stretch of land surrounding the 600-foot deep water in the East and West Grand Traverse Bays plays a major role in grape production. The temperatures stay cold longer in the spring which actually protects the plants from late frosts. And, warm temperatures in the fall last about six or seven weeks longer, benefiting the ripening process.
I recently took a road trip to wineries in this appellation and discovered a wonderful winter outing. Yes… why not visit wineries off season?
We started in Traverse City and drove about 20 minutes north to Black Star Farms near Suttons Bay on the Leelanau Peninsula. The wine tasting room lies just beyond the mansion house known as The Black Star Inn, a member of the Select Registry Group. The Inn features nine guestrooms overlooking a working farm and truly caught my eye. In addition to farm to table dining, the winery boasts a creamery: the Leelanau Cheese Company. This location, which is excellent for growing grapes, is also good for growing grass. That grass is fed to the cows and the end result is outstanding cheese. Leelanau is famous for producing Raclette, a cheese used in fondues. In fact, they’ve won a World’s Best award and are the only producers of Raclette in the US. (Sadly, I didn’t get to taste any, as the cheese sells out quickly.)
Wines of Black Star – We started with a 2009 Chardonnay- very smooth and honestly fabulous- or was that due to it being first of the day? We moved onto a Riesling, which paired extremely well with spicy cheese and left a refreshing feel in my mouth. The next sample was a 2008 Pinot Noir with a vibrant ruby color and finally a Sirius Cherry dessert wine served with a luscious chocolate truffle. What a way to start the afternoon.
Then, we headed back to the car for a short, five minute drive toward Elm Valley and L. Mawby Vineyards. Larry Mawby, celebrated winemaker, creates only sparkling varieties using the champagne method. Many brides in the state select Mawby’s Blanc du Blanc for toasting at their receptions. Their most popular wine, a Brut Rose, carries the label name: Sex. I assume from a marketing point of view, this name is easy for drinkers to remember and hence purchase later. Well, Sex tasted quite nice, but wasn’t as nice as …well, I won’t go there.
Another three miles south we found Shady Lane Cellars with a tasting room in the most marvelous field-stone building. Adam Satchwell, winemaker and manager, introduced his wines to the group and felt very strong about the Blu Franc. This wine comes from 100% Lemberger grapes brought from Austria. Shady Lane Cellars are a smaller production house growing 52 acres of grapes with 95% organic farming methods.
By this time, we tasters were ready for lunch and returned to Traverse City, named by Bon Appétit magazine (Sept. 2010) as one of America’s five top Foodie Towns. A bounty of restaurants featuring local foods made for a difficult decision as Michigan is truly locovore heaven. Being a pie lover, I was thrilled with the choice of The Grand Traverse Pie Company. Their grilled sandwiches were warm and oozingly yummy, but I was more interested in the 30 varieties of homemade pies. Since Traverse City is the Cherry Capital of the US, Michigan tart cherries take a starring role. I, therefore, choose cherry pie, the type with a crumb topping. Excellent!
After lunch we headed about 15 miles north-east, this time to the Old Mission Peninsula. First stop took us to a traditional European-styled winery or how I imagine a winery. Chateau Chantal’s grand house, surrounded by vineyards, sits high on the bluff with glorious vistas of the astonishingly blue water in the Bays. The view alone is worth the trip.
How about an intriguing tale of ownership? Chateau Chantal was started by a former Catholic priest and nun, who left their orders and eventually married. Their effervescent daughter, now the marketing director, gave the tour.
We watched machines and workers in choreographic movement bottling, corking and boxing a vintage. We also toured French inspired rooms in the adjoining deluxe B & B, another place I’d love to stay. The operation stays busy presenting food and wine pared dinners and cooking lessons. They also offer a tapas tasting and my group partook a shortened version. My personal favorite was similar to the one at Black Star- a cherry dessert wine, called Cerise, served with a chocolate truffle. Must be heaven-inspired.
A short drive to nearby 2 Lads Winery became our last stop. The winery is housed in a radically modern and simplistic building, with one wall of floor-to-ceiling glass yielding magnificent views of the East Bay. The Lads bill their wines as bold, modern and true just like their distinctive bottles – totally untraditional and fun, like this elongated polka-dot glass container. 2 Lads place screw caps on all their bottles, claiming it better preserves the wine.
The Mission Point Lighthouse stands just down the road, a nice trip addition, but by late afternoon, the group was tired and ready to call it a day. If you find yourself in the UP or Upper Peninsula of Michigan why not treat yourself to a tour of this bonafide wine region and add some stock to your personal cellar. Heck, you can add some great cheese and pie as well.
Should you start and end your road trip from Traverse City, you’ll cover about 60 miles. Many more wineries could be added to your list and most are open for tastings year round.
Black Star Farms
10844 E Revold Rd,
Suttons Bay, MI 49682
15900 Rue de Vin
Traverse City, MI 49686
800 969 4009
4519 S. Elm Valley Road
Suttons Bay, MI
231 271 3522
Shady Lane Cellars
9580 Shady Lane
Suttons Bay, MI 49682
231 947 8865
Two Lads Winery
16985 Smokey Hollow Road
Traverse City, MI
231 223 7722
Grand Traverse Pie Company
525 W. Front Street
Traverse City, MI
231 922 7437