OK, I’ll ‘fess up. I’m becoming a locabibe.
What’s that? Let’s start with “locavore,” which Oxford University Press unilaterally proclaimed as 2007′s word of the year:
The locavore movement encourages consumers to buy from farmers’ markets or even to grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better. Locavores also shun supermarket offerings as an environmentally friendly measure, since shipping food over long distances often requires more fuel for transportation.
And locabibe? That would be a locavore on a liquid diet. Locabibes are the folks at the next table in the restaurant who ask for filtered tap water instead of Evian, thereby skipping a heavy plastic bottle schlepped halfway around the globe to deliver essentially the same product that flows for free from the kitchen faucet.
Or, it’s possible that they’re merely cheap.
When it comes to locabibing wine, all 50 states now boast licensed wineries, though a few (Alaska? North Dakota?) are best left unmentioned. A pair of enterprising newspaper wine writers recently organized the first nationwide Drink Local Wine Week, to remind us about the high quality regional wines now available in many parts of the country.
Around here, that means drinking wine that grew up in Michigan, instead of an Australian Shiraz aged in French barrels, shipped across the Pacific and trucked cross-country.
Fortunately, it’s become both easier and more enjoyable to drink Michigan wine in recent years. In the last decade, the number of wineries nearly tripled, with 56 now in operation statewide. Demand is growing twice as fast as supply: sales are rising 10% annually but vineyard acreage just 5%.
If memories of Michigan wine from the past sends you sprinting for the Yellowtail, it’s time for another check-in. Local wineries are also on a roll when it comes to quality, especially among cooler-climate white grapes. In recent months, crisp-acidity Michigan Riesling – now the state’s most-planted wine grape – has set critics’ palates aquiver at publications from the Wall Street Journal to Time magazine. Leelanau Peninsula’s Larry Mawby often earns a mention among the nation’s top tier of bubbly producers.
Several Ann Arbor retailers have capitalized on these upticks in quality and consumer demand to broaden their Michigan wine offerings. For this, you can also give a shout-out to nearby wineries Lone Oak and Sandhill Crane that deliver their own products to the Ann Arbor area, and wholesalers who’ve begun to distribute wine from smaller up-north producers to stores and restaurants statewide.
That’s the good news. The bad? Michigan wines still check in at less than 5% of wine sales statewide. Compare that to nearby Ontario, whose local wines – heavily promoted by the government-run retail stores – clock about 40% of the province’s wine business.
And many smaller Michigan wineries still don’t distribute in our area. To enjoy award-winning wines from places like Longview, Mackinaw Trail and Two Lads, you’ll still need to head to wine country or order online.
So how about a little locabibery? Here’s what you’ll find in the Michigan section at a half-dozen area stores.
Quick take: Decent options, but not worth a special trip.
Rundown: Arbor Farms maintains a strong wine department, but the Michigan section just rates a bronze medal compared to what’s available elsewhere. Look for wines from high quality Leelanau Peninsula producers Bel Lago and Shady Lane, along with the only Ann Arbor presence of southwest winery Round Barn. But the overall selection works better for those already shopping there than someone contemplating a special wine-buying visit.
In my ledger, stores also lose points when they assault the eye with an overwhelming visual clutter of overlapping price tags and “shelf talkers” that detract from, rather than enhance, what’s on the shelf.
One to try: 2006 Shady Lane Sparkling Riesling ($19). Don’t think of this Leelanau Peninsula bubbly as a Champagne wannabe – it’s a crisp, fruity spritz guaranteed to wake up your mouth. Great on its own or with lighter foods, especially fresh fruit.
Quick take: Some good wines if you select carefully.
Rundown: Ever pass by a slightly unkempt vineyard and wonder if the vines might offer more than immediately meets the eye? You’ll feel at home here.
You’ll find some interesting wines on the sizable Michigan shelves – from Brys, Chateau Fontaine, Fenn Valley, Shady Lane and 45 North. But they’re not always the best offerings from these wineries, and small land mines abound for the unwary, indicating less-than-stellar stock management. Some “shelf talker” tags describe previous vintages or wines no longer in residence. Older bottles dot the shelves – 2004 Bowers Harbor Pinot Noir and too many 2005 whites caught my eye. But some wineries offer a good selection of current 2007 releases, including a couple of Chateau Grand Traverse specialty wines (“Ship of Fools” white blend and Whole Cluster Riesling) not widely available. Typically, L. Mawby bubblies reside among the sparkling wines, but Black Star Farms Sparkling Wine is shelved with still wines. Go figure.
One to try: 2007 Fenn Valley Riesling ($14). Slightly sweet multi-gold medalist with great citrus aromas, from Lake Michigan Shore. Enjoy it before dinner, with some cheese or spiced-up deli snacks.
Quick take: The price is right on a wide selection of mass-market labels.
Rundown: Meijer dedicates the most real estate in Ann Arbor to Michigan wines, the bulk under $10 and made by the state’s three largest producers: Chateau Grand Traverse, Leelanau Cellars and St. Julian, along with several from Tabor Hill and Chateau Chantal. Browse among 10 fruit flavors of St. Julian sparkling Spumante ($3.79), and all four Leelanau Cellars “Season” wines (made from non-Michigan grapes, which they neglect to mention on the label). Plus the best selection of cherry wine in town.
One to try: St. Julian Solera Cream Sherry ($15). Perennial Michigan Gold Medal winner and Wine Spectator 88 points; full-bodied sweet treat for an aperitif or after dinner.
Quick take: Save a buck or two on high quality goodies.
Rundown: At first glance, Plum’s Michigan selection looks enormous. Then you notice wines lined up two or three rows across, an old retailer trick to fill large spaces and avoid shelf gaps.
Nothing wrong with that – especially since these sharp folks may save you a buck or two on what’s still an excellent selection of better Michigan wines. In addition to strong line-ups from Brys, Chateau Grand Traverse, and Left Foot Charley, track down such individual highlights as the 2006 Chateau Fontaine Pinot Grigio ($16.50) or 2005 Bowers Harbor “Dijon Clone” Pinot Noir ($23).
Plum also cops the #1 citywide bargain award: Black Star Farms’ gold medal winning, unoaked, 2007 Arcturos Sur Lie Chardonnay, at just $11.
One to try: 2007 Bowers Harbor Pinot Noir Rosé ($16). Winner of a Judge’s Special Award at the Michigan Wine Competition, here’s a dry rosé for red wine lovers. Lots of Pinot flavor and minerality; enjoy it with casual nibbles or roast pork tenderloin.
Quick take: Hard to go wrong with this smaller but choice selection.
Rundown: Proprietor Dick Scheer gets to sample every gold medal winner as a judge at the annual Michigan Wine Competition, and he clearly uses this edge to advantage in cherry-picking top bottles, as opposed to adopting the “buy the line” approach of some retailers.
So while the Michigan wine section is merely average in size and tucked into some absurdly-hard-to-find lower shelf space, the gems-to-junk ratio may be the highest in the city. Expect fewer offerings from larger wineries than elsewhere, but you’ll find a strong selection from perennially excellent Peninsula Cellars, and I ticked off several top bottles like Best-of-Class 2007 Chateau Fontaine White Riesling ($18) and 45 North’s “45 White” ($13).
One to try: 2007 Chateau Fontaine Woodland White ($16). Something completely different from the unusual French Auxerrois (say: owes-air-wah) grape. Multi-gold winner, it’s a dry, non-oaky alternative to Chardonnay with chicken, richer fish or veggie dishes – or your (locally raised) Thanksgiving turkey.
WHOLE FOODS MARKET (Eisenhower Parkway)
Quick take: A feast for lovers of small wineries and try-before-you-buy.
Rundown: If you don’t visit Michigan boutique wineries often enough to suit your tastes, here’s where to scratch the itch. Lots of small producers on the amply sized Michigan shelves, from nearby Lone Oak and Sandhill Crane to more obscure northern wineries such as Bowers Harbor, Gill’s Pier and Left Foot Charley. You’ll find 2007 Michigan Gold Medal winners L. Mawby Cremant and 2004 Black Star Farms Sparkling Wine in the separate bubbly section.
Unique in the city, you can belly up to the tasting bar next to the wine department, where wine manager Audree Riesterer keeps several locally produced bottles open to sample at a nominal charge. When I stopped in, these included wines from Lone Oak and Leelanau Cellars, along with beers by Arbor Brewing and Bell’s. Or, for a mere $4, they’ll pull the cork (or unscrew the cap) on any bottle you buy, pour you a glass, and reseal the remainder to take home; you’ll need to munch some food alongside to keep things legal.
One to try: Sandhill Crane Dry Traminette ($18). Gewurztraminer hybrid that packs an aromatic wallop of spice; great with many Asian dishes.
About the author: Joel Goldberg, an Ann Arbor area resident, is editor of the MichWine website. His Arbor Vinous column for The Chronicle will be published on the first Saturday of each month.