Wine Tasting In Northern Michigan

Last Saturday (July 4th) while we were staying in Northport, Lauren and I drove around to some of the local wineries. Leelanau Peninsula is very proud of their wine and a few of the wineries like to point out that they're located along the 45th parallel (north), which is the same parallel as some of the finest wine producing regions of Italy and France. Presumably that implies that they have the ability to grow the same grapes as those regions and thus produce comparable wines. I think there is more to it than that but its not like I would know the differene one way or another.

Our first stop was Leelanau Wine Cellars in Omena. The picture above is not from our trip (I didn't think to take any pictures of any place we stopped) but it is the room we were in. The balding sommelier in the foreground is the same one that guided us through our tasting. Much to our surprise Leelanau Cellars didn't charge for a tasting and didn't have a set number of wines that were available for tasting. We were presented with a split list of wines, one side being wines available in retail stores throughout the state and the other being premium wines available only in Leelanau Cellars tasting rooms/gift shops. I think we tried at least 10-12 wines. It was very fun and with each winery we visit we being to participate in discussions with the sommeliers about what we like or dislike about the wine we're tasting.

But I'll admit that I still don't know if I am supposed to smell the wine before I drink it or if I'm supposed to drink it in two sips or one. So about half the time I probably look like a mix between a polite drunk and a trained monkey counting the seconds until I can push my glass forward for more wine. However thats not because I don't care or that I'm pretending to care for the sake of free alcohol. I just get awkward very easily and knowing how inexperienced I am with wine (I have probably drunk less than a dozen glasses of wine in the last year) I don't feel comfortable voicing my opinion about how this wine "finishes" or that wine "has oaky characteristics". I'd just as well leave it as "I liked that" and "I didn't like that" rather than attempt some profound observation, only to find out that my palate prefers Salisbury steak to New York Strip.

Of the wineries we visited I think Leelanau Cellars benefited the most. Their wines have always been around at local wine/liquor stores and Meijer. If I am remembering correctly our sommelier told us that Leelanau Cellars is the largest winery (in terms of sales) in Michigan. However Lauren and I have always been really unimpressed with their labels. I understand that is probably the worst way to judge a wine, but if you don't know exactly what you're doing with wine the most reassuring decision is to choose the wine that looks most professional. Many of their retail wines look similar to their Winter White label, which in its defense is hugely popular wine that sells at a great price $8-$11 per bottle. So as a result Leelanau Cellars has always been a ways down our list of local wines options.

We ended up leaving with two bottles of a Baco Noir Rose (I think). More importantly I didn't want to make the same mistake we did a year ago, when we bought 2-3 bottles of good wine at our first stop and then went to a great winery and regretted only having enough wine budget left to buy 2-3 more.

Our second stop was Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, which was a huge vineyard/farm/estate just off the main road. They describe it as "an agricultural destination" which I would agree is pretty accurate. They do weddings, events and weekend room reservations.

Again the photo is the room we were in, but definitely not the day we were there. When we went there were decidedly fewer retirees than in this photo. The "tasting club" cost $3 per person at Black Star, which got you a branded tasting glass and five complimentary tastings. The Black Star Farms Arcturos Late Harvest Riesling is one of our favorite white wines. So we elected to skip that one and try more reds. I don't recall everything we had but I think it was two Cabernet Francs, a Pinot Noir, a fruit wine, a Pinot Gris and the semi-dry riesling. Our sommelier was very good at making recommendations and pouring different wines in each of our glasses so that our five tastings stretched much closer to ten. I don't remember what we walked away with from Black Star but I think it was a Pinot Noir and the latest Riesling which has been bottled but will not ship to stores for a few more months.
The last stop we made for the day was at 45 North Winery in Lake Leelanau. I believe this winery is relatively new (less than 10 years old), but they are certainly on their way to becoming an outfit like Black Star Farms. They are in the process of building a tasting room, but for now have things set up on the floor of a bottling building. We tried another 8-10 wines here, but were rushed because of a large crowd and a small bar. In the end we bought three bottles from this winery, but I don't know what they were. It was here that we discovered northern Michigan wineries seem to buy into the idea that corked wine bottles have outlived their usefulness. Everything was a screw top cap. We found that to be very disappointing. I understand the technological argument that says screw caps work as well or better, but it still feels cheap and childish. When we got back in the car we checked out earlier purchases and noticed that all but one or two were also screw tops. Oh well. By the way, 45 North has won awards at some pretty impressive sounding wine competitions, but at the moment they aren't in stores outside of northern Michigan. One of the employees gave me information about how to get in touch with their distributors that have Grand Rapids area connections, but it didn't sound like the type of thing you would go through to get just one bottle or two.

All in all it was a good time. We picked up seven more bottles to go with the four or five we have from wine tasting last summer and we've still got 17 of Leelanau Peninsula's 20 wineries left to visit on any future trips up north.