Column: Arbor Vinous

This just in: Michigan routs Ohio!
Joel Goldberg

Joel Goldberg

Eat your heart out, John U. Bacon. While the football Wolverines plummet weakly toward the depths of the Big Ten, a very different Michigan eleven just beat up big time on its arch-rivals from Ohio.

This squad doesn’t strut its talents in the Big House or cavernous Crisler. Its slightly smaller – but decidedly more refined – field of combat lies a couple of miles north on Main Street, around a crystal-bedecked tasting table at Vinology Wine Bar.

Earlier this week, the second annual Ohio vs. Michigan Wine Clash turned into a rout, as eleven of Michigan’s finest wines drubbed a like number of Buckeyes during back-to-back judgings in both Ann Arbor and Columbus.

It wasn’t really a fair fight with the amazing red wines from Michigan’s 2007 vintage, the finest in the state’s history. The lopsided results: the best wine overall, and four of the top five, were proudly Wolverine – though Ohio provided the lone bargain among the bunch.

Wine Clash logo

Wine Clash logo

The Clash is the brainchild of Ohioan Andrew Hall, and sponsored by Slow Food Columbus. The event was designed to promote “drink local” and coincide with the annual release of air-shipped French Beaujolais Nouveau and the UM-OSU football game – last year’s Chronicle article detailed its origins.

Last Sunday, I sat down with four other Michigan judges to taste from 22 bottles cloaked in brown paper bags – half from Michigan, half from Ohio. A few days earlier, a team of Ohio judges went through the same exercise in Columbus.

Our host, and one of the judges: Vinology owner Kristin Jonna. Other local tasters included Master Sommelier Claudia Tyagi, Rochester Hills collector Errol Kovitch, and Wyncroft Winery owner/winemaker Jim Lester.

(For an Ohio view of Clash results, see the article by Dayton Daily News wine writer Mark Fisher, who judged at the Columbus tasting.)

A word about prices: flying in the face of both recession and flagging market demand for ultra-premium wines, price tags among Michigan’s best producers have skyrocketed in the last couple of years. Top 2007 reds sell for $35 to $50, while medal-winning ice wines can fetch $60 to $90 – for a half-bottle.

As with limited-production wines elsewhere, these prices can reflect not only the very real quality inside the bottle and added costs of hand-crafting tiny batches – often under 100 cases – but also an indeterminate “scarcity value.”

So who came out on top at the Clash?

#1: MICHIGAN: 2007 “Winter Ice” – Longview Winery, Leelanau Peninsula. $60 (375 ml bottle)

The Clash’s top dog came from Longview Winery – located in the off-the-beaten-track Leelanau Peninsula town of Cedar – where owner Alan Eaker and consulting winemaker Shawn Walters teamed to create Michigan’s first-ever ice wine from the Cayuga grape, a hybrid developed at Cornell for its cold-weather hardiness.

Ice wine originates with ripe grapes left to hang on the vine and slowly desiccate, long past normal harvest season, when the leaves drop and the vine enters its winter hibernation. When nighttime temperatures hit the 15- to 20-degree range and freeze the grapes solid – think: small marbleized pellets – they’re picked and pressed while frozen, preferably at 6 a.m. on an absurdly cold December morning.

Wine Clash organizer Andrew Hall, behind a gaggle of paper-bagged wines.

Wine Clash organizer Andrew Hall, behind a gaggle of paper-bagged wines. (Photo by the writer.)

In the interim, just about anything can go wrong. Grapes can turn moldy or otherwise rot on the vine, fall to the ground, or become the dish-of-the-day for birds and animals. Even when things go right, each pellet yields just a couple of drops of ultra-concentrated juice. That accounts for ice wine’s tiny quantities and typical stratospheric pricing.

But why Cayuga? Call it a leap of faith on Eaker’s part.

“I noticed it hangs well,” he told me. “The grapes don’t break down after the leaves come off the vine. And there’s a good acid-to-sugar balance. I felt I could gamble a row.”

So he left a single row of Cayuga vines unpicked – at the front of the vineyard, as he explained, “so I could take the snow blower and blow off the fruit.”

Eaker got that right. If your idea of ice wine revolves around thick syrup and an unadulterated sugar rush, get ready for a surprise. Cayuga grapes yield an ice wine that’s lighter in body and alcohol, with intense honeydew flavor and enough acidity to provide a mouth-puckering counterpoint to all that sweetness.

In addition to its Clash victory, Longview’s Winter Ice scored a double gold medal at last August’s Michigan Wine Competition. You’ll have to decide for yourself about the quality-to-price ratio: it’ll set you back $60 for a half-bottle, from the 65 cases produced.

#2: MICHIGAN: 2007 Reserve Cabernet Franc – 2 Lads Winery, Old Mission Peninsula. $40

2 Lads is Michigan’s hot winery du jour, with streams of tourists trekking north through Old Mission to its industrial-design facility overlooking the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay.

Winemaker Cornel Olivier calls Cab Franc his signature grape, and this marks the second time his flagship red played runner-up; it also nabbed second place, among 24 wines, at the Harding’s Cup Cabernet Franc Challenge last summer.

Be forewarned: this brooding, ultra-concentrated tannic beast isn’t your grandpa’s idea of Michigan red wine. But it is indicative of the best that the state produced in the unique 2007 vintage – especially if you give it license to improve in the cellar for up to a decade.

#3: OHIO: 2007 Cabernet Franc – Kinkead Ridge, Ohio River Valley. $18

The only repeat-winner winery in either state from last year’s Clash, Kinkead Ridge makes its home southeast of Cincinnati, near the Ohio River.

They scored this time with the lone under-$30 wine among the top five. It provides the yang to 2 Lads’ yin; instead of a hulking bottle to lay down for years, you’ll be hard-pressed to keep your hands off this, with a berry nose that jumps from the glass and silky, fruit-driven palate that seduces your taste buds with a serious “yum” factor.

Top 5 Wine Clash bottles.

Top 5 Wine Clash bottles. (Photo by Andrew Hall)

Co-owner and winemaker Ron Barrett – who formerly owned a winery in Oregon – explains his pricing as “part of our philosophy. Our whole objective is to show we can be competitive in the marketplace. If we priced higher, we’d still sell out – but at the same time we’d turn off some people to our wine.”

Unfortunately, you can’t find Kinkead Ridge in Michigan – and the winery doesn’t have a shipping license, since it sells almost exclusively through Ohio retailers. But the other co-owner, managing partner Nancy Bentley, says that if you email her she’ll try to get you a few bottles from the mere 40 cases that remain. At the price, it’s a steal.

#4: MICHIGAN: 2007 Cabernet Franc/Merlot, Gill’s Pier, Leelanau Peninsula. $35

No surprise in this top-five finish. Gill’s Pier, another out-of-the-way Leelanau winery just north of Leland, took home the Best Dry Red trophy at the Michigan Wine Competition with this wine, from grapes grown in its lakeside vineyard, adjacent to the winery.

Bryan Ulbrich, who makes wine for Gill’s Pier owners Kris and Ryan Sterkenburg, is better-known for the trophy-winning whites he’s crafted at Peninsula Cellars and his own Left Foot Charley. But this highly-extracted youthful red exudes blackcherry fruit and massive tannins in equal parts. Again, stash it away for several years for maximum enjoyment.

Michigan judges Kristin Jonna of Vinology and Jim Lester of Wyncroft Winery

Michigan judges Kristin Jonna of Vinology and Jim Lester of Wyncroft Winery. (Photo by the writer.)

#5: MICHIGAN: 2007 Pinot Noir – Avonlea Vineyard, Wyncroft, Lake Michigan Shore. $45

Tiny, high-end Wyncroft Winery, from the equally small southwest Michigan town of Buchanan, makes wines more talked-about than tasted. With no retail distribution or on-site tasting room, you’ll find its wares only through its website and mailing list.

Don’t expect an ultra-ripe fruit-bomb; while Wyncroft is known for highly-concentrated wines, the style here is dark and focused, the Pinot fruit more like Burgundy than California. As with the 2 Lads, it’ll be lots better if you can put it away for a while.

Yes, Wyncroft’s Jim Lester was one of the Michigan judges. While it’s fair to presume that he recognized his own wine during the tasting – and may even have ranked it highly – all the other judges who put it in the top five tasted and scored it blind.

***   ***   ***   ***

Next month, the Vinous Posse will sniff, sip and spit its way through a roundup of bubblies from around the globe, designed not to bust your holiday budget. If we didn’t taste your favorite under-$25 sparkler in last year’s assortment but you think it coulda been a contender, let us know by email:

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.