Traverse City Wine County: Part 1

During our recent trip to Michigan, we took a trip in the northwest direction to Traverse City, way up in the states’ pinky finger region. The landscape is more wooded and hilly than the flatlands of Sanilac County where our farm is located, and Bill was eager to see more of the state where he was born 55 years ago. My motivations were slightly more professional: I wanted to revisit the state of Michigan wine.

Wine in Michigan? Yes, Toto. We’re not in California anymore. Wine has been grown in every state of the union for the past 20 years; so don’t be as surprised as Joel Stein, evidenced by his silly article in Time magazine. Wine grows everywhere, man. Get used to it.

Back in 1990, when I was still a photographer, my mother and daughter and I visited Traverse City’s oldest winery, Chateau Grand Traverse. We’d gotten a tour from Ed O’Keefe Jr, and my photo of him and his dog in the vineyards appeared in a Wine Spectator issue about wines across the country. Now, 19 years later, I wanted to see what had changed.

What hasn’t changed is that the wineries are clustered on two peninsulas: Leelanau and Old Mission, with the majority (17) on the Leelanau. That is where Madonna’s parents have their Ciccone Vineyards. After checking into our motel along the hotel strip of Hwy 31, we headed off to the Old Mission Peninsula where two decades ago there was one producer and now there are seven. Unlike California or BC, where a tasting room closes at 5-5:30 pm, Michigan allows wineries to pour as last as 8 pm during the summer, so we had lots of time.

Heading north on Center Road, we bypassed Black Star Farms and stopped at Peninsula Cellars, a family-run winery where the tasting room is housed in an old schoolhouse. The original blackboards are now covered with wine information and jokes. Owners Dave and Joan Kroupa released their first wine in 1993. We tasted through their entire list of mostly whites and some reds, and found the whites to be superior. Almost all of them had a nice touch of minerality and good fresh fruit. We especially liked the 2006 Dry Riesling – forward tropical fruit and good acidity – as well as the Old School White, a semi-sweet blend of cayuga, riesling, pinto blanc and pinot grigio, which was nicely balanced and vivacious. So, we grabbed a bottle each of those.

Back on the road, it was minutes to Chateau Grand Traverse. I hardly recognized it. The folksy tasting room has changed and the grounds are more overgrown. Founder Edward O’Keefe, who made his fortune in the nursing home business, has been investing heavily in this operation. There, we met up with my cousins Dick and Judi Cobb, who have lived in the area forever and know most of the wineries. When the subject of picnicking came up, it was Dick who informed us that local ordinances ban these wineries from allowing people to enjoy wine with their lunch on the winery patios. Food is ok, wine – not. That’s one advantage the Leelanau wineries have over Old Mission.

Ch Grand Traverse still specializes in dry white wines although they make a decent blend of cab franc, pinot noir/meunier, gamay and merlot called Silhouette. Lacking the greenness of the Peninsula reds, this one has good black fruit balanced well with oak to create a full, rich mouthfeel. Still, the 2008 Dry Riesling stood out with its bright white fruit, sweet palate and dry, clean finish, so to bought one of those. And for old times sake, I grabbed a bottle of their excellent 2007 Chardonnay, the same bottle I brought home to California so long ago, to show my friends that good wines are made in Michigan, too.

Next time, the conclusion of our wine tour in Traverse City.
Cue theme song:

It took us three hours to drive there from Saginaw,
We’ve come to look for Michigan wine….

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Mari Kane

Mari is a writer, blogger and WordPress consultant, living in Vancouver, BC, the most wine-soaked town north of the 49th Parallel. She also blogs about WordPress web design at Blogsite Follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.

One thought on “Traverse City Wine County: Part 1

  • October 31, 2009 at 3:15 am

    Very nice review – we're having a glass of Silhouette right now and brought two cases of TC-area wines back from our recent trip to Traverse.

    Thanks also for the link to the Time article.

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