For a brand-new Michigan winery that’s only put out one wine – under someone else’s license, no less – Old Shore Vineyards is getting a lot of buzz.
Vinology owner Jon Jonna made first contact during the crush of WineFest’s Wine Crawl.
“You need to taste this Pinot Gris,” he said, pouring liquid into my glass from the bottle he was clutching.
He was right. Despite sub-optimal tasting conditions, the wine impressed.
A couple of weeks passed. Wyncroft Winery owner Jim Lester blew through town for last month’s Chronicle rosé tasting. “Did you hear about Old Shore?” he asked. “And did you know that Dannielle is from Ann Arbor?”
No, I didn’t.
Then a Tweet fluttered by from Andrew Gorsuch, The Produce Station’s wine loving general manager. His follow-up email raved that the 2008 Pinot Noir (a test run, not available to buy) flaunted “an amazing balance of fruit and tannins … Although it was not for retail sales, it gave me a preview of what is to come …”
OK, time to find out what all the excitement’s about.
Let’s start with the bottom line: that single Old Shore wine – a 2009 Pinot Gris from the southwest’s Lake Michigan Shore – is a thing of beauty salvaged from a seriously deficient vintage.
Ripe tropical fruits, tangerine and a touch of honey combine with a luscious, round mouthfeel and just enough acidity to remind you that the wine indeed hails from Michigan. Uncorking a bottle for a group of wine lovers brings a series of double-takes, followed closely by a chorus of “Let me see that bottle.”
Wise choice, to look at the label. Buried in the small print on the back lies a surprising pedigree. The grapes were trucked 300 miles north, where they became wine at 2 Lads Winery, under the skillful hand of Cornel Olivier, one of the state’s elite winemakers. More on that later.
(You’ll find it locally on the wine list at West End Grill along with Vinology, where it’s also available to take out. Or get it from the winery, where it retails for $18. But don’t dawdle; they only made 93 cases, and just 25 or so remain.)
WTF??? All that buzz over just 93 cases of an $18 wine? The scales fall. Some marketing guru must lurk behind the scenes, pulling strings.
Meet Dannielle Maki, a 20-year Ann Arbor resident who, until she left last year to develop the Old Shore brand, headed advertising for locally-based Avfuel, a nationwide supplier of airplane fuel and ancillary products.
For several months, she’s been quietly building a social media following on Facebook and, more recently, Twitter, as well as marketing her wines to a few selected restaurants in Ann Arbor, Chicago and the Lake Michigan Shore region.
“We’re targeting an audience who are genuine fine wine lovers,” Dannielle says.
They’re also taking a page from the marketing playbook of some of the more successful boutiques in Napa Valley and France’s Pomerol: nothing attracts genuine fine wine lovers more than the notion of getting their hands on a scarce bottle. Like 93 cases worth of scarce.
“To have something that’s limited quantity and premium quality – you want to make sure you get some,” she says.
Scarcity “ideally lets you push the price a little bit more, too,” observes David, her husband.
To both of them, using scarcity as a marketing tool leads to important decisions about retail distribution.
“We’re in-between that whole mantra of ‘Do you want the wine to be too accessible? Do you want to be able to go to The Produce Station and pick up a bottle?’” says David.
David Maki also comes with an Ann Arbor connection: He earned an MBA at the University of Michigan in 1988 before moving on to a career with Deutsche Bank in Chicago, for whom he still works in real estate finance.
They married last year, after several years as a couple. The result? They commute among three homes: David’s place in Chicago’s River North. Dannielle’s over-the-coffee-bar loft on Main and Liberty in Ann Arbor, where she spends “three days out of seven.”
And the white clapboard farmhouse atop a rolling hill in Buchanan, Michigan, where the three of us, along with Sofia, the winery’s Labradoodle, are splayed on the porch, trying to stay cool.
Apart from a dearth of mature landscaping, you might suppose that the house had settled harmoniously into these surrounds nearly a century ago. Not so. David, whose undergraduate training was as an architect, designed and built it in 2006, on 65 acres of vacant farmland he’d bought the previous year.
The in-ground pool beckons bluely on this steamy late spring afternoon. Rows of grapevines, verdant with early season growth, run downslope from the house to complete the tableau.
And guess what? Dannielle and David would like to share it with you. Their audacious business plan: to create an upscale Michigan boutique winery with a whiff of exclusivity, market it through social networking, encourage customers to partake in its lifestyle and seasonal events and, not incidentally, develop a demand-driven market for its premium-quality wines.
Everything flows from a single, simple premise: “People love to be in vineyards, they’re happy when they’re in vineyards,” says David.
“It’s what we see as the experience,” says Dannielle.
“Marketing is not just the package and product. It’s the experience,” says David.
As we explore elements of their shared passion for the winery, the excitement level rises on the porch. They begin to tag-team each other’s thoughts and sentences. Frequently.
Old Shore will be a place “where you can host events, where you can merge the social aspects of wine that everyone enjoys with a facility that lets you do that,” explains David.
Consistent with this vision, the winery, due to start construction later this year and open in the spring of 2011, won’t resemble the production facilities and open-seven-days tasting rooms typical of most wineries. Winemaking at the facility will play second-fiddle to tastings and event hosting.
And Old Shore’s tasting room will only be accessible by prior appointment.
“Our concept is to go on a little different tack, to stick with something that’s a little more private in its orientation,” says David. “You’re not waiting for someone to drive up, you’re preparing for someone to come in. You’re giving them a much more focused experience.”.
“There’s something missing with most tasting facilities,” continues Dannielle. “We’ll have a 16- or 20-foot farm table. You’re sitting down and chatting, and the wine is flowing and there’s appetizers to go with the wine, and it’s an experience at Old Shore, and afterward maybe you buy some wine.”
Activities will move outdoors when weather cooperates.
“We envision doing yoga in the vineyard,” says Dannielle. “We have 16 to 25 people come in, they do yoga in the vineyard for 90 minutes with a yogi from Chicago in the middle of a vineyard break, then you come and have a picnic in another vineyard break, with a healthy salad. And you walk away with a bottle of wine.”
“It’s a lifestyle approach – people who love wine, love food, love travel – it’s engaging them on so many levels. We have 20 people already signed up to come to harvest and help pick grapes. Those are things we can do for our customers who truly want to come and experience things.”
This approach might seem obvious in Napa, where many small wineries thrive with private tasting rooms, upscale events, and sales primarily targeted to mailing list customers.
But Michigan wine struggles with its image, a problem both Makis want to correct.
“We – Michigan winegrowers – have vineyards that look just as amazing as they do in California, settings that are beautiful. It’s just the right way to showcase what you can do, put it in a package that feels upscale,” says Dannielle.
Their six acres of vineyard – planted in 2006 and split evenly between Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir – does look pretty spiffy this time of year. To David, they represent a natural extension of his decision to build a “getaway home” in southwest Michigan.
“The home was designed to be in the context of the farms around it. To me, the concept made sense: I’m going to be in wine country, so I might as well put grapes in.”
They made one smart decision: hiring neighbor Mike DeSchaaf, the quality-oriented co-owner of Hickory Creek and operator of a vineyard management service, to plant and maintain the vineyard.
“Michael thinks we got the cream of the crop as far as the vineyard site here,” says David.
DeSchaaf supervised selection of individual grape clones and planted the vines at a closer-than-normal four-foot spacing, with the goal of decreasing each vine’s yield to improve the quality of its grapes.
DeSchaaf has another incentive to take good care of the Makis’ vines: he buys their surplus grapes to use in Hickory Creek’s wines. That’s right; the 93 scarce cases of Pinot Gris represent only a small portion of their grapes.
They’ve already mapped out eight additional acres to plant, and will start next year. They’ll be planting mostly Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay in the next batch, because those grapes do well in the area.
Plus a small patch of Cabernet Sauvignon, which “is going to have its challenges,” observes David.
The second vineyard section has been a source of contention between Dannielle and David, who says dryly, “I tend to be a little more immediate gratification.”
Indeed. A couple of years back, he actually ordered and paid for 8,000 vines to plant on the additional acres. “I’m used to making quick decisions. You place the order, then you move on.”
That didn’t set well with Danielle, who pointed out that David was “doubling down” when they hadn’t yet made any wine from their existing grapes, and didn’t even have a winemaker lined up. “We don’t even know what our product is yet! We didn’t know what these grapes would produce.”
After adding up the costs of posts, wire and labor to plant vines and construct the trellises, they decided to delay. Fortunately, DeSchaaf was able to sell the suddenly-orphaned vines to other growers in the area.
This time around, they’re feeling more comfortable. In large part, that’s because they’ve got one of Michigan’s top winemakers on board.
Cornel Olivier seems like an odd choice to make wine for Old Shore, considering that 2 Lads lies five hours away, on Old Mission Peninsula. He’s also never made wine from Lake Michigan Shore grapes, and never made wine for another winery since starting his own. Selecting him also caused some sotto voce grumbles among the Makis’ neighbor winemakers, who felt they were up to the task of making Old Shore’s wines.
But for David and Dannielle, it was love at first taste. While touring wineries in the Traverse City area in 2008, they stopped in at 2 Lads and met Olivier and the other lad – his winery partner, Chris Baldyga – a meeting they call “serendipitous.”
“We found another group of people in Michigan that have the same philosophy, the same core values,” says Dannielle.
They fling adjectives about to describe Olivier. “Brilliant man. Amazing chemist. Passionate about wine and everything wine.”
Although their new facility will have the ability to make “some” wine on the premises, the bulk will still be done at 2 Lads, according to the Makis.
“It won’t change our relationship with Cornel,” says David.
“It’s working smoothly, so why change something?” asks Dannielle.
Olivier concurs. “If the weather cooperates, they can do well.”
Part of the weather concerns in southern Michigan vineyards include worrying about botrytis, a grape-eating fungus that isn’t usually a problem up north but is endemic in the south, with its higher humidity and more frequent showers.
“It’s a challenge with late rains,” Olivier says. Both of Old Shore’s 2009 grapes suffered from some botrytis infection.
The 2009 Pinot Noir is currently resting in a tank at 2 Lads, after a restrained seven months in second-fill French oak barrels. Approximately 100 cases have an August date with the bottling machine, for release later in the year.
“The color isn’t as deep as the 2008,” he says, referring to Old Shore’s non-commercial trial run. “And it’s a little softer.”
David and Dannielle credit Olivier with much of the success of their 2009 crop, saying that he told them not to panic when botrytis set in.
“Around here, everyone picked two or three weeks before we did. Everyone saw grapes breaking down and panicked. Cornel held our hand; he kept saying, ‘Wait, wait.’ That’s a very big key.”
The results are in the numbers and the wines’ taste; while other wineries from their area harvested many less-than-ripe grapes in 2009, Old Shore got brix levels of 23 in their Pinot Gris, 24 in the Pinot Noir.
As with many of their other choices, Dannielle and David eschew the conventional route to marketing their wines.
Southwest Michigan’s smaller wineries traditionally face toward Chicago, just 90 minutes away, displaying a different part of their anatomy to the Ann Arbor and Detroit markets.
But, in addition to Chicago, Dannielle is working her local contacts, hoping to establish a strong beachhead for Old Shore in the Ann Arbor area.
“We hope to share our area with Ann Arbor, hope that more people come out to Lake Michigan Shore,” she says.
They’re also uncertain about retail distribution – in part because they’re concerned with the stigma that lingers from a time when Michigan “came in as a price point wine,” says Dannielle.
She notes pointedly that the wine list at West End Grill – not a restaurant noted for its past friendliness to Michigan wines – doesn’t mention where Old Shore Pinot Gris comes from, but simply lists it among the other whites.
“Our mission is not to compare ourselves to other Michigan wineries. Let’s compare the varietal – a Pinot Gris from Michigan, Oregon or Alsace,” says Dannielle.
David concurs, saying they would sell it at “a place where it’s not under a ‘Michigan’ sign. I would sell it at a place like Plum if they’d put it with all the Pinot Gris. I don’t want it with the Michigan wines.”
Follow-up: The Talented Mr. Rodenstock
Remember Hardy Rodenstock, the German wine impresario fingered for peddling counterfeit Thomas Jefferson bottles and other high end collectibles, as Chronicled in April’s Arbor Vinous?
Last month l’affaire Rodenstock took a bizarre turn. Mike Steinberger reported in Slate that a pair of large-living, see-no-evil New York wine merchants served as Rodenstock’s U.S. conduit for hundreds of elderly bottles of suspect provenance.
But more significantly, the pair also played matchmaker between Rodenstock and wine critic Robert Parker.
Parker subsequently planted a big wet kiss on Rodenstock’s already suspect integrity, writing in the Wine Advocate in 1996 that they tasted together “several times” in 1994 and 1995, and that any “unkind remarks I had read about him were untrue. A man of extraordinary charm and graciousness, Rodenstock is a true wine lover in the greatest sense of the word…”
While not implicated in the fraud, Parker may have unwittingly facilitated its execution when he awarded 100 points to one of Rodenstock’s rarities – a magnum of 1921 Château Petrus. Soon after Parker’s accolade, additional magnums began to appear on the collectibles market in suspiciously large quantities.
Parker (recently deposed) and his tasting notes on Rodenstock’s wines (recently subpoenaed) have now emerged front-and-center in the scandal and attendant litigation.
I remember reading Parker’s paean to Rodenstock in 1996 and thinking, with a twinge of jealousy, how tasters of their rank do indeed drink differently from you and me. But now, with benefit of hindsight, Parker appears surprisingly credulous, even tone-deaf in failing to perceive how his prodigious palate and stature might be hijacked to serve the commercial – not to say nefarious – schemes of others.
Wine lovers who believe that only bankers and politicians engage in high-level footsie to the detriment of the pigeon class should take 15 minutes to read Steinberger’s piece in Slate. It’s first-rate investigative journalism of a sort seldom seen in the trade-supported wine glossies.
About the author: Joel Goldberg, an Ann Arbor area resident, edits the MichWine website and tweets @MichWine. His Arbor Vinous column for The Chronicle is published on the first Saturday of the month.