Imagine a restaurant that thrives and grows based on its friendly service, consistent products, strong marketing and support for and from its community.
But peek in the kitchen and you discover packaged mixes, pre-sliced produce, shortcut recipes and commercially-prepared dishes, straight from a central commissary or food-service supplier.
Its primarily pre-packed ingredients never spoil, but neither do they ever taste truly fresh. Menu items don’t vary from one visit to the next, thanks to consistent sourcing and preparation – but neither do they ever excite, or rise above the overall uniformity and mediocrity of their processed flavors.
Now imagine that this restaurant is, instead, a winery. And let’s consider the curious case of downtown Saline’s Spotted Dog, which just announced a capacity-tripling expansion accompanied by positive nods from some local media.
The affable John Olsen, a refugee from the world of corporate tech support, looks up from behind the tasting counter as you enter the Spotted Dog, a brick-walled, 1,600-square-foot storefront just off the corner of Michigan Avenue and Ann Arbor Street.
Olsen, who co-owns the winery with his wife, Jill, is tediously affixing labels to a batch of newly-filled bottles. Such is life at a micro-winery, where hand labor often stands in for expensive and space-consuming machines.
Cartons occupy every available cranny beneath the shelves in the store’s front half, dedicated to tasting and sales. At the rear, wine-filled glass carboys and stainless steel fermentation tanks huddle tightly in vertical ascent. That’s currently the “winery.”
There’s no need to ask why Olsen recently bought the 6,000-square-foot former Stucchi’s ice cream plant in a nearby industrial park. Once licensing formalities are complete, he’ll make wine and warehouse inventory in the temperature-controlled space, which will let the winery expand production from the current 1,000 to 3,000 cases per year.
“We need to grow to survive,” explains Olsen, matter-of-factly.
But he remains committed to the limited-volume retail storefront in Saline, where he lives and serves as president of the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce board. So he’s gone to Plan B: expand Spotted Dog’s wholesale distribution to stores and restaurants throughout the southeastern part of the state.
The attractively-labeled bottles, some of which feature the winery’s Dalmatian logo drawn by his son, are currently available at over three dozen outlets, including Arbor Farms, Hiller’s, Plum Market and Stadium Market in Ann Arbor, and the entire Busch’s chain.
Yet your first visit to Spotted Dog will surprise. You’ll scan the shelves in vain for such familiar vinous touchstones as labels or shelf tags that announce grape varieties, designations of geographic origin – or even vintages.
No, there’s not a single Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Cabernet in sight. Instead, you’ll see rows of bottles with proprietary monikers: Spotted Dog White, Saline River Red, Tripod. Sometimes the back label lists the grapes inside, other times not.
Welcome to the Bizarro World of kit wines and wineries, where fanciful names and skillful marketing disguise what’s primarily a paint-by-numbers winemaking process
Wine kits began in Canada more than 50 years ago, so consumers could make their own wines at home, or in-store at places like the Wine Kitz chain.
Let’s just note, charitably, that early kits placed less emphasis on quality than on avoidance of the high prices and poor selection at Canada’s province-run beverage monopolies, like Ontario’s LCBO.
Canadians still dominate the industry, under multiple labels from companies like Vineco and Winexpert (both part of the Andrew Peller wine conglomerate), and R.J. Spagnols. These days, you’ll even find amateur winemaker discussion boards dedicated to making and tweaking kits from each of the major manufacturers.
The first generation of kit wineries crossed the border to Michigan a decade back, modeled after Wine Kitz. They were glad to sell you ready-to-go wine from their own stash, but these early storefront wineries, like Northville’s Vine to Wine and Howell’s Main Street Winery, primarily promoted the fun and educational experience of “make your own wine.”
Every component in a kit is pre-measured and simple to deploy, designed for the novice. Each kit starts with a sterile pail of juice or concentrate that was extracted, preserved and packaged by a processing plant in grape-growing regions around the world, destined for fermentation in Main Street storefronts across North America.
You put the juice (in the better kits) or grape concentrate plus tap water (in low-rent versions) into a carboy, along with pre-measured add-ins like yeast, powdered tannins and oak chips. Slap in a cork with an airlock, then return in four or six weeks to bottle two or three cases of wine.
A bad vintage? It doesn’t exist. And the short, simplified winemaking process never fails, as long as you sterilize everything before you start.
But U.S. consumers, more accustomed than Canadians to decent wine selections at moderate prices, proved to be tough sells on the idea of making multiple cases of the same wine. It turned out that we wanted to try a bottle of this, a half-case of that.
And needless to say, ever-impatient Americans prefer our wine today, not in six weeks.
So marketers retooled the concept. Yesterday’s make-your-own-wine storefront rebranded itself as a custom, boutique winery. Instead of customers buying multi-case kits that yield wine at $7 a bottle, proprietors now supply the requisite few minutes of work, followed by weeks of patient waiting and voila! The identical kits become winery brands – bottled, labeled and sold off the shelf for $15 the bottle.
Successful operators can get juice or concentrate for their more popular products in jumbo containers and ferment them in the larger stainless tanks used by traditional wineries. Some have totally abandoned the make-your-own segment of the business and, like Spotted Dog, merely offer custom-printed labels for customers who prefer an individualized product.
The model offers a major business advantage to owners, by freeing them from dependence on crop cycles and annual vintage variations. At any time of the year that inventory runs low, the next batch of wine – which will taste just like the previous one – is just a few weeks off.
Along the way, storefront wineries began to downplay their wines’ origins in pre-packaged kits of industrially-processed juice, preferring instead to romance the idea that customers were buying wines custom-made on site by their hometown winery.
That’s technically true, at least to the extent that one custom-makes a Betty Crocker cake. Kits aren’t faux-wine, like some nasty juice-‘n-alcohol concoction. Federal and state laws treat storefront wineries the same as any other small winery.
But the rules don’t apply to the commercially valuable “Michigan Wine Country” magazine and online guide published by the Michigan Grape and Wine Council, an arm of the state’s Department of Agriculture.
Although branding itself as “The official website of Michigan’s wine industry,” the site doesn’t allow Spotted Dog a listing.
Of about 120 licensed wineries in Michigan, only 75 meet their listing criteria, explains Linda Jones, the Grape and Wine Council’s Program Director. For inclusion, wineries need to use “a significant amount of Michigan fruit in their wines. Our target is 50%,” says Jones.
She points to Cascade Winery, near Grand Rapids, and Haslett’s Burgdorf Winery, which also started by making kit wines, as “two very good examples” of wineries that “decided to be more supportive of Michigan agriculture, and have come back and are now listed.”
Spotted Dog comes nowhere near the Council’s 50% target. Nor can it join southeast Michigan’s Pioneer Wine Trail, which includes eight area wineries that make wine from fresh fruit.
Olsen says that he doesn’t resent his winery’s exclusion from these listings, though winery customers regularly inquire why it’s not included in the Pioneer Trail guide. He says that he doesn’t reciprocate the slight: he often points visitors to other area wineries that are trail members.
And he notes that he does purchase some fresh-pressed Michigan Cabernet Sauvignon juice that he blends with wine from Merlot and Zinfandel kits to create a Spotted Dog wine called Tripod.
He also says that he often tweaks the recipes for his kits, although he’ll test any changes for acceptability to regular purchasers of a wine before making them permanent.
The new facility will also give Olsen enough room to age some wines longer than the four or six weeks their recipes call for, which he says will benefit their quality, “rather than rushing them out the door.”
Unfortunately, though kits have improved dramatically and offer a greater variety of grapes, sources and styles than in the past, they don’t ferment into products on a par with similarly-priced wines made directly from grapes and other fruit.
Their most damning characteristic remains the demolition of fresh fruit flavors and varietal characteristics caused by the processing and pasteurization of the packaged juice. Although the individual wines vary significantly in flavor, concentration and sweetness, sampling several of them quickly reveals an overall background sameness of processed flavors that overshadows many of their individual characteristics.
Here’s how to describe it: Imagine the flavor of fresh Red Haven peaches from Kapnick’s at the Farmer’s Market, and those of their canned Libby siblings, purchased at Kroger.
Now extrapolate that difference across several other types of fruit. Each canned product will have similarities to the fresh. But you’ll also detect an across-the-board sameness in the canned products that’s not present in the fresh.
That sameness comes from the processing itself, and you’ll taste the identical quality in kit wines.
That’s not to say there’s no upside. Spotted Dog wines achieve a consistency and balance that reassures many and offends few. The red wines’ tannins – added from a packet rather than extracted from the grapes – are invariably soft, fine-grained and unobtrusively integrated. Mouthfeel is round and pleasant. Acidity never jars, and fruit never overpowers.
It’s a recipe that Spotted Dog’s clientele finds appealing. “We want to make our customers happy,” says Olsen.
He points to many of his customers whose tastes have evolved during the seven years the winery has been open. “They may have started with sweet wines or fruit wines, and now they’re drinking dry reds,” he says, with obvious pride.
But if you enjoy tasting wine critically, as opposed to quaffing it as a beverage alongside dinner, you’ll invariably come away disappointed.
Is this condescending or elitist? Perhaps. But when a winery christens its regular tasting event The Monthly Slurp, it’s hard to see why others must take their wares entirely seriously, either.
Spotted Dog Winery is located at 108 E. Michigan Ave, Saline, and is open Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Phone 734.944.WINE (9463).
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.
Editor’s note: On Sunday, Sept. 19, Joel Goldberg will be leading a tour of southeast Michigan’s wine country, with stops at Glaciers Edge Vineyard, Sandhill Crane Vineyard and Chateaux Aeronautique. Participants will meet and talk with owners and winemakers, walk the vineyards, sample their grapes and taste their wines. The day-long event costs $95 and includes transportation – departing from Ann Arbor’s Westgate Shopping Plaza – a local foods lunch and wine tastings. More details and registration information is available on the Michigan Agritours website.