Originally published in D-Tales here, edited for content.
After getting a good solid case of the heebie-jeebies at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, I decided to wash the bad vibes away at Left Foot Charley, the region's first "urban" winery and tasting room (so-called because the winery is not located on a palatial estate with rolling hills of vineyards behind it). As soon as I walked in, I said to the woman pouring tastes (which, at this point, was solely for me), "Look, I have to say this to someone, but isn't it creepy that this place used to be an asylum?" She smiled and said that it bothers some people (including the winemaker, Bryan Ulbrich), but you get used to it.
We'll have to agree to disagree on that, I guess.
At Left Foot Charley the tastings were pretty open--I would find out later, at other places much busier and with a more burn-and-turn mentality, that there is typically a limit (6 usually) and you circle your selections from a menu and the pourers serve you in shifts. But here it was much more laid-back...I tried a couple of wines, including the "Lone Dry Red" the 2007 Red Drive blended from Dornfelder, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Regant grapes grown on Old Mission Peninsula. Didn't find this one too impressive, truth be told, but that's because what Left Foot Charley does best is whites--and boy oh boy do they.
Winemaker Ulbrich has a special affinity for Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Gewurtztraminer, and this fondness comes through in the wines themselves. The real standout of all was the Pinot Blanc--crisp, tart, full of character and depth, heavy on fruit (particularly yellow pears), strong alcohol--there's a reason this one took home the recognition of "Best Dry White Wine" in the Michigan Wine and Spirits Competition. This wine also offers yet another reason why screw-tops are A-OK for crisp, acidic, ready-to-drink whites (see also: Kim Crawford's Sauvingon Blancs, as well as many other producers from the Marlbourgh region of New Zealand, widely-agreed upon by wine gurus worldwide to currently be making the best Sauvignon Blancs in the world)...verdict's still out on aging reds, though (I, personally, lean towards nay).
Left Foot Charley uses grapes from 13 local vineyards from the Old Mission Peninsula which are very small at only 1-2 acres each. They produce exclusively for Left Foot Charley, though the owners do not actually own the plots of land the vineyards are on.
After my little wine education and soaking in the pleasant vibes of the trendy modern tasting room, I had effectively washed (drank?) away the bad vibes and was ready for a snack before continuing on my wine tour. I went right next door to the Underground Cheesecake Company, a charming little place with 2 large glass counters filled with decadent desserts. I selected a 6-piece bite-size cheesecake assortment: Black Raspberry, Blueberry Swirl, Cherry Swirl, Chocolate Raspberry, Mocha Mudslide, and "Real" Key Lime. And I definitely sat outside and ate them all, popping one after another into my mouth until there were no more. I couldn't help it, they just looked so pretty...and yummy...
This was cheesecake like my mom used to make--none of this fluffy ricotta New-York-style cheesecake, but dense, heavy cheesecake, made primarily with cream cheese and sour cream. Sour cream? Yes, sour cream (you can especially taste it in the chocolate-flavored cakes...this is the only incarnation of sour cream I will ever eat). The flavors were rich and strong, too--each bite was an explosion of flavor from the rich chocolate and coffee flavors of the Mocha Mudslide to the tart 'n tangy Key Lime. In short...yum.
With a belly now full, I was ready to head to Black Star Farms, my number one pick of vineyards and the most strategically located to hit other vineyards on the way back.
Ideally I had wanted to stay at the Black Star Farms Inn, a luxurious full-service bed-and-breakfast which features, among other things, a full hot breakfast with all the breakfast-y accoutrements, an afternoon snack, a pre-dinner wine and hors d'oeuvres reception, after-dinner brandies and dessert wines, and with a number of different pampering products and treatments available (spa, sauna, massages, etc.). Sadly, they were booked. A place like this is probably better as a romantic getaway than an isolationist refuge, anyway.
I had another reason for wanting to go to Black Star Farms, aside from it being one of the most noted wineries in Michigan. And that reason is cheese.
The Black Star Farms "agricultural destination" is also home to the Leelanau Cheese Company, and the creamery is on-site in the large tasting room so people can actually watch the cheesemakers at work (I was not fortunate enough to catch the show, sadly). The cheese cave holds some 2,000 wheels of Raclette made from local cow's milk and brushed with brine and turned daily during their 3 month - 2 year aging process. The Raclette produced here is considered one of (and by some, the) best in America--and it's wonderful; mild and buttery and melts in your mouth.
The tasting room at Black Star Farms is immense, and filled with a variety of wares including locally-made jewelry, a wide assortment of wine-and-whiskey-related paraphernalia, various farmer's market items (more to be found at the actual farmer's market, also located on the sprawling estate), and, of course, their full collection of wines for sale.
Upon entering I was greeted with a sample of their Hard Apple Cider--tasted just like other hard apple ciders (reminded me of Strongbow but sweeter). The tasting bar is huge, with a secondary one off to the side of the building to catch overflow. The mentality here is strictly burn-and-turn--you get a menu, the pourer rattles off how the wines are listed in order of recommended tasting from sweetest to driest, you pick your wines, you drink them one after another in succession with crackers to cleanse your palate between white and red, you get your souvenier glass and you leave. (Oh, this is also the only tasting room that charged for tastings--$3.00 for wine, plus you get to keep your glass, and another $5.00 for spirits. You could also get a cheese sample for $1.00. I did all three.)
Of the wines, I sampled the 2006 Arcturos Pinot Gris, the 2004 Isidore's Choice Pinot Noir, the 2006 Leorie Vineyard Merlot Cabernet Franc, the Black Star Farms Cherry Wine, and the Sirius Pear Dessert Wine. The Pinot Gris was quaffable, the Pinot Noir negligible, the Cherry Wine pleasant and sweet, the Pear Dessert Wine lacking character but with a clear pear presence and surprisingly low on sugar. The real winner was the Leorie Vineyard Merlot Cabernet Franc. One whiff and I said to the pourer, "WHOA! That's French..." I actually got to chat with the pourer a little since I refused to be herded in and out like the other "trendy" wine drinkers ("We're here because we really liked the movie Sideways"), and she informed me that the Leorie Vineyard is producing what many consider the best fruit in the region. It's got all that dirty, funky, stinky, earthy French appeal (characteristic of Cab Franc) with intense dark, ripe fruits, and smoky chocolate and coffee. If they keep producing wines like that, mark my words, it will be no time before modest Michigan's wines will be considered competitive in the world market.
With my wine tasting complete, I moved on to the spirits. First I tried the Spirit of the Vineyard White Grappa. Grappa is misunderstood. There is an art to its production, much as there is to any wine. Grappa is made by the distilling of grape skins after they've been pressed, and is considered a "pomace brandy." Much like with the wines, the flavor of the Grappa is wholly dependent on the kinds of grapes used as well as the processes used in distillation. While Grappa certainly hits the nose like lighter fluid, it can have characteristics as rich as those of wine.
This Grappa was one of those. Full of herbs and spices, it had a warmth to it that exceeded beyond its high alcohol content. This was a fine Grappa, and an excellent digestivo.
Next up was the 2007 A Capella Ice Wine. What can I say about Ice Wine? It is, essentially, wine royalty. Extremely labor-intensive and difficult to produce and with very small yield not only makes this an expensive wine ($60.00 per 375 mL bottle, minimum), but also a very regal one. It takes great time and patience to make this wine, and earns producers instant respect. Ice Wines are most commonly produced in Germany (called Eiswein) and Canada (called Icewine, one word--the Pelee Island Icewine was my first-ever exposure to this style of winemaking at the age of 18, and I've been in love with it ever since), though there are many other countries that try. Ice wines are dessert wines made from grapes frozen while still on the vine, before fermentation. The freezing makes the wine more concentrated, sweeter. Very similar to its botrytis-plagued cousin Sauternes, the wines produced are sweet and heady like liquid honey. This particular Ice Wine, unfortunately for me, does not rank in the upper eschelon of dessert wines I've tasted (which, in retrospect, makes sense that Black Star was not yet sold out of their stock when all the other producers were).
After all of this, I bought some cheese, a bottle of the Arcturos Pinot Gris (it was on sale, and like I said, quaffable), and some chocolates from local chocolatiers. Chocolate Exotica makes marshmallow-like truffles--a very thin, fluffy, crunchy coating of chocolate to hold in the liquidy ganache inside. A couple had cherry flavors, one was white chocolate with lemon zest. I couldn't get past how the truffles had the consistency of marzipan. Another chocolatier (and also chocolate-maker) I sampled was Patricia's Chocolate. These chocolates are works of art, right down to the origami-like boxes they are packaged in. Each palet is hand-decorated with exquisite artistic appeal, and has a beautiful luster which signifies the careful tempering of the chocolate (indicating high quality). Each palet is smooth and creamy, a melt-in-your-mouth experience of rich near-liquid ganache and exotic varieties of imported spices, fresh herbs, locally-procurred fruit purees, coffees, teas, and fine liqueurs. My sampler featured Madagascar Vanilla with the rich flavors of Madagascar vanilla beans and dark chocolate, as well as Exotic Spice which is a fusion of allspice, green cardamom, licorice, Ceylon cinnamon, and green peppercorn dipped in dark chocolate. Like chocolate-flavored Fall on the tongue.
Driving into the Black Star Farms estate felt a little like driving through Tuscany--the rolling hills, the lines of vineyards stretching out into the horizon, the endless green. After meandering a bit, I realized I was pressed for time, so off I went.
I still had an hour to get to Chateau Grand Traverse, 20 miles and a whole 'nuther peninsula away. I hauled ass and got there with 30 minutes to spare...just as a couple of bachelor and bachelorette parties showed up.
"What's this? Eee-dels-why-ker?" Edelzwicker. A-del-zvyk-er. I hate you.
"Oh, this bottle is so pretty! It's worth getting just for that!" I hate you.
"Ooh, crackers!" Ohmyfuckinggod I hate you.
Seriously--this chick took oyster crackers by the handful and was eating them as if they were there to snack on. They're there to cleanse your palate, you vile human being. Get out of wine country and back to the sorority house with the keg stand competitions where you belong.
This outing I had to make quick because I was surrounded by stupid people who were ruining my wine-loving high. Six tastes got me the 2006 Ship of Fools (that was the "pretty bottle"), the 2005 Gamay Noir "Reserve," the 2006 Edelzwicker (truth be told: I only sampled this so those ignorant bitches could hear me properly pronounce it), the Grand Traverse Select "Sweet Harvest Riesling," the Cherry Riesling, and the Cherry Port. Of these, I remember nothing except for my patience being exhausted. I think I enjoyed the Riesling. I know I enjoyed the Cherry Port, which was a wonderful combination of sweet black and tart red cherries (sweet on the tongue, tart as it lingers), making for a complex, flavorful port, the kind you want to roll around in your mouth for hours.
Or, perhaps just 30 seconds, if you were me and were surrounded by human mediocrity. (Did I hate them for their lack of wine knowledge, or just because they were so terribly average?) I hopped back in my car and enjoyed the views of the early-evening sun illuminating the lakes and vineyards on my drive back to the hotel.
(For pictures, clink on the link to the D-Tales blog here.)